Saint Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church

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St. Peter Damian, born in 988, was the youngest of a large family; his parents were noble, but poor. At his birth an elder brother protested against this new charge on the resources of the family with such effect that his mother refused to suckle him and the babe nearly died. A family retainer, however, fed the starving child and by example and reproaches recalled his mother to her duty. Left an orphan in early years, he was at first adopted by an elder brother, who ill-treated and under-fed him while employing him as a swineherd. Finally, his other brother, who was archpriest of Ravenna, took him under his wing. His brother sent him to good schools and Peter became a professor.

Already in those days Peter was very strict with himself. He wore a hair shirt under his clothes, fasted rigorously and spent many hours in prayer. Soon, he decided to leave his teaching and give himself completely to prayer with the Benedictines of the reform of St. Romuald at Fonte Avellana. They lived two monks to a hermitage. Peter was so eager to pray and slept so little that he soon suffered from severe insomnia. He found he had to use some prudence in taking care of himself. When he was not praying, he studied the Bible.

The abbot commanded that when he died Peter should succeed him. Abbot Peter founded five other hermitages. He encouraged his brothers in a life of prayer and solitude and wanted nothing more for himself. The Holy See periodically called on him, however, to be a peacemaker or troubleshooter, between two abbeys in dispute or a cleric or government official in some disagreement with Rome.

Finally, Pope Stephen IX made Peter the cardinal-bishop of Ostia. He worked hard to wipe out simony (the buying of church offices), and encouraged his priests to observe celibacy and urged even the diocesan clergy to live together and maintain scheduled prayer and religious observance.

He wished to restore primitive discipline among religious and priests, warning against needless travel, violations of poverty and too comfortable living. He even wrote to the bishop of Besancon, complaining that the canons there sat down when they were singing the psalms in the Divine Office.

He wrote many letters. Some 170 are extant. We also have 53 of his sermons and seven lives, or biographies, that he wrote. He preferred examples and stories rather than theory in his writings. The liturgical offices he wrote are evidence of his talent as a stylist in Latin.

He asked often to be allowed to retire as cardinal-bishop of Ostia, and finally Alexander II consented. Peter was happy to become once again just a monk, but he was still called to serve as a papal legate. When returning from such an assignment in Ravenna, he was overcome by a fever. With the monks gathered around him saying the Divine Office, he died on February 22, 1072. In 1828 he was declared a Doctor of the Church.

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  1. Complaints from Damian about the church’s unwillingness to confront the sexual behavior of the clergy, however, met with inaction. In 1049 Damian wrote to Pope Leo IX (1048-54) about the cancer of sexual abuse that was spreading through the church: boys and adolescents were being forced and seduced into performing acts of sodomy by priests and bishops; there were problems with sexual harassment among higher clergy; and many members of the clergy were keeping concubines.

    Peter Damian warned the pope that bishops were contributing to the growth of the problem by their failure to enforce church discipline. Members of the clergy who sexually abused others demonstrated by their actions that they had no fear of God, Damian argued. Such men were afraid only of being despised by the people and of losing their positions; they would do anything to avoid being stripped of their clerical status and identity. Knowing that their bishop would not remove them from their office and ministry gave such men license to continue in their wickedness. Thus in failing to discipline abusive members of the clergy, the bishops stood as guilty as the men who committed the crimes.

    Convinced that it was the lack of episcopal leadership that was causing the sexual abuse scandal in his day, Damian offered this admonition:

    Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin. Listen, I say, and be shrewd enough to understand that all of you alike are deserving of death, that is, not only those who do such things, but also they who approve those who practice them (Rom 1:32).

    • Drawing on the model that the bishop or priest is married to the church, Damian accused both those who sexually abused the people under their care and those who allowed such abuse to take place with the crime of spiritual incest. But whereas biological parents who committed incest were subject in the Middle Ages to excommunication and exile, Damian felt that bishops who betrayed their spiritual children deserved a harsher penalty. Their betrayal ran deeper.

      Unfortunately, Pope Leo IX disagreed with Peter Damian’s analysis of the problem of clerical sexual abuse. He was willing to punish clerics who committed acts of anal intercourse with boys and adolescents, but he minimized the punishment of clerics who performed other sexual acts with children and adults of both sexes.

      Shortly after the election of Pope Nicholas II (1058-61), Damian called attention to the issue again. His complaint to the new pope has a modern sound: Indeed, in our day the genuine custom of the Roman Church seems to be observed in this way, that regarding other practices of ecclesiastical discipline, a proper investigation is held; but a prudent silence is maintained concerning clerical sexuality for fear of insults from the laity. Damian urged the pope to bring the issue out into the open and to punish both the sexual offenders and the bishops who failed in their duty to punish and to depose sexual predators. He complained that occasionally priests were disciplined, but with bishops we pay our reverence with silent tolerance, which is totally absurd.

      According to Damian, punishing those who hold positions of authority and oversight is the only way to restore credibility in times of scandal. Damian recounted the story of the Old Testament priest Phinehas. Finding one of the most prominent Israelite chiefs having sex with a Midianite prostitute, Phinehas exposed the pair to the people as they were having sex and skewered them with a spear. By this action Phinehas imitated God’s justice and sent the message that the laws would be enforced.

      Damian notes that most of the Israelite men around Phinehas were consorting with prostitutes. Yet Phinehas struck down only the most powerful and socially prominent offenders. The conclusion to be drawn is that the powerful should be held to a higher standard. Thus in Nm 25:4, when Eli failed to punish his son, God struck him down. His inaction brought the priesthood into disrepute. Likewise, Damian asserted, when the magisterial hierarchy fails to enforce discipline, they undermine the legitimacy of the ecclesiastical office.

      Eli was stripped of his power, privileges and wealth. Damian believed the bishops should also lose the trappings of episcopal office. He predicted that God’s agents for stripping the bishops of the wealth and privileges they had taken for granted would be the laity. The laity had granted the clergy temporal authority and wealth; so when the clergy failed in their spiritual mission, it was the laity that had the duty to take these things back, in collaboration with reformers in the clergy and religious orders.

      Women held the lowest place in the church during the 11th century, but Damian believed that they too had a duty to correct the clergy. Their inclusion by him in the process of reforming even the highest members of the clergy illustrates Damian’s view that all in the church have the duty to correct their superiors publicly when they see serious sin or deviations from tradition. Virtue and power were not determined by a person’s sex. Rather, virtue is a gift from God.

      So in 1064 Damian wrote to Duchess Adelaide of Turin, urging her to use her political power to address problems related to clerical sexual abuse. Using language that may seem offensive to us, he praised God for making Adelaide as strong as a man and drew upon a host of biblical citations, including the examples of Deborah, Jael, Judith, Esther, Abigail and other women who corrected and punished weak, evil or fearful men, to justify her action in reforming the male members of the clergy. The scriptural stories proved that God sometimes chooses women to be instruments of a more glorious triumph.

      At the very least, Damian’s story calls into question the practice of covering up sins as a means to avoid scandal. It also provides a road map for church leaders to recover credibility by disciplining the bishops who have enabled sexual predators to damage the most vulnerable members of the people of God. And if the magisterial hierarchy proves unable to reform itself on these matters, St. Peter Damian offers a Catholic model of collaborative reform that includes the laity, religious, deacons and priests. Most important, his story shows that we have overcome sexual abuse scandals in the past by upholding faithfulness to our tradition and maintaining vigilance against corruption.

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