Something Left Out…

Today in Rome, Pope Benedict spoke about St. Peter Damian during his General Audience — and left something out. The mystery of Letter 31…

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from America

Today, 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 (image; 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:

On St. Peter Damian
“Jesus Must Truly Be at the Center of Our Life”

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 9, 2009 ( Here is a translation of Benedict XVI’s address today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall.

* * *

Dear brothers and sisters,

During these Wednesday catecheses, I have been discussing some of the great figures of the life of the Church since its origin. Today I would like to reflect on one of the most significant personalities of the 11th century, St. Peter Damian, monk, lover of solitude and, at the same time, intrepid man of the Church, personally involved in the work of reform undertaken by the popes of the time.

He was born in Ravenna in 1007 of a noble but poor family. He was orphaned, and lived a childhood of hardships and sufferings. Even though his sister Roselinda was determined to be a mother to him and his older brother, he was adopted as a son by Damian. In fact, because of this, he would later be called Peter of Damiano, Peter Damian. His formation was imparted to him first at Faenza and then at Parma, where, already at the age of 25, we find him dedicated to teaching. In addition to keen competence in the field of law, he acquired a refined expertise in the art of writing — “ars scribendi” — and, thanks to his knowledge of the great Latin classics, became “one of the best Latinists of his time, one of the greatest writers of the Latin Medieval Age” (J. Leclercq, Pierre Damien, Ermite et Homme d’Eglise, Rome, 1960, p. 172).

He distinguished himself in the most diverse literary genres: from letters to sermons, from hagiographies to prayers, from poems to epigrams. His sensitivity to beauty led him to a poetic contemplation of the world. Peter Damian conceived the universe as an inexhaustible “parable” and an extension of symbols, from which it is possible to interpret the interior life and the divine and supernatural reality. From this perspective, around the year 1034, the contemplation of God’s absoluteness compelled him to distance himself progressively from the world and its ephemeral realities, to withdraw to the monastery of Fonte Avellana, founded a few decades earlier, but already famous for its austerity. He wrote the life of the founder, St. Romuald of Ravenna, for the edification of the monks and, at the same time, dedicated himself to furthering his spirituality, expressing his ideal of eremitical monasticism.

A particularity must now be stressed: the hermitage of Fonte Avellana was dedicated to the Holy Cross, and the cross would be the Christian mystery that most fascinated Peter Damian. “He does not love Christ who does not love the cross of Christ,” he said (Sermo XVIII, 11, p. 117) and he calls himself: “Petrus crucis Christi servorum famulus” — Peter servant of the servants of the cross of Christ (Ep, 9, 1). Peter Damian addressed most beautiful prayers to the cross, in which he reveals a vision of this mystery that has cosmic dimensions, because it embraces the whole history of salvation: “O blessed cross,” he exclaimed, “you are venerated in the faith of patriarchs, the predictions of prophets, the assembly of the apostles, the victorious army of the martyrs and the multitudes of all the saints” (Sermo XLVIII, 14, p. 304).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the example of Peter Damian lead us also to always look at the cross as the supreme act of love of God for man, which has given us salvation.

For the development of the eremitical life, this great monk wrote a Rule which strongly stresses the “rigor of the hermitage”: In the silence of the cloister, the monk is called to live a life of daily and nocturnal prayer, with prolonged and austere fasts; he must exercise himself in generous fraternal charity and in an obedience to the prior that is always willing and available. In the study and daily meditation of sacred Scripture, Peter Damian discovered the mystical meaning of the Word of God, finding in it food for his spiritual life. In this connection, he called the cell of the hermitage the “salon where God converses with men.” For him, the eremitical life was the summit of Christian life; it was “at the summit of the states of life,” because the monk, free from the attachments of the world and from his own self, receives “the pledge of the Holy Spirit and his soul is happily united to the heavenly Spouse” (Ep 18, 17; cf. Ep 28, 43 ff.). This is also important for us today, even though we are not monks: To be able to be silent in ourselves to hear the voice of God, to seek, so to speak, a “salon” where God speaks to us: To learn the Word of God in prayer and meditation is the path for life.

St. Peter Damian, who basically was a man of prayer, meditation and contemplation, was also a fine theologian: His reflection on several doctrinal subjects led him to important conclusions for life. Thus, for example, he expresses with clarity and vivacity the Trinitarian doctrine. He already used, in keeping with biblical and patristic texts, the three fundamental terms that later became determinant also for the West’s philosophy: processio, relatio e persona (cf. Opusc. XXXVIII: PL CXLV, 633-642; and Opusc. II and III: ibid., 41 ff. and 58 ff.). However, as theological analysis led him to contemplate the intimate life of God and the dialogue of ineffable love between the three divine Persons, he draws from it ascetic conclusions for life in community and for the proper relations between Latin and Greek Christians, divided on this topic. Also meditation on the figure of Christ has significant practical reflections, as the whole of Scripture is centered on him. The “Jewish people themselves,” notes St. Peter Damian, “through the pages of sacred Scripture, have, one could say, carried Christ on their shoulders” (Sermo XL VI, 15). Therefore Christ, he adds, must be at the center of the monk’s life: “Christ must be heard in our language, Christ must be seen in our life, he must be perceived in our heart” (Sermo VIII, 5). Profound union with Christ should involve not only monks but all the baptized. It also implies for us an intense call not to allow ourselves to be totally absorbed by the activities, problems and preoccupations of every day, forgetting that Jesus must truly be at the center of our life.

Communion with Christ creates unity among Christians. In Letter 28, which is a brilliant treatise of ecclesiology, Peter Damian develops a theology of the Church as communion. “The Church of Christ,” he wrote, “is united by the bond of charity to the point that, as she is one in many members, she is also totally gathered mystically in just one of her members; so that the whole universal Church is rightly called the only Bride of Christ in singular, and every chosen soul, because of the sacramental mystery, is fully considered Church.” This is important: not only that the whole universal Church is united, but that in each one of us the Church in her totality should be present. Thus the service of the individual becomes “expression of universality” (Ep 28, 9-23). Yet the ideal image of the “holy Church” illustrated by Peter Damian does not correspond — he knew it well — to the reality of his time. That is why he was not afraid to denounce the corruption existing in monasteries and among the clergy, above all due to the practice of secular authorities conferring the investiture of ecclesiastical offices: Several bishops and abbots behaved as governors of their own subjects more than as pastors of souls. It is no accident that their moral life left much to be desired. Because of this, with great sorrow and sadness, in 1057 Peter Damian left the monastery and accepted, though with difficulty, the appointment of cardinal bishop of Ostia, thus entering fully in collaboration with the popes in the difficult undertaking of the reform of the Church. He saw that it was not enough to contemplate, and had to give up the beauty of contemplation to assist in the work of renewal of the Church. Thus he renounced the beauty of the hermitage and courageously undertook numerous journeys and missions.

Because of his love of monastic life, 10 years later, in 1067, he was given permission to return to Fonte Avellana, resigning from the Diocese of Ostia. However, the desired tranquility did not last long: Two years later he was sent to Frankfurt in an attempt to prevent Henry IV’s divorce from his wife, Bertha; and again two years later, in 1071, he went to Montecassino for the consecration of the abbey’s church, and, at the beginning of 1072 he went to Ravenna to establish peace with the local archbishop, who had supported the anti-pope, causing the interdict on the city. During his return journey to the hermitage, a sudden illness obliged him to stay in Faenza in the Benedictine monastery of “Santa Maria Vecchia fuori porta,” where he died on the night of Feb. 22-23, 1072.

Dear brothers and sisters, it is a great grace that in the life of the Church the Lord raised such an exuberant, rich and complex personality as that of St. Peter Damian and it is not common to find such acute and lively works of theology as those of the hermit of Fonte Avellana. He was a monk to the end, with forms of austerity that today might seem to us almost excessive. In this way, however, he made of monastic life an eloquent testimony of the primacy of God and a call to all to walk toward holiness, free from any compromise with evil. He consumed himself, with lucid consistency and great severity, for the reform of the Church of his time. He gave all his spiritual and physical energies to Christ and the Church, always remaining, as he liked to call himself, “Petrus ultimus monachorum servus,” Peter, last servant of the monks.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Pope greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on the Christian writers of East and West, we turn to Saint Peter Damian, who was born in Ravenna at the beginning of the eleventh century and became an accomplished writer and Latinist. His fine sensitivity made him excel in poetry and enabled him to see the world as a parable, full of symbolic references to the supernatural, leading him to embrace as a mature man a monastic vocation at Fonte Avellana, founded not long before. He was fascinated by the salvific mystery of the cross of Christ and promoted as the fullness of Christian living a form of monasticism noted for its austerity. Nourished by a mystical understanding of Scripture, Saint Peter Damian enjoyed precise theological insights especially into the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, our union with Christ, and the Church as a communion, from which he derived practical advice for living in charity with others. In 1057 he accepted the office of Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and assisted the Pope with courage and dedication in the reform of the Church of his time. After ten years he was granted his wish to return to his monastery and continued to serve the Church with prayer and action until his holy death in 1072. May the example and intercession of Saint Peter Damian, my dear Brothers and Sisters, inspire and renew us in our love of Christ and his Church.

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors from England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Gibraltar, Japan and the United States. Upon all of you I cordially invoke the Lord’s abundant blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2009 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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 31.

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 …
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 … – Cached – Similar –

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.”

(For the complete text of this letter, go to:,+vice&source=bl&ots=RNdJKyGgGd&sig=jlhBwTJNxz79ZYNvkDnfHO7LYrk&hl=en&ei=gnGoSvqNNKmwtgeimaiaCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9#v=onepage&q=peter%20damian%2C%20vice&f=false)

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. 869ff.)

“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

Facebook Comments