St. Peter Damian (1007-1073) was a Benedictine monk and Cardinal Bishop whose principle legacy relevant to our time is his slim volume titled The Book of Gomorrah (English translation by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman). Friend to several popes, he was never formally canonized but is recognized as a saint in the Church calendar on February 21st and was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XII in 1823. Damian lived in a tumultuous time for the history of the Church. Schisms galore and widespread corruption had seized the clergy at all levels, which included openly married priests and the purchase of ecclesiastical offices (simony). Of particular concern to Damian was the notorious practice of sodomy among the clergy. In his preface to the Book of Gomorrah, Damian summons all the powerful eloquence of his pen to address Pope Leo IX.
A certain most abominable and exceedingly disgraceful vice has grown in our region, and unless it is quickly met with the hand of strict chastisement, it is certain that the sword of divine fury is looming to attack, to the destruction of many. Alas, it is shameful to speak of it! It is shameful to relate such a disgusting scandal to sacred ears! But if the doctor fears the virus of the plague, who will apply the cauterization? If he is nauseated by those whom he is to cure, who will lead sick souls back to the state of health? The cancer of sodomitic impurity is thus creeping through the clerical order, and indeed is raging like a cruel beast within the sheepfold of Christ …. And unless the force of the Apostolic See opposes it as quickly as possible, there is no doubt that when it finally wishes for the unbridled evil to be restrained, it may not be possible to halt the fury of its advance.
The term “sodomy” has no fixed definition since there are several forms of it, the only common aspect being that sodomy is sexual stimulation other than the reproductive act between male and female. In the absence of any single category, Damian begins by classifying all those acts that qualify as sodomy. He lists four such categories: (1) solitary masturbation; (2) mutual masturbation; (3) sex between the thighs of same-sex partners; (4) anal sex (the most vile). Curiously, Damian does not include oral sex. Damian regarded bestiality (lust with an animal) as less vile than sodomy.
Should sodomites be ordained?
For Damian, given God’s death-dealing condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah,
It is certainly obvious that no subsequent religious life can restore a man for the reception of an ecclesiastical grade of order if he has been debased by a crime worthy of death…. Therefore it is clearer than light that it is altogether against the norm of sacred law, altogether against the standard of divine authority, to promote anyone to ecclesiastical order who is convicted of having lain between masculine thighs in fornication, which is undoubtedly a mortal sin.”
And that sin is all the more mortal because it is practiced by anyone who, seeking holy orders or having been ordained, knows better than anyone else how mortal it is.
Sodomites who aspire to holy orders have been blinded by their own pride to believe they are deserving. They are blinded just as the Sodomites that pressed upon Lot’s door were blinded by the angels visiting him, and thus could not see to pass the threshold into Lot’s house. By the same token, the sodomites who aspire to holy orders are blinded; not only they, but those who would permit their entrance through the Church door to holy orders are also blinded by pride. Damian cites the authority of Paul in his letter to the Romans (1:32). “They who do such things are worthy of death: and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them.” (To be clear, Paul is not referring to the death penalty as such, but to the spiritual death to which many resign themselves in their sins.)
Damian next warns sodomite priests against supposing they can confess their sins to one another (the same sins they have committed together) thereby escaping the humility inherently and rightly required in the sacrament of penance. This is a handy device, an escape hatch for the proud, inspired no doubt by the devil, but denied by the official Code of Canon Law. Such confessions cannot obtain valid absolution, the reason being that nothing is really confessed, since the two parties already know each other’s sin. Moreover, Damian asks, if the point of confession is for the priest to lead the penitent back to virtue, how is that possible when the priest is a participant in the sin he is asked to absolve? Such a priest who fornicates with … a penitential son, Damian concludes, must “be removed in every way from the order of which he is a minister.”
At this point Damian invokes the natural law ethic espoused by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans. Addressing those taken in sodomy, Damian pleads with them:
Consider, O wretched one, how much the darkness oppresses your soul. Take note how densely the fog of blindness envelops you. Has the fury of lust driven you to towards the masculine sex … that is, man to man…. Does a ram jump upon a ram, crazed by the ardor of sexual intercourse?… Never does a bull insolently approach another bull in sexual love…. Therefore, degenerate men do not fear to perpetrate an act that even brute animals abhor. That which is done by the temerity of human depravity is condemned by the judgment of irrational cattle…. Woe to you, unhappy soul, the destruction of which of which saddens the angels, and which enemies insult by applause!
Mourning the sodomites
At the same time that Damian indicts the sodomites for the darkness of their souls, he weeps for them in their pride and their refusal to seek relief from the burden of their own guilt, which is sure to weigh heavily upon them in the next life. Also to be mourned is the damnable pursuit of priests taken in sodomy presuming to lead their flock to salvation by interceding for them at the altar of God. They seek ecclesiastical honors and titles seemingly oblivious to their blasphemous presence at that altar. The vice that reigns within a priest ill qualifies him to be able to expunge vice from others, or even to intercede on their behalf; and this great gamble on blind pride will end in even greater fury of the divine Judge toward the blind one who presumes to lead others out of darkness into light.
Damian does not doubt the sacramental validity of the Mass when offered by a sodomite priest, but he asserts great guilt incurred by the priest for presuming that God is pleased to receive the sacrifice from his hands. Having said this, Damian cites Isaiah 1:10. “And when you stretch forth your hands, I will turn my eyes away from you; and when you multiply prayer, I will not hear … your hands are full of blood.” This is the same blood that, when exercised by the motion of the hand, becomes the semen that is vainly spilled in the act of sodomy. Damian fully recognizes the fury of the sodomites for what he has said about their pollution, and he laments that if they will not listen to the warning of Isaiah, what reason would they have to believe him? Yet Damian does not despair of the sodomite’s salvation. “For if only the devil was able to submerge you in the depths of this vice, how much more is the strength of Christ able to return you to that pinnacle from which you fell? Shall he that fell rise again no more?”
The Pope’s Reply
Following the publication of The Book of Gomorrah, Pope Leo praised Damian’s sentiments in a starkly graphic letter which reads in part: “For how may one be a cleric … if he does not fear to be soiled either by his own hands or those of another, fondling his own male parts or those of another, or fornicating with contemptible irrationality either between the thighs or in the rear?” Pope Leo’s judgment against these sodomite priests is harsh, yet tempered by a call for redemption, with the caveat that in the case of anal sodomy the hope of retaining clerical status is lost. Apparently seeking to reassure Damian in the face of mounting opposition by the clergy to his book, Leo concludes: “If anyone dares to condemn or assail our decree of apostolic sanction, he should know that he is in danger of losing his own grade of order. For he who does not attack a vice, but rather coddles it, is justly judged guilty of the death together with those who die by that vice.”
In our own time this judgment of Pope Leo has been ratified by Pope Francis, who has stripped Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of all his titles and his priestly office as a result of credible accusations that he had molested young Catholic men and had been doing so for a long time. Moreover, Pope Francis has convened an assembly of one hundred bishops to meet and consider the crisis of confidence in the Church today regarding sex scandals that are no less terrible than those prevailing at the time of Damian. Ironically, those bishops will meet on February 24 during the week in which the feast day of St. Peter Damian is celebrated (February 21). Hopefully, the bishops will begin their proceedings with a prayer to the brave author of The Book of Gomorrah.
The sin of sodomy is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments. Though all other sexual sins (fornication adultery, masturbation, etc.) are identified in the Index of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, mention of sodomy is notably absent. So also absent is any reference to pedophilia, this in stark contrast to the need for both to be identified and discussed given the recent scandals which, as Damian makes clear, are not limited to our time. It would be interesting to have been on the committee deciding which sins were to be mentioned and which were to be omitted from the Catechism. What reasons would have prevailed to exclude the mention of sodomy and pedophilia?
Some books live for the lifetime of their author and are gradually forgotten as the issues they address fade into history. Other books live forever in memory of the eternal truths they contain. Damian’s The Book of Gomorrah still lives because it addresses the eternal quest of Satan to bring down in scandalous ruins the Church Christ has built; a quest that has not, after two thousand years, come to pass despite attempts in every century to complete the effort. The Church of Christ is the Body of Christ. That body was lashed and spit upon and nailed to a cross and struck with a spear and still to this day suffers the insults and wounds inflicted upon it by Satan and his followers. It is no wonder that during the Mass the priest will invoke the prayers of the congregation first of all for the pope, the bishops, and the clergy … for they will always, and inevitably, be Satan’s first and most desired victims.