Something Left Out…

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 (written 9/9/9, it is a date which has attracted considerable comment around the internet), Pope Benedict XVI came in from his summer palace at Castel Gandolfo to Rome for his Wednesday General Audience, held in the Paul VI Audience Hall next to St. Peter’s Basilica.

The central topic of his reflection was the medieval monk, St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) — born almost exactly 1,000 years ago. (The Pope has been using these Wednesday audiences to give a brief overview of the lives and teachings of the great saints of the Catholic tradition.)

I found the talk interesting. I learned from it.

But I was also perplexed by it.


Because the Pope left something out.

(Note: The reflection which follows will contain some citations from, and links to, St. Peter Damian’s works, having to do with sexual sins, so I urge those of my readers who may take offense at the description of certain sins to consider not reading further.)

In fact, the Pope did not even mention the one thing that I thought I knew well about St. Peter Damian: the uncompromising stand Damian took against a vice which Damian says “defiles all things, sullies all things, pollutes all things,” and “brings death to the body and destruction to the soul.”

Which vice was that?

The vice of sodomy.

When I began to read the Pope’s remarks about St. Peter Damian, I said to myself, “I wonder what Benedict will say about Damian’s greatest concern?”

And I was puzzled when the Pope said nothing about it at all.

Here is what the Pope said today , as reported by the Zenit news agency.

If we read the Pope’s words carefully, we can see that he has been reading the works of St. Peter Damian.

He begins with a brief chronology of his birth and vocation, citing Jean Leclercq, the famous French medievalist.

He then cites Sermon 18, and then Letter 9 (in the Pope’s text, he cites it as “Ep. 9”; “Ep.” stands for “Epistle” or “Letter).

So we may imagine that Pope Benedict picked up and thumbed through a book of Damian’s sermons and letters, reading them one by one, looking for material to reflect upon.

This seems more plausible when we see that, after Sermon 18, the Pope cites Sermon 48, Epistles 18 and 28, Sermon 40, Sermon 8, and then Letter 28.

Based on these sources, the Pope tells us about St. Peter Damian’s thought: his fascination with the salvific mystery of the cross of Christ, his promotion of strict monasticism as the fullness of Christian living, his mystical understanding of Scripture, and his theological insights into the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, our union with Christ, and the Church as a communion.

The Pope does say that Peter Damian “consumed himself, with lucid consistency and great severity, for the reform of the Church of his time.”

But he does not mention Letter 3

The most famous of all of St. Peter Damian’s letters…


When I finished reading the Pope’s remarks, I wondered if perhaps I had misremembered. Was it Peter Damian, I asked myself, who was the saint who directed so much of his intellectual and spiritual energy against the sin of sodomy, or was it someone else?

So I did a Google search, I typed in: “Peter Damian, vice.”

And the first article that came up was this one: St. Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah: a Moral Blueprint for Our Times.

Like every saint before him, and every saint that will ever come after him, St. Peter Damian exhorts the cleric caught in the vice of sodomy (emphasis added ) to repent and … .

When I went to the site, this is what I read: “Among St. Peter Damian’s most famous writings is his lengthy treatise, Letter 31, the Book of Gomorrah (Liber Gomorrhianus ), containing the most extensive treatment and condemnation by any Church Father of clerical pederasty and homosexual practices…

“Upon a first reading of the Book of Gomorrah I think the average Catholic would find himself in a state of shock at the severity of Damian’s condemnation of clerical sodomical practices as well as the severe penalties that he asks Pope Leo IX to attach to such practices…

“Leaving nothing to misinterpretation, Damian distinguishes between the various forms of sodomy and the stages of sodomical corruption…

“Then comes the bitterest blast of all reserved for those bishops who ‘commit these absolutely damnable acts with their spiritual sons’…

“Damian denounces as one of ‘the devil’s clever devices’ concocted in ‘his ancient laboratory of evil,’ by which confirmed clerical sodomites, experiencing a pricking conscience, ‘confess to one another lest their guilt come to the attention of others’…

“Later, Damian returns to this same theme and exclaims: ‘For God’s sake, why do you damnable sodomites pursue the heights of ecclesiastical dignity with such fiery ambition?’

“According to Damian, the vice of sodomy ‘surpasses the enormity of all others,’ because: ‘Without fail, it brings death to the body and destruction to the soul. It pollutes the flesh, extinguishes the light of the mind, expels the Holy Spirit from the temple of the human heart, and gives entrance to the devil, the stimulator of lust. It leads to error, totally removes truth from the deluded mind… It opens up hell and closes the gates of paradise..’

[Note: The sentences that follow are all St. Peter Damian’s own words in Letter 31.]

“It is this vice that violates temperance, slays modesty, strangles chastity, and slaughters virginity… It defiles all things, sullies all things, pollutes all things…

“This vice excludes a man from the assembled choir of the Church… it separates the soul from God to associate it with demons.

“This utterly diseased queen of Sodom renders him who obeys the laws of her tyranny infamous to men and odious to God. She strips her knights of the armor of virtue, exposing them to be pierced by the spears of every vice…

“She humiliates her slave in the church and condemns him in court; she defiles him in secret and dishonors him in public; she gnaws at his conscience like a worm and consumes his flesh like fire (emphasis added )… this unfortunate man (he) is deprived of all moral sense, his memory fails, and the mind’s vision is darkened.

“Unmindful of God, he also forgets his own identity. This disease erodes the foundation of faith, saps the vitality of hope, dissolves the bond of love. It makes way with justice, demolishes fortitude, removes temperance, and blunts the edge of prudence. Shall I say more?'”

The second article that came up in my search led me to this:

 Peter Damian, St

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church | 2000 | E. A. LIVINGSTONE | Copyright
Peter Damian, St (1007–72), reformer. Born in Ravenna, in 1035 he entered the hermitage of Fonte Avella, and c. 1043 was chosen prior. He became famous as an uncompromising preacher against the worldliness and simoniacal practices of the clergy and in 1057 was made Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. He was an important thinker in the spheres of theology and canon law; he defended the validity of sacraments administered by priests guilty of simony against the rigorist views of Humbert of Silva Candida and he wrote a treatise against homosexuality (emphasis added ). Feast day, 21 Feb. ( )


So I had not misrembered.

The single most well-known work written by St. Peter Damian was his Letter 31, to Pope Leo IX, in 1049, against clerical homosexuality.

In that letter, Peter Damian writes: “One is nauseated with shame and embarrassment to speak of things so disgracefully foul, or even to mention them within earshot of Your Holiness. But if a physician is appalled by the contagion of the plague, who is likely to wield the cautery? … The befouling cancer of sodomy is, in fact, spreading so through the clergy or rather, like a savage beast, is raging with such shameless abandon through the flock of Christ, that for many of them it would be more salutary to be burdened with service to the world than, under the pretext of religion, to be enslaved too easily under the iron rule of satanic tyranny.”


Why did Pope Benedict make no reference to this aspect of St. Peter Damian’s thought and action?

Had he entrusted the preparation of this talk to an assistant, and had the assistant decided to leave out this aspect of Damian’s thought, and had the Pope read the remarks without previewing them?

That didn’t seem likely.

Had Benedict prepared the remarks himself, and intentionally decided to present to the world a “new” St. Peter Damian?


Or had Benedict decided to leave out these passages from Peter Damian because he foresaw that someone like myself would be perplexed by the omission, and would write a reflection like this one, focusing more attention on the matter precisely because of the omission?

I don’t know the answer.

All I know is that Letter 31 was omitted. 


 Before leaving St. Peter Damian, I thought it might be useful to all of us to read about what Damian had to say to a friend, the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, Desiderius, in the year 1061 — about 950 years ago. It is his Letter 86.

 I choose this letter because it sheds light on our own time.

 Damian begins by telling Desiderius that he and his monks should be grateful that they are out of touch with the “craziness” of the “modern world” (for their world, almost 1,000 years ago, was “modern” to them).

“You who are not unaware of the crimes that occur in this mad age would be wise to consider that, having left the world, you should be deeply grateful to God for having rescued you,” Damian begins.

“Decency and right living have all but disappeared and, as vigorous Church discipline gradually collapses, a pestilential flood of vice and depravity of every kind grows deeper day by day…

“For just as the shepherd rescues an only sheep from the ravenous jaws of the attacking beast if it has sunk its teeth into one of the weaklings in the flock, so too has Christ rescued you from the mouth of the cruel plunderer who sought to have you serve him as the world was falling apart.”

 (Click here for the complete text of this letter.)

The world was “falling apart” in the time of St. Peter Damian and Abbot Desiderius, and it seems to many that it is “falling apart” today.

But the promises of Christ remain.

And hope in those promises is not in vain.


 Here are a few teachings from Church Fathers on the matter of homosexuality:

Tertullian, the great apologist of the Church in the second century, writes: “All other frenzies of lusts which exceed the laws of nature and are impious toward both bodies and the sexes we banish… from all shelter of the Church, for they are not sins so much as monstrosities.” (Tertullian, De pudicitia , IV)

Saint Basil of Caesarea , the fourth century Church Father who wrote the principal rule of the monks of the East, establishes this: “The cleric or monk who molests youths or boys or is caught kissing or committing some turpitude, let him be whipped in public, deprived of his crown [tonsure] and, after having his head shaved, let his face be covered with spittle; and [let him be] bound in iron chains, condemned to six months in prison, reduced to eating rye bread once a day in the evening three times per week. After these six months living in a separate cell under the custody of a wise elder with great spiritual experience, let him be subjected to prayers, vigils and manual work, always under the guard of two spiritual brothers, without being allowed to have any relationship… with young people.” (St. Basil of Caesarea, in St. Peter Damien, Liber Gomorrhianus , cols. 174f.)

Saint Augustine is categorical in the combat against sodomy and similar vices. The great Bishop of Hippo writes: “Sins against nature, therefore, like the sin of Sodom, are abominable and deserve punishment whenever and wherever they are committed.” (Rom. 1:26). (St. Augustine, Confessions , Book III, chap. 8)

Saint John Chrysostom writes: “All passions are dishonorable, for the soul is even more prejudiced and degraded by sin than is the body by disease; but the worst of all passions is lust between men… There is nothing, absolutely nothing more mad or damaging than this perversity.” (St. John Chrysostom, In Epistulam ad Romanos IV)

Saint Peter Damian ’s Liber Gomorrhianus [Book of Gomorrah], addressed to Pope Leo IX, is considered the principal work against homosexuality. It reads: “Just as Saint Basil establishes that those who incur sins [against nature] … should be subjected not only to a hard penance but a public one, and Pope Siricius prohibits penitents from entering clerical orders, one can clearly deduce that he who corrupts himself with a man through the ignominious squalor of a filthy union does not deserve to exercise ecclesiastical functions, since those who were formerly given to vices … become unfit to administer the Sacraments.” (St. Peter Damian, Liber Gomorrhianus, cols. 174f)

Saint Thomas Aquinas , writing about sins against nature, explains: “However, they are called passions of ignominy because they are not worthy of being named, according to that passage in Ephesians (5:12): ‘For the things that are done by them in secret, it is a shame even to speak of.’ For if the sins of the flesh are commonly censurable because they lead man to that which is bestial in him, much more so is the sin against nature, by which man debases himself lower than even his animal nature.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Super Epistulas Sancti Pauli Ad Romanum I, 26, pp. 27f)

Saint Bernardine of Siena , a preacher of the fifteenth century, writes: “No sin has greater power over the soul than the one of cursed sodomy, which was always detested by all those who lived according to God….. Such passion for undue forms borders on madness. This vice disturbs the intellect, breaks an elevated and generous state of soul, drags great thoughts to petty ones, makes [men] pusillanimous and irascible, obstinate and hardened, servilely soft and incapable of anything.  Furthermore, the will, being agitated by the insatiable drive for pleasure, no longer follows reason, but furor.” (St. Bernardine of Siena, Predica XXXIX, in Le prediche volgari (Milan: Rizzoli, 1936), pp. 869f).


Dr. Robert Moynihan is an American and veteran Vatican journalist with knowledge of five languages. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.

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