The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 775-776
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The Conquest of the Soul: Confession, Discipline, and Public Order in Counter-Reformation Milan. By Wietse de Boer. [Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, Volume LXXXIV.] (Leiden: Brill. 2001. Pp. xxviii, 363. $112.00; €91.00.)
When Wietse de Boer began digging in diocesan archives more than a decade ago, he probably never thought about the extraordinary present-day relevance his study would come to have. For persons willing to go beyond scandal mongering, one of the thorny issues raised by the current scandals in which the Catholic Church finds itself mired is the question of how—under what circumstances and with what tensions—the secret confessional realm of sin and penance clashes with the public legal domain of crime and punishment. For the crusading sixteenth-century Milanese reformer Cardinal Charles Borromeo, quickly made a saint, the answers usually seemed clear enough, and he was unquestionably a forceful leader fully ready to impose his decisions on a sometimes refractory clergy. On the rare occasions when even he felt a need to consult, he generally eschewed a dialogue with his underlings and turned instead to his superior, as he did (probably to Pope Pius V) with the following vexing situation. "A woman had given birth to a daughter fathered by her son, who in turn married this, his own, daughter and half-sister. Since evidently only the mother was aware of these facts, the Pope recommended that she and her confessor keep this knowledge to themselves; the case had to be dealt with in the strict confidentiality of the confessional" (pp. 232-233). De Boer does not hammer his readers with the obvious—that Cardinal Borromeo, the Pope, and who knows how many other clerical messengers and observers, also had to have been "aware of these facts" and all chose to cover them up.
With equally studied understatement, de Boer takes us through the carpentry of designing and building confessional boxes so that the public might learn none of the sins revealed therein, yet could visually assure itself that lecherous priests were not groping or seducing the faithful who sought from them only solace, reconciliation, and absolution. After all, the physical circumstances of a penitent kneeling before a seated male confessor required little imagination to conjure up Boccaccioesque insinuations about what might follow and suggested the need for high, firm wooden barriers, see-through curtains, and grills narrow enough to trap wandering fingers.
Such details, for which de Boer has a marvelous eye and a graceful way of recounting, were part of a grand and noble design. Borromeo and his allies intended nothing less than the thorough reform of Catholic souls, all of them, [End Page 775] everywhere in the diocese, from the brothels of Milan to the peasant hovels of the countryside. People would behave in absolute accord with the teachings of the Church Fathers, as reaffirmed by leading prelates at the Council of Trent. To accomplish this end, he was ready to pit his Church against the State if necessary, to institute vast elementary school programs, to subsidize massive use of the printing press, and above all to institute vigorous, meddling, detailed measures to improve the moral and educational quality of the lower clergy.
Just why it was that in this reform effort sexual sins should have far outweighed all other concerns, with usury and other economic misdeeds a distant second, is not a question the bishop seems to have asked in any careful way, and it is ironic that de Boer follows in his footsteps. Whatever the logic may be that links the human genitals so closely with eternal salvation, the perceived misuse of these organs certainly affected both public order and private lives, then as now. The surest way to know who was doing what with whom was to get everyone to confession, where skilled interrogators could get to know whatever there was to know. But toward what end? The lofty goals of public decency and private piety were not...