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How wrong is John Cornwell’s attack on Pope St. Pius X? Let me count the ways.

February 13, 2014

Warning: It always takes longer, sometimes much longer, to correct mistakes than it takes to make them.

There used to be a job at newspapers called “fact-checker”, staff trained to identify assertions of fact (not of opinion, not of prognostication, but of fact) in draft articles and to check those assertions for their basic accuracy. Fact-checking was a service to readers who were spared false or mistaken claims, it was a service to the editors (whose reputations for reliability used to be more widely valued), and it was even a service to writers who learned not to assert more than they could reasonably prove.

Maybe the Daily Mail Online does not have fact-checkers, or maybe its fact-checkers were on break when John Cornwell’s screed against Pope St. Pius X and Confession was submitted for publication. Or maybe any news outlet that posts headlines like “How a pope called Pius turned the confessional box into a paradise for paedophiles wouldn’t let quibbles from fact-checkers get in the way of a good old-fashioned Catholic bashing. Still, I’d like to think there are yet some folks who care about facts, and it is for them that I write.

Central to Cornwell’s attack on the sacrament of Confession—celebrated in “a dark box like an upturned coffin, smelling of stale perfume and nasty body odours” (Cornwell actually wrote that, and the Mail Online actually published it)—is his claim that: “It was the anxious and pessimistic Pius X, Pope from 1903-1914, who decreed in 1910 that children must make their first confession at the age of seven,” inaugurating, per Cornwell, a practice that reduced “child penitents [to] guinea-pigs in the greatest moral experiment ever perpetrated on children in the history of Catholicism.”

Deep breath time.

In passages such as these, we’re not faced with argument and we’re not dealing with reason; instead we confront invective and contempt. Such attacks are, I grant, better parried with spiritual replies than legal but, as Cornwell has chosen to wrap his claims in the thrice-invoked mantle of “investigation”, I may be allowed to reply based on my investigation.

1. Cornwell’s aside that Pius X was pope from 1903-1914 is correct.

2. Cornwell’s characterization of Pius X as “anxious and pessimistic” is an opinion and he’s free to express it.

3. Cornwell’s assertion that Pius X “decreed in 1910 that children must make their first confession at the age of seven” leaves me wondering, literally, what is Cornwell talking about?

Cornwell does not identify the papal decree allegedly ordering seven-year-olds to make confession—though he says the pope’s order came down in 1910, savoring, I suppose, of a specificity that implies that Cornwell actually read the papal document and noted its date. But considering the centrality of Pius’ alleged decree to Cornwell’s claim, I would think that his failure even to identity the document (let alone to quote from it) should have sent up warning flags in some editor’s office. Apparently Mail editors feel differently.

Oh well, on to my fact-checking.

Canon 989 of the 1983 Code requires Catholics above the age of discretion (generally reckoned about age seven) to confess grave sins (nb: not all sins, just grave ones, if any) at least once a year. That is plainly not the same thing as ordering all seven-year-olds to make confession, but Cornwell must have in mind older legislation.

The modern canon on confession can be traced back to the 1917 Code, Canon 906 of which required Catholics above the age of discretion to confess their sins. Now, those who know little beyond how to find canon numbers in a book might think this norm requires all Catholics above age seven to confess all sins. Those who actually know canonical jurisprudence, however, would find that canonists overwhelmingly interpreted Canon 906 to cover only grave sins (if any), and not all sins. Woywod I (1957) 512; Ayrinhac (1928) 267; Abbo-Hannan II (1952) 33-34; et c. Still, we’re almost back to 1910, so maybe Cornwell has in mind Pian legislation that pre-dated the 1917 Code.

What can I say? I have the Gasparri’s footnotes of the 1917 Code open before me,and I don’t see Pope Pius X listed as a source for Canon 906. Now, given that Gasparri was not shy about crediting Pius (the same pontiff who entrusted Gasparri with the codification project) for hundreds of contributions to canons (Gasparri’s Fontes IX: 83-85), it would be very strange for Gasparri to omit this papal contribution . . . had it actually happened.

About this point one begins to wonder about another of Cornwell’s claims, namely, “that young children were not allowed to go to confession before [Pius X’s decree in] the 20th Century”. A glance at Gasparri’s footnotes suffices to destroy that claim.

The very first reference under Canon 906 takes one back to the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215. That holy council (c. 21) expressly required Catholics above the age of reason to confess grave sins once a year. The Council of Trent reiterated that requirement in 1551 (Sess. XIV, de poen., c. 8), and in 1910 a decree of the Congregation of Sacraments, Quam singulari, rebuked parents and priests who were preventing children above the age of reason from approaching the sacrament of Confession based solely on their age.

Nineteen-ten, you say? Could that be what Cornwell has in mind? Cornwell doesn’t identify the Pian decree, so readers are ultimately left guessing, but Quam singualri (which admittedly deals much more with Eucharist for children than it does with Confession) was approved by Pius X before it was published in 1910. Would that approval make it a Pian document?


Roman dicasterial documents, which often boast ‘papal approval’, come in two types: those many approved by the pope “in forma communi” or those very few approved by him “in forma specifica”. Only if that latter sort of papal approval is expressly asserted in the document does the dicasterial document take on papal authority. Otherwise, the document “retains the juridical weight of the particular curial dicastery that has formulated the document and does not carry the added weight of a papal document or papal act.” Bretzke, Consecrated Phrases (1998) 62. I checked the original publication of Quam (AAS 10: 577-583) and papal approval was not given in forma specifica. In fact, Quam is printed in the AAS right alongside all the other dicasterial statements issued that year, not with the pontifical documents.

What then to make of Cornwell’s claim that Pius X, for the first time ever, ordered all seven-year-olds to confess their sins? Well, I find no such papal decree, certainly not directed at all sins (but only at grave sins, if any), and which even then would not, by centuries, have been the first time that Church authority directed Catholics age seven and older to confess their grave sins.

Except for those three things, Cornwell’s assertion about Pius X’s unprecedented order in 1910 to seven-olds to confess their sins stands up as well as any assertion wrong in so many respects stands up—if it’s made in a fact-free zone.

Update: See how useful fact-checkers can be? Sorry to have misspelled John Cornwell’s name in the original post.

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