In the Gospels, Jesus frequently rebukes his disciples for thinking as their contemporaries do and not as God does. Additionally, He rebukes them for their seeking of titles, places of honor, and ranking themselves as the greatest in comparison to one another. The pastoral epistles describe the qualities that presbyters and bishop should have. They are to be men of irreproachable and impeccable character and neither lovers of money nor heavy drinkers (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:5-9). They should not ordain unworthy men, lest they be an accomplice in that person’s sins. They are to keep themselves pure (1 Tim 5:22). Christ’s correction of his shepherds is needed again today.
A cardinal bishop of Ostia in Italy wrote a letter to the pope about a “certain abominable and terribly shameful vice” that is present in that region. “Alas! it is shameful to speak of, shameful to suggest such foul disgrace to sacred ears! . . . Vice against nature creeps in like a cancer and even touches the order of consecrated men. Sometimes it rages like a bloodthirsty beast in the midst of the sheepfold of Christ with such bold freedom.” The cardinal judges this “unbridled wickedness” to be the subjection of the clergy to “the iron rule of diabolical tyranny under the cover of religion.” He addresses the clergy themselves, “O guilty, carnal men, why do you desire the height of ecclesiastical dignity with so much burning ambition? Why is it that you try with such desire to ensnare the people of God in the bonds of your own ruin?” He specifically lists among the clerical behaviors the sins of masturbation, mutual masturbation, femoral fornication, and sodomy.
Surprisingly, this is not a recent letter about today’s clergy abuse of minors and clergy sexual sins with one another, rather it is from St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) to Pope St. Leo IX around the year 1050 about clergy homosexual activity in his day. The need for reform and conversion of the clergy is not something new. In this essay, I will not address directly the clergy abuse of minors but instead the sinful behavior of clergy in terms of the passions and vices of lust, greed, and ambition.
Peter Damian’s letter to Leo IX sounds all too contemporary. On August 11, 2018, the Boston Herald reported that Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, had placed seminary rector Msgr. James P. Moroney on administrative leave while an independent investigation looked into two former seminarians’ claims about alcohol abuse and clandestine homosexual behavior among seminarians and the faculty’s grooming homosexual seminarians with gifts.
This follows on the heels of the notorious case from this summer: the sexual sins of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who was removed from the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis. On July 16, 2018, the New York Times published a front-page story of two priests in the Diocese of Metuchen who claimed that then Bishop McCarrick had sexually abused them when they were seminarians. Archbishop McCarrick had been removed from ministry in June 2018 following the Archdiocese of New York’s deeming credible an accusation that McCarrick had molested a 16-year-old altar boy nearly 50 years ago. The Times article continued with clergy sexual activities familiarly reminiscent of Peter Damian’s concerns one thousand years earlier: “Between 1994 and 2008, multiple reports about the cardinal’s transgressions with adult seminary students were made to American bishops, the pope’s representative in Washington and, finally, Pope Benedict XVI . . . All the while, Cardinal McCarrick played a prominent role publicizing the church’s new zero-tolerance policy against abusing children.”
This past summer, the light of truth was able to shine into the formerly rock-covered dark recesses of criminal and sinful clergy sexual activity with minors and amongst themselves. Others have tried to bring light into the darkness, such as Richard Sipe—former Benedictine monk who left religious life and priesthood in 1970 for marriage. Sipe was a psychotherapist for decades serving at major Catholic seminaries dealing with clergy and seminarian sexual behavior. He has published extensively on his discoveries: one confessor encouraged a seminarian (later a priest himself incarcerated for sexual involvement with a minor) to have a sexual friendship with a priest in order to develop his social skills; rectors of seminaries—some exemplary but some sexually active with women for whom they were confessors while several others were homosexually active with seminarians; seminary faculty tolerant of seminarian homosexual activity such as mutual masturbation as necessary phases of development toward psychosexual maturity.
Many Catholics are rightly angry at the clergy scandal and also question remaining in the Church. Concerning the latter, remaining in the Catholic Church in the midst of grave scandal is an act of faith, hope, and love in God who calls us to share in his friendship and even divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Our faith is in Christ who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). Would St. Peter abandon Christ and the Church because of the sin and betrayal of Judas?
A Protestant friend of mine has always been skeptical of the Church because of its scandalously sinful leaders, including numerous popes. Catholic sensibilities know of this sinful reality but more so of the divine guidance of the Church. The Church has been blessed with a century and more of good popes, but this has not always been the case. The scandal today is specifically of sinful leadership of bishops. Because the scale of time and place prevents looking at the history of bishops across the universal Church, let us just look at the bishop of Rome over the centuries.
For those remotely familiar with the history of the papacy, one will think of the Renaissance popes as the exemplars of corruption and immorality. Many consider Alexander VI (1492-1503) the most notorious vicar of Christ and successor to Peter for his nepotism and lust. He was the nephew of Pope Callistus III (1455-1458) and named a cardinal at age 25. He lived an openly promiscuous life fathering several children before being elected pope. He appointed as cardinals his eighteen year old son as well as the brother of his mistress. Julius II (1503-1513) was elected pope through his bribery and false promises. The nephew of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), Julius was named a bishop and cardinal at the age of eighteen. As a cardinal, he fathered three daughters. As pope, he led the papal army into battle and catastrophically decided to finance the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica by the selling of indulgences.
Even more debased than the Renaissance papacy was the Carolingian papacy which lasted from roughly A.D. 800-1048. The bad fruits of this evil tree were simony, nepotism, concubinage, and murder. Boniface VI (896) was elected pope after having been twice removed from the clerical state for immoral behavior. Sergius III (904-911) was responsible for the murder of his predecessor, Leo V, and Leo’s anti-pope rival, Christopher. Both were strangled to death in prison. Sergius benefitted from the support of various noble families. With the fifteen year old daughter of one close family, Sergius was (ill)-reputed to have fathered a son who himself became Pope John XI (931-936). John XII (955-864) allegedly died of a stroke at the age of 28 in the bed of a married woman.
Reform of the corruption of the Carolingian papacy began with two German popes (1049-1057), starting with St. Leo IX to whom Peter Damian addressed the letter referenced above. In 1073, the reforming monk Cardinal Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII who initiated the Gregorian Reform. Peter Damian was considered the soul of that reform. In his humility and relationship to Christ, he called himself the “sinner monk.” Ever wanting to be a simple hermit, Peter took seriously the Benedictine Rule to “prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” His love of Christ compelled him to respond to the dire needs of the time and pour himself out to reform the Body of Christ. He vehemently abhorred the lives of corrupt priests and fiercely criticized the evils of his day.
The Old Testament prophets were the conscience of the people of Israel, so caught up in the love of God that they boldly spoke the truth about the dignity of the human person to those who were abusing it. Peter Damian was known as the moral conscience of Italy as he acted to reform the papacy and free it from its entanglements with the Roman aristocracy. Peter knew unflinchingly that no one is above the Gospel. Woe to those entrusted with the Gospel who subvert it and make it an instrument to serve their own sinful passions of lust, greed, and ambition.
“Ah! Those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness to light, and light into darkness, who change bitter to sweet, and sweet into bitter! Ah! Those who are wise in their own eyes, prudent in their own view! Ah! Those who are champions at drinking wine, masters at mixing drink! Those who acquit the guilty for bribes, and deprive the innocent of justice!
Therefore, as the tongue of fire licks up stubble, as dry grass shrivels in the flame, Their root shall rot and their blossom scatter like dust; For they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of hosts, and scorned the word of the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 5:20-24).
The hierarchy of the Church again needs reform. All the baptized must exercise the prophetic office of their baptism and proclaim the Gospel to the bishops who are never above the Gospel but its servant. St. Peter Damian, pray for us.