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Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned.

By Stephen Haliczer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 267pp. $49.95).

Sexuality in the Confessional is the latest work to mine Inquisitorial archives for a rich lode of information about how Europeans in an earlier age thought and acted. Ever since Emmanual Leroy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg revealed their potential a generation ago, social historians of late medieval and early modern Europe have explored the archives of the various Inquisitions in search of further insight into social behavior during those eras. The problem with such sources is that they almost always tell more about behaviors the clerical elite sought to suppress, than they do about behaviors that were the norm. This limitation is usually more than balanced by the "thick" social descriptions provided by the results of the Inquisition's interrogatory procedures. Still the nature of the sources themselves prohibit anything beyond impressionistic comment upon customary behaviors.

This point should be held in mind when reading Stephen Haliczer's Sexuality in the Confessional, a study of the illicit sexual practices of the Roman Catholic clergy in early modern Spain. The book provides a valuable, well-written description of one aspect of clerical sexual behavior. Its usefulness as an introduction to the broader question of the impact of the Counter-Reformation on clerical sexuality, the framework Haliczer sets for himself, is limited, however.

The basis for Haliczer's study was 223 cases of "solicitation," spanning the period 1530-1819, housed in the archives of the Spanish Inquisition. "Solicitation" was the term used to cover any proposition for or act of sexual intimacy by a priest serving in the capacity of confessor. Confession was the first step in the rite of penance, one of the seven sacraments. Frequent, if not daily, confession was promoted by the Counter-Reformation Catholic church and became the norm for devout women in early modern Spain. In Leroy Ladurie's Montaillou, the priest Pierre Clergue began his successful seduction of the noble woman Beatrice de Planissoles during confession, and Haliczer follows Thomas Tentler in emphasizing the sexual tension that was broadly recognized to be part of the danger/attraction of the rite of confession during the Middle Ages, when, it is worth noting, the rite was still being performed one on one in isolated areas of churches.

The successful promotion of frequent confession is what prompted the heightened concern for the profanation of the sacrament by sexual overtures on the part of the confessor. Tribunals of the Inquisition were trying cases of solicitation as early as 1530, but it appears that it was only after 1561 that the Inquisition gained complete authority over such cases. From then until it was disestablished in 1830, the Inquisition served as watchdog over the propriety of the comportment of priests performing the rite.

Haliczer acknowledged the selective nature of the data at his disposal. He only used the cases from those tribunals of the Inquisition for which the case summaries (relaciones de causas) were complete. This meant that his study reflected only a "fraction" of the actual cases of solicitation in early modern Spain. One key archive was closed to him when he was conducting his research. Lastly, Halizcer noted that the use of the closed confessional box, which was introduced during the Counter-Reformation, came very late to the churches on the Canaries islands and on the island of Mallorca. Since the closed confessional cut down on the possibility of solicitation, the prevalence of cases from those islands in his data set may reflect those islands' relative backwardness.

Halizcer's data were selective in other ways which he did not recognize. He astutely ascribed the overwhelming bias of the cases surveyed toward heterosexual acts of solicitation to the fact that the existence of a homosexual subculture among the clergy precluded men turning toward the confessional as a place to recruit potential partners. He did not bring the same acute awareness to his consideration of the options available to heterosexual clerics. Here he proceeds upon the assumption that the confessional was a venue of choice for the recruitment of sexual partners, an assumption his own research challenges. Members of the regular clergy, i.e., members of religious orders who lived in monasteries, made up three-quarters of the defendants in the cases he scrutinized. He accounts for this finding by reference to various factors, most importantly the overall lack of secular clergy, i.e., parish priests and vicars who serve as pastors, which forced the Spanish church to turn to members of the regular clergy to serve as confessors. What Haliczer did not consider was that secular clergy, because of their lives, "in the world," comparatively had many more venues in which they could solicit perspective sexual partners. The Inquisition was concerned with suppressing the search for sex in only one venue, the confessional. It is not surprising that the majority of the men it caught only had access to women through that venue. Further, given the comparatively harsh penalties for solicitation, the act has to be appreciated as perhaps a desperate act by desperate men, a conclusion Haliczer seems to support by his effort to situate performance of the act in the context of the modern psychiatric understanding of male mid-life crisis. Lastly, in light of the number of clerics who, when forced by the Inquisition, admitted to decades of illicit sexual liaisons, it would be going too far to characterize the men in the cases Haliczer discusses as representative of all clerics who sought sexual relations with the women they confessed. Clearly confessors with a sex drive could indulge it for years and not come to the attention of the Inquisition. It is more realistic to see these men as representative of those clerics who sought to use the confessional for assignations but failed.

Haliczer's data illuminate only one small dark corner of clerical sexuality. Still Haliczer should be commended for what he does with these data. With a great deal of skill and patience he uses anecdotal evidence drawn for the case summaries to sketch in broad strokes not only the profile of the "solicitante," that is, of the priests accused of propositioning women, but the profiles of the "penitents," the women with whom they sought sexual relations. Very perceptively, he splits the women into two categories; unwilling victims and willing paramours. As he shows, women in the former category tended to be younger and unmarried, women in the latter, older and married. He makes in fact an interesting case for confessors as sensitive, caring lovers for abused, frustrated wives. What present day readers will perhaps find most shocking in what Haliczer has to say is the depth of the intimacy which could develop between a confessor and the women he confessed, and the social conventions which permitted such intimacy to come about. As just mentioned, Haliczer takes a stab at looking at solicitation from the perspective of the opportunities it provided women for sexual and emotional fulfillment. In the end, though, he falls back on a Freudian argument about the exploitative nature of any relationship in which one partner has some pre-existing authority over the other. His data would suggest a more complex set of psycho-social dynamics, especially among those women who sought out relationships with priests.

While he mentions some bizarre sexual antics, readers with prurient interests may find Haliczer's descriptions of the sexual "crimes" of which confessors were accused disappointing. With some exceptions, the majority of the men sought the most basic forms of sexual release. One thing of note was how the advent of the confessional box with its separate anonymous booths permitted the development of a forerunner of modern "phone sex," confessors becoming aroused by the disembodied voices on the other side of the screen.

Haliczer spends a great deal of energy trying to imbue his data with an historical importance it does not possess. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First because it obscures the real story he has to narrate, which is that of the successful expansion of the Spanish Inquisition into the area of internal policing within the Spanish Catholic church. Second because it looks at the vexing, touchy topic of clerical sexuality from one of the worst possible perspectives, that of that priests who fell off the tightrope so many of them could not escape walking. Haliczer clearly was aware of the bigger picture. He just could not get from his data to it.

Andrew E. Barnes Arizona State University
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Author:Barnes, Andrew E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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