When the eremitic monk and reformer Peter Damian cast his critical gaze upon the Catholic Church of the mid-eleventh century, he encountered a panorama of corruption that would have appeared daunting even to the most hardened observer of the modern ecclesiastical scene. The “household of God” was in a catastrophic state of moral disorder, admitting of no easy remedy. The crisis of the period, and Damian’s heroic response, offers much of historical value to us as we confront our own explosion of clerical vice and doctrinal infidelity.
The Church of Damian’s time had been rocked by almost two centuries of political and social chaos, and the doctrinal ignorance, scandalous personal behavior, and petty venality of the clergy had reached intolerable levels. Bishops and priests were involved in every kind of immorality, publicly living with concubines or illicit wives, or furtively engaging in homosexual practices. Many had purchased their ordinations and the lucrative benefices that accompanied them, and spent their free time in scandalous secular amusements. An outraged laity was beginning to rise up against ecclesiastical authority, sometimes in riotous outbursts of violence that threatened the civil order.
The pinnacle of the crisis was reached in the year 1032 with the election of Pope Benedict IX, a raucous and libertine youth of no more than twenty-two years of age, and the latest and worst in a long succession of compromised popes who served wealthy and powerful secular patrons. Mercifully, few details of Benedict’s personal behavior have been preserved in historical accounts, but the pope’s “vile and contemptible life,” his “rapine, murders, and other nefarious deeds,” and his “depraved and perverse acts,” in the words of the future Pope Victor III, were widely known in his day.
Read more at Catholic World Report.
A modern translation of St. Peter Damian’s book is available here.