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Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned.

Sexual harassment may seem a modern problem, but Stephen Haliczer's study of 223 solicitation cases presented before the Spanish Inquisition from 1530 to 1819 demonstrates the contrary. Although this represents only a fraction of the actual number of cases brought before the tribunal, the book's quantitative and qualitative evidence offers a compelling case that shows some of the problems posed by reform.

Sexuality in the Confessional does precisely what its title suggests. It is not a general study of misdeeds by the clergy, because that was not the primary interest of the Inquisition. Tridentine decrees promoted a sacramental-based piety and encouraged more frequent confession and communion as well as the enforcement of clerical celibacy. In their wake, church authorities were particularly concerned that the sacrament would be profaned and people turned away from the faith by confessors who abused their position by soliciting sexual favors or harassing penitents. They felt that the church's entire future depended on how well the ideals of Trent were implemented at this critical juncture.

The revival of sacramentalism showed impressive results as early as the late sixteenth century, with the numbers participating in annual confession rising dramatically, and more frequent confession and communion becoming common among all societal groups. At the same time there was an unmistakable feminization of confession, with women participating far more often than men. As the church increasingly was unwilling to tolerate promiscuity or even the kind of faithful concubinage that had been characteristic of the Middle Ages, the temptation to engage in flirtation, immodest talk and sexual behaviors rose, especially in a charged atmosphere in which the discussion of sexual sin was prominent. Haliczer offers a profile of the men likely to be involved, the women's responses, and the trial and punishment phase. The author displays a thorough understanding of psychology as well as history and religion, and portrays a confessor in "mid-life crisis" as most likely to engage in such behavior. The female penitents were in many cases victims of overt sexual harassment; however, in other cases the women (many of whom were trapped in restrictive and unsatisfying marriages) initiated the relationship. In the great majority of cases, the involvement was limited to sexual banter and/or "heavy petting." But in other cases, sexual intercourse followed, sometimes marking the beginning of a continuing relationship. Very often the sexual encounter occurred at the place of confession, whether in the still rare confessional booth or as the penitent knelt in front of the confessor. In other cases, the confessor asked the woman if he might visit her at home, often using her illness as a pretext.

The Spanish Inquisition had a zero tolerance policy for solicitation but followed strict procedures in collecting evidence. At least two witnesses were needed. This often proved difficult, as female penitents were unwilling to testify because of the shame they would incur or because of an ongoing relationship with the confessor. Whenever possible, the woman was forced to testify.

This is an important study whose conclusions testify to the increasing sexual repression associated with Reformation and Counter-Reformation culture. As brothels were closed and marriage came to be viewed, even more than it had been by the more pragmatic medieval church, as the sole licit expression of sexuality, new problems began to surface as a direct result of the reform process. Sexuality in the Confessional offers a nuanced and sophisticated reading of the sources and shows that just as now, when sexual themes were introduced in a situation where there was an imbalance of power, problems inevitably arose.

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Author:Taylor, Larissa Juliet
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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