Church Reform: An Endless Task

The Book of Gomorrah, written in the eleventh century by St. Peter Damian, has now been published in a modern translation by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, a journalist and graduate student at Holy Apostles College. To the original book Hoffman has added a useful introduction and copious notes. The book manages to be both scholarly and highly readable at the same time.

The level of corruption in the Catholic Church in the eleventh century was immense—especially simony, or the buying and selling of episcopal positions. It was a vice that extended to cardinals and even to popes. Some popes at that time reigned only for a few weeks before being deposed.

In addition to spiritual authority, popes in the Middle Ages enjoyed considerable political power. They “politicized the papacy by appropriating its spiritual functions for secular ends,” Hoffman writes. We are told that Pope John XII (r. 955-963) “lived in a pigsty of lust,” which was so scandalous that a synod of bishops was called to address the problem. An antipope was unsuccessfully named to replace him.

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The priesthood at that time was rife with lax and uneducated men, unworthy of their office. “Many priests violated the Church’s strictures against sacerdotal marriage by entering into illicit unions with wives or concubines, with the consent and even the approval of their flocks.” Many also “succumbed to unnatural sexual practices, alone or with others, all of which fell under the name of ‘sodomy’ referring to the city destroyed by God in the book of Genesis.”

Born in Ravenna, Peter Damian (1007-72) had a difficult upbringing. In his 20s he decided to abandon the distractions of the secular life, joining the hermitage of Fonte Avellana south of Ravenna. He embraced the asceticism of the hermitage—famous for extreme acts of penance, and devoted himself to spiritual learning. His abilities as a scholar soon caught the attention of his superiors, who assigned him to preach to the other monks. When the Prior died in 1043, Damian was elected as his successor.

Gomorrah coverThe Book of Gomorrah was written in about 1050. In his labors, Damian was greatly helped by a saintly and reformist pope, an impoverished aristocrat who as pope took the name of Leo IX (r. 1049-54).

Damian warned Pope Leo that, “a certain most abominable and exceedingly disgraceful vice has grown in our region, and unless it is quickly met with the hand of strict punishment, it is certain that the sword of divine fury is looming to attack, to the destruction of many.”

He was referring to “the cancer of sodomitic impurity,” which is “creeping through the clerical order, and indeed is raging like a cruel beast within the sheepfold of Christ.” It was so unrestrained, Damian wrote, that “for many it would have been much more salutary to be oppressed by the yoke of worldly duties.”

Damian said that sodomy “violates sobriety, kills modesty, and slays chastity.” Furthermore,

It butchers virginity with the sword of a most filthy contagion. It befouls everything, it stains everything, it pollutes everything, and for itself it permits nothing pure, nothing foreign to filth, nothing clean.

Damian eloquently condemned various forms of sexual perversion, all of which he placed under the heading of “sodomy.” These included, in Hoffman’s words:

… contraception, masturbation, same-sex pederasty, and adult homosexual acts. He notes the severe penalties historically attached to such offenses in the Scriptures as well as the canons of Church councils, and argues that such penalties should be even stronger for members of the clergy, who are to be held to a higher standard than the laity. The strongest punishments in the Church’s historic legislation are reserved for those who abuse children and adolescents. They are to be “publicly beaten” and humiliated, “bound in iron chains, worn down with six months of imprisonment.

Today, Damian would be seen as a “homophobe,” and possibly even charged with hate crimes.

But his book was born of love and concern for others who were engaging in homosexual practices. Eternal punishment and separation from God awaited them if they were to die unrepentant, said Damian.

You are most greatly to be wept over, because you do not weep. You are in need of the sufferings of others because you do not feel the danger of your ruin, and you are to be wept over all the more by bitter tears of fraternal compassion because you are not troubled by your own sorrowful lamentation.

Damian several times invokes St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (and here I quote from the King James translation):

… and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet… God gave them over to a reprobate mind. (Romans 1:26-27)

The official acts of popes at that time were generally unobjectionable and often laudable, Hoffman writes, but he adds, “their compromised situation and poor personal example had combined with the vicissitudes of the age to provoke a catastrophic decline in clerical morality.”

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that those popes, no matter how corrupt, did not attempt to change Church doctrine. They were interested in power and money. The Catholic hierarchy was not pushing for an updated doctrine, as some prelates seem to be today with respect to who can receive communion.  Recently, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea (in West Africa) reaffirmed the teaching. He reiterated, for example, that a non-Catholic cannot receive communion and there must be “a unity of faith.” It’s not a matter of “talking to God” for permission, the African cardinal said.

In reply, one or two German cardinals claimed that African faith is strong because the people there are “simpleminded” and have a “rather low level of education.” They have little more than their faith to rely on. Cardinal Sarah was even singled out by name.

Matthew Hoffman told me that he does indeed see Catholic doctrine at risk today.  He said in a brief interview:

The ecclesiastical corruption of the eleventh century was mostly limited to the lax morals of a worldly clergy. In contrast, the corruption of the modern clergy threatens to undermine the expression of doctrine regarding the gravity of sexual sin. It also threatens the obligations entailed in the sacrament of matrimony. Today, pastoral practice is opposed to doctrinal and moral truth, as if the former could somehow supersede the latter. It is another manifestation of the false charity decried by Damian in the Book of Gomorrah.

John A. Hardon S.J. said in his posthumously published Spiritual Autobiography (2012) that the twentieth century found the Catholic Church almost overwhelmed with errors. He laid part of the blame on the press, which for several decades has been anti-Christian at its core. “It is not commonly recognized that the Catholic Church has entered on the most difficult period of her 20 centuries of existence,” Fr. Hardon wrote.

I highly recommend Matthew Hoffman’s book, especially as it comes at a time when sodomy has reappeared as a temptation for some Catholic clergymen, and Protestant denominations seem almost overrun by elements of the West’s ongoing and highly destructive Sexual Revolution.

Perhaps we should pray for an African pope.


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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