Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

More sinister was the danger of incest, which was deemed sufficiently real for the Papal Legate in France, Cardinal Guala, to rule, in 1208, that mothers and other relatives must not live in the house of clerics, a regulation repeated in many subsequent orders up to the end of the fourteenth century. In general, May has noted that in the court records of the period, priests outnumber laymen, sometimes by as much as fifty to one. This was not because the Church was especially punctilious in prosecuting clerics: quite the contrary. It was frequently declared that clerical sins should be overlooked unless they became a public scandal, exceptionally light penalties were imposed, and frequent dispensations and absolutions were granted by the Curia. (154)

That the clergy should break the rule of celibacy is no doubt understandable: what is more dreadful is that they were often prepared to use their supposed power of granting or with holding absolution for sin as a weapon to force a woman’s compliance — and what a weapon that was in an age when many believed that they would roast in hell without absolution! This frightful crime was, however, treated by the ecclesiastical courts with the greatest lenience, in line with their policy of treating fornication as a milder offence than concubinage, and absolution for it could be purchased for as little as 36 gros tournois. As an example of the fantastic lenience of such courts we may take the case of Valdelamar, tried at Toledo in 1535 for seducing two women and refusing absolution to a third unless she slept with him — and also accused of theft, blasphemy, cheating with bulls of indulgence, charging for absolution and frequenting brothels. His whole sentence was to be fined two ducats and condemned to thirty days’ seclusion in church, before being free, as Lea puts it, to resume his flagitious career.

It was to reduce the incidence of such crimes that the confessional box was evolved. The Council of Valencia ordered it to be used in 1565, and in 1614 it was prescribed for all churches, though 150 years later the decree was still being ignored in many places. Unfortunately this invention created another evil: salacious laymen used to enter the box in order in hear confessions. This was regarded as a serious matter by the Church only if, at the end of the confession, they gave absolution: This amounted to usurping the prerogative of a priest and the penalty was being burnt alive. Theology also dominated consideration of sacerdotal offences: the Judges were more interested in discovering whether the attempt at seduction had been made before or after granting absolution than in protecting the women. Thus it was argued that to give a woman a love letter in the confessional was only “solicitation” (as the offence came to be called) if it was intended that she should read it on the spot, before being absolved. Once the question of intention had been introduced the casuists were able to confuse the issue still further: it became possible to argue that a conditional statement, such as “If I were not a priest, I should like to seduce you”, was innocuous. (154)

Confession had other abuses: for instance, requiring a man who confessed to fornication to name his partner, so that the priest might discover where best to apply his own efforts — a thing which was not banned until 1714. There is also evidence that confessors would talk at length with young nuns on sexual matters, discussing every detail of the sexual act, ostensibly to warn them, actually to arouse their desires, but it would take us too far from the subjects and require too many pages, to record all the ingenuities of priestly lust.