Canonist Ed Peters tears up anti-Catholic John Cornwell’s falsehoods about Pius X and confession

The Canonical Defender is back!  Canonist Ed Peters has taken it on himself to correct a few of the myriad – and I suggest purposeful – errors/lies in John Cornwell’s new anti-Catholic hit job.

Remember how Cornwell distorted the record about Pius XII in calling him “Hitler’s Pope”?

Peters has no combox over there, so I post here. But do go over and visit his blog and spike his stats in gratitude. It’ll take an instant to CLICK.  Mostly my emphases, some his, and my comments.

How wrong is John Cornwall’s attack on Pope St. Pius X? Let me count the ways.
by Dr. Edward Peters

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 Cornwall’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. [That’s more like it.] 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 Cornwall’s attack on the sacrament of Confession—celebrated in “a dark box like an upturned coffin, smelling of stale perfume and nasty body odours” (Cornwall actually wrote that, and the Mail Online actually published it) [Maybe it is Cornwall himself who needs to bathe?] —is his claim that: “It was the anxious and pessimistic Pius X, [and Benedict was Freddy Krueger to Francis’ Freddy Rogers] Pope from 1903-1914, who decreed in 1910 that children must make their first confession at the age of seven,” inaugurating, per Cornwall, 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 Cornwall has chosen to wrap his claims in the thrice-invoked mantle of “investigation”, I may be allowed to reply based on my investigation. [Canonical Defender for President!]

1. Cornwall’s assertion that Pius X was pope from 1903-1914 is correct.

2. Cornwall’s characterization of Pius X as “anxious and pessimistic” is an opinion and he’s free to express it. [Perhaps Cornwell is a psychic.]

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

Cornwall 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 Cornwall actually read the papal document and noted its date. But considering the centrality of Pius’ alleged decree to Cornwall’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 Cornwall 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 Cornwall 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. [If you can’t see the invisible duck swim, or hear it’s inaudible quack, maybe there isn’t a duck there at all.  I’m just sayin’.]

About this point one begins to wonder about another of Cornwall’s [stale and nasty] 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 Cornwall has in mind? Cornwall 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?


[NB] 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. [This, friends, is why Peters is so good.]

What then to make of Cornwall’s claim that Pius X, for the first time ever, ordered all seven-year-olds to confess their sins? [That he is talking out of his … hat?] 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, Cornwall’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.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ed Peters.



If you are Catholic and above the age of reason you are bound by law to confess your mortal sins once per year.  If you are smart, unless you are really holy, you will go more often than once per year.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Genna says:

    UK newspapers have never employed fact-checkers. Rather arrogantly, there has been an assumption that writers can do no wrong. As for John Cornwell, he’s been bashing the Catholic Church for years by wilfully skewing the facts (remember Hitler’s Pope). One fact is certain, by villifying the Church he makes a pile of money from those who hate the Church and those who believe more in Dan Brown than Jesus Christ. Every time an anti-Catholic story comes up in the UK media, it’s glee time for the child abuse scandal-lovers.
    Maybe for Cornwell it’s payback time for his unhappy childhood and his anger is misdirected towards the Church. I quote briefly from a biographical note to his book Seminary Boy. “Born into a destitute family with a dominating Irish-Catholic mother and an absconding father during World War II in London, John Cornwell’s childhood was deeply dysfunctional.”

  2. Imrahil says:

    In addition, confessionals are small, have neatly seperated spaced for priest and penitent, a window at eye’s height between them which is perhaps closed with a grill. And they are not locked, and anyone can get out at any time. In addition, there is a canon which sets on seducing a penitent the heaviest canonical penalty that exists for any crime (short of physically attacking the Pope, which back then had an even harsher sentence of “vitandus latae sententiae”). [Not exactly. Vitandus is a category that no longer exists in law. However, attacking the Pope does carry with it an excommunication.]

    How he gets his idea is absurd.

  3. Mike says:

    Cornwall’s conspiracy theorizing can only gain traction among those who think it acceptable to conflate slander with scholarship. Sadly, that damnable practice has deep roots not only in journalism but in too many universities (including nominally Catholic ones) that subordinate intellectual integrity to the whims of the age.

    The Church is blessed in Dr. Peters: may his tribe increase! (And let us continue to pray for the healing of his son Thomas.)

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    It would have been nice to add a bit about earliest known references to children d ten confessing, but I suppose that could lead into a rabbit hole.


  5. Mike says:

    I clicked on the original article in the DMO and you gotta see the picture they have for the article to believe it. N.B.: they used “models” for the shot…no kidding?

  6. mamajen says:

    Fact checking at The Mail? Hahahahahaha… That rag caters to the lowest common denominator and will publish just about anything for pageviews. Surprised they didn’t figure out a way to work the Kardashians into the story somehow.

    Good article, Dr. Peters. You’d have my vote for president!

  7. Scott W. says:

    Another dinosaur mired in the tar pit getting one last bleat in against the Church before extinction. Yawn.

  8. Kerry says:

    If the alleged decree was the “…greatest moral experiment ever perpetrated on children in the history of Catholicism”, please Mr. Cornwall, tell us what were experiments numbers 3 & 5. Oh, you’ve lost the top ten list…?

  9. St. Epaphras says:

    Why am I not surprised at this attack on Pope Pius and on the Sacrament of Penance? Because the devil hates holiness and he hates – and I mean hates! – Confession. How to get back at the enemy of our souls and those who do his work? Let’s all make it a point to make a really good confession this weekend.

  10. govmatt says:

    The “Daily Mail” is about as reputable as the tabloids that publish about bat boy. “” does not credibility create.

  11. euphemos says:

    “If you are smart, unless you are really holy, you will go more often than once per year.”

    And, if you are such a person conformed to God’s will, you’ll be going at least once every twenty days so that you can assist the poor souls in Purgatory!

  12. Palladio says:

    I hear the Sisters of Life go once a week. I heard it in the confessional. Humility is a virtue, presumption is not. Last I went to confession, the penance was very real, and I felt like a new man, happy and free. We are so distracted by the lousy American workplace we forget we are in a spiritual combat, armed by the Church with the only effective weapons against sin and death thanks to the infinite merits of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

    Please pray for me and for the souls of two people: a colleague, who died suddenly, a child, whose funeral Mass I am mustering up the courage to attend in our parish in an hour.

  13. LadyMarchmain says:

    Well done, Dr Peters! Lead on, we are right behind you.

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  15. Dimitri_Cavalli says:

    For some strange reason, newspapers in the UK have different names and staff for newspapers published on Sunday.

    The Daily Mail on Sunday is worth reading for Peter Hitchens (“the good Hitchens brother”), who has a weekly column and a blog he updates often. See
    Mr. Hitchens often engages readers. I obviously don’t agree with him on everything, and he doesn’t fit a political label such as paleo- or neo-conservative.

  16. Dimitri_Cavalli says:

    Is there any hard data on how many clerical abuse cases originated in the Confessional?

  17. Sonshine135 says:

    My goodness…If Catholicism was anything like what was portrayed by these demons like Cornwall, I would never be Catholic. Combine this with the tired and erroneous lies as understood by most Protestants, and you have quite a bit of nonsense to battle against. I pray for the suffering souls who continue to spew this tripe. Many thanks to Ed Peters for his detailed and truthful analysis.

  18. Scott W. says:

    Is there any hard data on how many clerical abuse cases originated in the Confessional?

    Not that I am aware of, but my guess is not much. I do know however that of all the abuse cases, not one of them invoked crimen sollicitationis in order to muzzle victims, meaning that document is not the “smoking gun” that some in the media think it is.

  19. Uxixu says:

    Love it, and Doctor Peter’s work in general. His book on the english translation of the 1917 Code is on my short list of books I want in the next year.

  20. kkroll says:

    I’m a bit surprised no one has mentioned the connection to SSPX. It seems to me this is a spurious “dig” at the traditional side of Catholicism, and what I foresee as becoming a full blown rant against them and any other traditional minded “subcultures” of the Church who understand the terrible effects of modern secularism. The more the world rants against the good makes me wonder all the more about their hatred towards these groups and especially now, when the good Pope Pius X is maliciously attacked.
    Cornwall, for all his ranting, understands very well where the real battle is going to be waged.

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