Pope Benedict XVI, in his September 9, 2009 general audience, noted that the Benedictine monk, cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, St. Peter Damian (1007-72), was “one of the most significant figures of the 11th century … a monk, a lover of solitude and at the same time a fearless man of the Church, committed personally to the task of reform, initiated by the Popes of the time.” St. Peter Damian was born into a poor family (and was orphaned a young age), demonstrated remarkable intellectual skills as a teenager, and by the age of twenty five was a renowned teacher. He then renounced the secular life and became a monk, and eventually became prior of the hermitage at Fonte Avellana.
Between 1049 and 1054, he composed the powerful book Liber Gomorrhianus, or “Book of Gomorrah”, addressing it to the new pope, Leo IX, who himself would eventually be canonized. Pope St. Leo IX praised St. Peter Damian’s work and the monk became a key reformer, addressing widespread excesses and grave sins.
Ite ad Thomam Books and Media has now published a rigorous and careful translation of The Book of Gomorrah, praised by scholars as “highly readable”, “clear and well-articulated”, and “excellent and accurate”. Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, recently corresponded with the translator, Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, who is a graduate student at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and a regular contributor to a number of Catholic periodicals, including CWR.
CWR: What is The Book of Gomorrah and why did St. Peter Damian write it?
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman: The Book of Gomorrah is a letter written to Pope St. Leo IX around the year 1049 in response to an epidemic of sodomy among the priests of Italy, which Peter Damian feared would bring down the wrath of God upon the Church. This plague of sexual perversion was part of a larger crisis of moral laxity in the priesthood, including widespread sexual incontinency and illicit marriages, the simoniacal purchasing of clerical ordination, and the prevalence of a worldly and carnal mentality among the clergy. The laity were outraged by such behavior and were even beginning to rebel against the Church hierarchy in some places, such as Florence and Milan.
The Book of Gomorrah is an eloquent and impassioned denunciation of the vice of sodomy, describing in harrowing detail the devastating spiritual and psychological effects on those who practice it. Damian holds that sodomy is the worst of all sins because it does the greatest harm to the soul, and argues very persuasively that no priest who is habituated to such behavior should be permitted to continue in the priesthood. However, the work is not only a condemnation of evil, but also an outpouring of grief for those who have fallen into such immorality, urging them to “rise from the dead” and return to Christ, and promising them forgiveness and even spiritual glory if they repent and do penance. So the work expresses very profoundly both the justice and the mercy of God.
CWR: How does Peter Damian define “sodomy” and what significance does this have?
Hoffman: This is one of the most interesting and relevant aspects of the book for the modern reader. Damian sees “sodomitic vice” as not only including homosexual acts (which he holds to be the most grievous kind of sodomy) but any form of sexual perversion, which notably includes contraception and masturbation, which he regards as closely related. In chapter four he notes that God “struck Onan, the son of Jude, with an untimely death because of this nefarious offense,” that is, spilling his seed upon the ground rather than completing the sexual act in the natural way.
I believe that by placing contraception and masturbation under the heading of “sodomy” Damian is recognizing a truth that seems to be all but completely forgotten among Catholics today, and that is that the sexual revolution and the rise of the social acceptance of unnatural sexual behavior is rooted in a contraceptive mentality that divorces the sexual act from its natural procreative purpose, and tends to make it into an act of selfish, narcissistic lust. Given the almost universal acceptance of contraception in our society, is it surprising that we have become so numb and unconcerned about the rise of more perverse forms of the same fundamental vice, and even applaud them?
CWR: Does The Book of Gomorrah address the sexual abuse of minors as well?
Hoffman: Indeed it connects this epidemic of sodomy with the abuse of “penitential sons” by confessors. It also approvingly quotes an ecclesiastical law that requires any cleric caught in an act of sexual abuse of a boy or adolescent to be publicly humiliated, bound in iron chains, required to fast on barley bread for months while imprisoned in a monastic cell, and then placed permanently in the custody of two other monks to prevent any further harm to children. Damian’s canon provides a stark contrast with the lax attitude that so many modern prelates have shown regarding the sexual abuse of minors, which has caused so much damage to souls and to the Church’s reputation in recent decades.
CWR: How did Pope St. Leo IX respond to The Book of Gomorrah?
Hoffman: Pope St. Leo IX responded with unreserved praise for the book, writing to Damian that “everything that this little book contains has been pleasing to our judgment, being as opposed to diabolical fire as is water.” He even spoke of Damian’s future entry into heaven, predicting that he would “obtain the palm of victory from God the Father,” and “rejoice in the celestial mansion with the Son of God and of the Virgin.” He also ordered the permanent removal of priests who had committed the worst form of sodomy or who were habituated to the lesser forms of it. In addition, he decreed the penalty of excommunication for those who committed sodomy at a synod in France in the same year.
However, in the last century English-speaking scholars have begun to circulate the strange claim that the pope somehow “rejected” or even “rebuked” Damian. This notion is not embraced by Damian’s principal modern biographer, the French historian Jean Leclercq, but it has been repeated often by English-speaking homosexual scholars who wish to undermine the reputation of the Book of Gomorrah, particularly John Boswell. As I show in my book, this “rejection thesis” is totally false and is based on a misreading of a short Latin phrase in Leo’s letter to Damian, as well as unjustified conjecture about another letter Damian wrote to Leo at a different time. I also show that not only did Leo not reject Damian’s recommendations for punishing sodomy, but he went beyond them and imposed a more severe system of punishment than Damian suggested.
CWR: Why were things in such a bad way at the turn of the millennium? Was this one of the low points, historically and morally, for the papacy?
Hoffman: Western society had fallen into a terrible moral state due to the general breakdown of law and order following the disintegration of Charlemagne’s empire in 887 AD, which was accompanied by terrible, predatory invasions by Vikings, Magyars, and Muslims, who ravaged the continent. Italy, France, Spain, and the British Isles were particularly affected. The Catholic Church suffered the consequences of this chaos. The papacy itself came under the influence of secular politics and the personal behavior of the popes was sometimes the cause of serious moral scandal. Historians have generally seen this period as the lowest point in the history of the papacy.
Damain committed his life to struggling against this corruption, as I show in the book’s introduction on his life. He rebuked emperors, bishops, and even popes in his quest to bring about reform, while always maintaining his unswerving loyalty to the papacy. He was ultimately raised by Pope Alexander II to the second rank in the Roman Church, under only the pope himself, and was sent on numerous reform missions on the pope’s behalf. My book’s introduction includes an extensive account of Damian’s courageous struggle against corruption in the Church, which includes his confrontation with the German emperor Henry IV over his attempt to obtain an easy annulment for his marriage.
CWR: Why a new translation? What are some of the challenges of translating this work?
Hoffman: The reality is that although two translations already exist in English, both suffer from inaccuracies, and one is virtually inaccessible to readers. Neither of them, in my opinion, conveys the regal beauty of Damian’s Latin, which was among the best of the Middle Ages. Pierre Payer’s translation in 1982 was the first translation of the book into any language, and Payer did a good job with what he had, but unfortunately he only had access to a faulty edition of the book from the 17th century that heavily altered Damian’s original text. The translation of Owen Blum, published in the 1990s, was based on the original manuscripts but is very loose and not rigorously faithful to the text, and is buried inside a complete edition of Damian’s letters without any explanatory material.
My translation seeks to bring a scrupulously accurate translation to a wide audience of Catholic readers in a way that preserves the beauty of Damian’s excellent Latin original. It is thoroughly footnoted to explain difficulties that modern readers might have in understanding the text. The translation is based on a careful reading of the definitive critical edition of Kurt Reindel, which is derived from the manuscripts dating back to the 11th century, and is prefaced with a biographical introduction and an extensive translator’s preface. So I would say that this edition makes Damian’s work truly accessible to a wide Catholic readership in a way that the others do not.
CWR: What are some notable similarities between St. Peter Damian’s time and the situation in the Church today? Differences?
Hoffman: Anyone reading the book will see parallels between the eleventh century Church and our own situation today. We have also suffered a terrible crisis of effeminacy and moral laxity among the clergy, which in our case is accompanied by a generalized indifference to the integrity of Catholic doctrine and serious liturgical abuse. The sex abuse crisis, which is even worse today than it was in the eleventh century, has done terrible harm to thousands of innocent children and has damaged the Church’s reputation immensely. In this sense, Damian seems to be speaking to us across the span of centuries and calling us to repentance, just as he did so boldly in the eleventh century.
The big difference between the two periods, aside from the vastly different social context, is found in the causes of the respective crises. In the eleventh century the cause was the weakening of the papacy and of the hierarchical structure of the Church by the political chaos and breakdown of authority during the preceding two centuries. The popes began to recover their authority in the middle of the eleventh century and boldly asserted that authority against a deeply entrenched opposition, and eventually they won. We also face a crisis of authority today, but the cause is in this case an interior one, deriving from the unwillingness of many prelates to exercise their authority in defense of the faith and morals of the Church. The Catholic Church today does not suffer so much from the meddling of secular powers but from an internal crisis marked by an ambivalence about the very identity and mission of the Church itself. In that sense, it would seem to even more grave than the crisis of the eleventh century.
The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption
by St. Peter Damian; foreword by Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Guadalajara
Translator and author of introduction: Matthew Cullinan Hoffman
Ite ad Thomam Books and Media (New Braunfels, TX), 2015
Softcover, 165 pages
Webpage: BookofGomorrah.com (also available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other bookseller sites).
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