The Sword of the Saint, Unsheathed

November 2013By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

Book of Gomorrah: An Eleventh-Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices.  By St. Peter Damian. Translated and edited by Pierre Payer. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 108 pages. $38.95.



By the time he published the Book of Gomorrah around A.D. 1049, St. Peter Damian had been preaching for some time against homosexuality. He told Pope St. Leo IX, to whom he directed this work, that he needed his support against those who despised him for this preaching. While others in authority remained silent, he lamented, homosexuality kept spreading: “Vice against nature creeps in like a cancer and even touches the order of consecrated men.”

That homosexuality was indeed a problem at that time may be inferred from the fact that the vice was addressed at the Council of Rheims (A.D. 1049) in the canon de sodomitico vitio. Also, Damian received, in reply to his treatise, what he had requested from Leo IX, “a decretal writing as to which of those guilty of these vices ought to be deposed irrevocably from ecclesiastical orders; and to whom, truly taking the view of discretion, this office can be mercifully granted.”

In the Book of Gomorrah Damian says he has preached against this sin “with a whole fountain of tears” because the sinner he addresses sheds none at all: “O miserable soul, I weep for you with so many lamentations because I do not see you weeping. I prostrate myself on the ground for you because I see you maliciously standing up after such a grave fall, even to the point of trying for the pinnacle of an ecclesiastical order.” Damian weeps from “fraternal compassion” because he sees a “noble soul made in the image and likeness of God and joined with the most precious blood of Christ” cast down from a great height of dignity and glory. Any Christian who commits sodomy, he explains, surpasses in sin the men of Sodom, for he “defies the very commands of evangelical grace.”

Damian reports that he has endured persecution for preaching against this sin, and he begs the Pope to use his sacred authority to quiet “the complaint of perverse men” who reason that “a statement brought forward by one person…is rejected by others as prejudice.” At one point he addresses the dissenters as men “who are angry with me and who hate to listen to this writer.” He tells the Pope that some of them “accuse me of being a traitor and an informer on the crime of a brother,” while others think it “valid to attack me who am on the attack” and to “accuse me of presumptuous prattle.” They also denounce him for not being “afraid of picking on Christians.”

No surprise, Damian observes, that he is not believed and that his “admonition is rejected,” since God’s own command is “taken lightly by the puffed-up heart of the reprobate.” His opponents even ignore the scriptural verses that condemn homosexuality because “the rashness of the complainers [does not] give in to divine testimony.” Still, he hopes that when the Pope speaks out, “the sick Church” will rise once again to her “rightful vigor.”

In his reply, Leo IX gives Damian his full support and warns those who would dare to criticize or question his papal decree concerning sodomy that they will be putting themselves in danger of being deposed from their rank. He agrees with Damian that severity against this sin is needed, that he who does not attack it encourages it, and that silence about it is rightly thought to incur guilt.

In this remarkable treatise, Damian condemns priests in authority who have been too indulgent with these sinners. As a result of their laxity, priests who have “fallen into this wickedness with eight or even ten other equally sordid men” have remained in their ranks. And so the sin has come “to be committed freely” without its practitioners fearing the loss of their priestly faculties. Damian calls this negligence rather than love because it allows a wound to spread in a neighbor’s heart, a wound “from which, I have no doubt, he dies cruelly.” Therefore, Damian himself will not “neglect to cure” that wound with the “surgery of words,” for if he remains silent, he too will deserve punishment. Rather than “fear the hatred of the depraved or the tongues of detractors,” Damian fears God, who warns him through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, “If you see your brother doing evil and you do not correct him, I will require his blood from your hand” (3:20). Damian will not be silenced, no matter how many tell him to put the sword of his tongue in the sheath of silence: “Who am I to see such a harmful outrage growing up among the sacred orders and, as a murderer of another’s soul, preserve the stricture of silence, and to dare to await the reckoning of divine severity? Do I not begin to be responsible for a guilt whose author I never was?”

Citing St. Paul’s condemnation not only of those who commit sodomy but also of those who “approve” it in others (Rom. 1:32), Damian observes that his adversaries’ silence can be interpreted as consent: Anyone who would “censure me when I dispute against mortal vice,” he says, should consider that Damian is trying to “promote fraternal salvation, lest while he persecute the reprover he might seem to favor the delinquent.” Although maligned and threatened for accusing his brothers, Damian refuses to be intimidated: “I would rather be cast innocent into the cistern with Joseph, who accused his brothers to his father for a terrible crime, than to be punished by the vengeance of divine fury with Eli, who saw the evils of his sons and was silent.” He even summons others to join him in his all-out battle to reform the clergy: “Whoever sees himself as a soldier of Christ should fervently gird himself to confound this vice, and not hesitate to wipe it out with all his strength. He should pierce it with the sharpest verbal arrows wherever it is found and try to slay it.” He will thus free the captive from “bonds by which he is held in slavery.”

Although it is “clearer than light” that homosexuals should not serve as priests, Damian says, some might plead “imminent necessity” and argue that there is “no one to perform a sacred function in a church.” In reply, he says that making shepherds of such “carnal men” will “result in the destitution of a whole people.” Their “burning ambition” to be priests is sure to “ensnare the people of God” in their own ruin. Although they may seem useful for their learning, they will lead the flock astray: “If the right order of ecclesiastical discipline is confused in a learned man, it is a wonder it is kept by the ignorant.” By the example of their presumption, these sinners lead the simple onto the “path of error” on which they walk with the “swollen foot of pride.”

What fruitfulness can be expected from men engulfed by “thick, dark blindness”? They have lost their “interior eyes” and cannot see the gravity of what they have done. Like the men of Sodom who tried to break into Lot’s house and seize the angels whom they mistook for young men, these carnal men “try to break in violently on the angels” by approaching God “through the offices of sacred orders.” Damian warns them: Take care lest you “provoke more sharply by your very prayers the one you offend openly by acting evilly.”

At one point in his treatise, Damian refers to the ancient Council of Ancyra (A.D. 314), which dealt with homosexuality in two canons. In canon 16 the Church Fathers declared that laymen who had committed sodomy before the age of 20 were not to receive communion for 20 years; and those who had committed it after the age of 20, for 30 years. Damian comments that if laymen in the early Church had to wait decades before receiving communion again, how can a priest who commits the same sin in his own day “be judged worthy not only to receive but even to offer and to consecrate the sacred mysteries themselves?”

In canon 17 of the same Council, the Fathers ordered those who had committed this sin to pray among the “demoniacs.” Damian comments: “When a male rushes to a male to commit impurity, this is not the natural impulse of the flesh, but only the goad of diabolical impulse. This is why the holy fathers carefully established that sodomists pray together with the deranged since they did not doubt that the sodomists were possessed.” Lamenting that this sin “evicts the Holy Spirit from the temple of the human heart,” the saint warns that it also “gnaws the conscience as though with worms” and “sears the flesh as though with fire.”

Even so, like a good pastor, Damian encourages these sinners to hope in God’s mercy through repentance. He rallies them to take a bold stand “against the importunate madness of lust. If the flame of lust burns to the bones, the memory of perpetual fire should extinguish it immediately.” He urges them not to let the “present satisfaction of one organ” cause them to be cast body and soul into everlasting fire. Calling them his brothers, he summons them to conversion: “If you were unable to spend time with Abraham far from the Sodomites, it is permitted to migrate with Lot, urged on by the destructive burning which is near at hand.”

The Book of Gomorrah demonstrates that it was no easier a thousand years ago than it is today to speak out against this vice and to bring active homosexuals to repentance, to an acknowledgement of the natural law, and to the practice of purity. In his little treatise, St. Peter Damian warns us against keeping silence in the face of such a growing evil and thus becoming complicit. He offers us a needed model of how to speak out fearlessly against the corruptions of our age.

St. Peter Damian, pray for us!



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Dr. Gardiner, as usual, brings her orthodoxy and discernment to bear in her selections from the riches of Catholic patrimony. And again no less consistently brings forward direct commentary from a millenia ago which directly touches on the virtues we need to call up to battle in this age. How she does it I do not know. Grace and the Holy Spirit? As always a tour de force exposition. Bravo. Posted by: tcahill
November 07, 2013 06:42 PM EST
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