St. Peter Damian, Bishop and Doctor, Pray For Us
SAINTS & ART: St. Peter Damian sounds like a rather modern saint, relevant to our times, even if his criticisms hit close to home today.
If you read his biography, you see that St. Peter Damian was a great reformer of the 11th-century Church and its clergy. But if you wonder why we rarely hear about him, perhaps it’s because he strikes a nerve that bothers contemporaries. St. Peter Damian’s great book was the Liber Gomorrhianus, in which he excoriated sexual sins, especially homosexual activity, among the clergy. Mathew C. Hoffman translated it into modern English in 2015, available here. Yes, St. Peter Damian is not particularly comfortable for today’s moderns, especially those intent on overthrowing Catholic sexual ethics. Even his book’s title is uncomfortable to those who want to rewrite Scripture to deny Sodom had anything to do with sodomy.
Born in 1007 at Ravenna, in eastern Italy, St. Peter Damian died in 1072. He lived in the waning years of the “Dark Ages,” another misnomer that mischaracterized the Christian culture that was succeeding the fallen Western Roman Empire. If you want a fair historical look at that era, Philip Campbell’s 2021 book, The Church and the Dark Ages, is the place to go.
Peter was born into a titled but poor family that appears to have neglected him. A brother, Damian, who was a well-situated priest eventually took pity on him, adopted him, and gave him an education. In return, Peter apparently added his brother’s name to his own. Attracted to the religious life, St. Peter Damian eventually took the habit of a now-defunct order of hermits. Personally excelling in the spiritual and academic lives, Peter Damian eventually became a lecturer to his fellow hermits and, later, their superior.
Anyone familiar with the turn of the second millennium knows that the Church needed reform in its monasteries and among its clergy. Spiritual discipline had broken down, ecclesiastical careerism was rife, nepotism and simony (the buying and selling of Church offices and services) real. The turn of the millennium launched several major reform movements in monastic life. St. Peter Damian contributed to that effort by writing and publishing his Book of Gomorrah, dedicated to Pope St. Leo IX, a reformer pope. And while the Church is often grateful for the work of her reformers (usually somewhat after the fact), her leaders often don’t like people exposing the skeletons in the closet. The same was true of St. Peter Damian who, while Leo IX initially received the Liber Gomorrhianus favorably, was later talked into believing that the abuses it catalogued were exaggerated into some “massive, massive crisis” (plus ça change), requiring pushback from Peter as to their depraved reality.
The depths of ecclesiastical rot were such that, from the publication of Liber around 1051 until the Saint’s death roughly 20 years later, of the five men elected to the papacy during those years, two had to contest with antipopes. St. Peter Damian was actively involved in efforts to heal those schisms. He sought to settle ecclesiastical divisions in Italy, France and Germany, including convincing a German king (Henry) from repudiating his wife. That king was the same Henry who, some years later, was excommunicated by the Pope and repudiated by his fellow German princes for his role in the investiture controversy, an ongoing effort by state authorities in Europe to take control of the naming and/or installation of bishops over and against the Pope. Henry was forced to cross the Alps to seek papal forgiveness at Canossa. Bertha accompanied him.
Peter Damian eventually died after a mission to reconcile Ravenna to the Church. He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XII in 1823. He is often depicted in art with papal documents, indicative of his multiple services as a legate on the Pope’s behalf. He was created a cardinal bishop, after much resistance on his part, in 1057. Is it not fitting he died on the eve of the Feast of the Chair of Peter, which celebrates God’s gift of the papacy?
Attacking clerical sexual abuse and graft, defending the papacy against local churches, defending the Pope’s prerogative to name bishops free of state interference, defending marriage … St. Peter Damian sounds like a rather modern saint, relevant to our times, even if his criticisms hit close to home today. Some might despair that the Church at the beginning of the third millennium looks a lot like it did at the beginning of the second. But she still exists. In that it was, I think, Boccaccio who accurately (if perhaps cynically) noted that for the Church to perdure all these centuries despite what men do to it speaks strongly — despite those flaws — for its origins from God.
In the arts, Dante included Peter Damian in heaven (Paradiso, Canto 21). Our depiction of St. Peter Damian in art comes from the 18th-century painter, Andrea Barbiani (1708-1779). Given that Barbiani’s professional life was mostly in the Ravenna area, it should not surprise us he painted one of the city’s most distinguished sons. Indeed, to the degree you find paintings of Peter Damian, it’s likely to be this one of Barbiani’s, dating from around 1776.
Peter Damian is depicted post-1057, i.e., after his episcopal consecration. To his right, on the floor, are his bishop’s miter and his cardinal’s galero. Numerous books line the shelves on Damian’s left, one lies on the floor next to his episcopal headgear. As my painting is not that detailed, I cannot identify what books they are or whether any are by Peter Damian himself. (He wrote several.) He is seen busy writing, though he clearly looks to heaven for inspiration in what he has to say, the open heavens on the painting’s upper left indicative of that inspiration. He is clearly seen as putting his intellectual skills to the Church’s service.
Some have tried to dismiss Peter Damian as anti-intellectual. They note he was not particularly receptive to philosophy and was known to have said that the Devil was the first grammarian, because he taught Adam and Eve to decline Deus (God) in the plural (see Genesis 3:5). That characterization is unfair. Peter was no intellectual slouch, but he also recognized the pride that education — especially worldly education — can engender in people. Thomas à Kempis captures that danger of spirit well in his Imitation of Christ when he advises (Chapter 2), “Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed, a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars.”