Laity for Moral Reform in the Catholic Church

St. Peter Damian Letter No. 95: A Commentary

Posted: 2023-02-18

In his 95th letter, St. Peter Damian is addressing Desiderius, the abbot of the abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy. This is, in fact, only the most recent of multiple letters that Peter has written to Desiderius, and the abbott has not answered any of them.

We might here relate this to our own situation in the broader Church. For, as we have seen, the church hierarchy has been addressed multiple times on the issue of clerical sexual abuse. Yet, based on even the most recent news reports, it is clear that the message has not provoked a sufficient response.

So we might conclude what Peter concludes: that a sharper message is needed to provoke an answer to our message. In the resulting letter, Peter decides to start accosting Desiderius, by calling attention to his faults and reminding him to remain vigilant against sin. Desiderius gives no indication of being a particularly bad person, and seems by all accounts to have been a faithful, pious abbot. So, then, if Peter feels the need to be sharp with him, how much more do certain Church leaders of our own time demand a harsh response, when they have been negligent in their stewardship of Christ’s own Church?

Peter says that Desiderius should not “pay too much attention to the virtue you may possess and thus neglect passing judgment on the vices that you have disregarded.” Desiderius, says Peter, should not resent “zealous fraternal reproof,” but should eagerly welcome the correction of a brother.

How much more than the pious Desiderius do some Princes of the Church today need to hear these words! They have failed to reform the Church, failed to cleanse it of the stain of sexual abuse, failed to hold their fellow bishops and cardinals accountable when they commit great evils of this nature. They, then, are in dire need of reproof.

However, Peter cautions: do not press too far in correction, lest in giving correction you sin yourself. He says, “Be careful not to become hardhearted in applying discipline excessively, and allow unbridled zeal to turn into anger, lest by removing the stains of guilt, you break the fragile vessel.” Rather, even when offering reproof and giving correction to people, Peter advises Desiderius–and reminds himself–that it must be done with an aim of helping and assisting, not cruelly destroying.

This, then, contains a warning for us, we would-be reformers of the Church. For, as Peter says, we may in our zeal for correcting the hierarchy go too far, and commit sins ourselves. We must not treat these men as devils; them especially, since they are “the Lord’s anointed,” whom even King David feared to harm. We must offer them reproof, but not in hatred; for that does no good, and may do great harm instead.

Peter goes on to say that one should “never disparage those who are absent, but properly confront them as the situation warrants.” This becomes Peter’s warning against gossip and slander. The reproof must be offered, but it must be offered openly and honestly, directly to the person guilty of fault. It should not be slyly whispered in the company of others when the person is absent, for such a thing is gossip, and it is sinful. As Peter says, “We are commanded to hedge in our ears by thorns against a wicked tongue, that by the sting of our prickly response we might restrain those who engage in detraction.”

What is this in our present time, if not a call for reformers to be honest, open, and transparent? If we are to confront members of the hierarchy for their failures and sins, we must do so honestly and openly, and do so in a way that invites no accusation of slander and gossip. We need not invent crimes and rumors of crimes; the known actions are themselves sufficient to invite reproof. Nor should we gossip and slander; we should not spread rumors clandestinely, nor should we speak of things we cannot verify as true. The leaders of the Church are public figures, so much about them is already known, and more is often brought to light. Let us restrict ourselves to commenting on this, on what is known, and not any unsubstantiated rumors that come from gossip or social media. What reproof we offer to the stewards of the Church, we must do so directly to them, and we must do so in a way that is open and honest. Honesty and transparency have been lacking from the Church in these crimes of sexual abuse. We must, in our attempt to reform the Church, act in the opposite manner. We must be clear, open, and honest in all that we say and do, and we must confront those we accuse boldly and plainly, rather than gossiping in secret.

Peter concludes with some advice for Desiderius on how he might remove himself from the faults to which Peter called attention. Namely: that he fast, and that as a priest he celebrate the Mass more often. Peter says that Desiderius should “Love fasting, so that by afflicting your body with deprivation, your soul may be fed with a wealth of heavenly grace.” And also, “make every effort at frequently offering the salutary sacrifice of the Mass,” so that the Serpent, the Devil, may be seized with terror as he beholds “your lips reddened with the blood of Christ,” and he will flee from your midst, for he will “not dare come closer to the mystery by which it was taken captive.”

These are salutary pieces of advice for our own time, and our own situation. For we must fast, and all the hierarchy should fast, too. The Saint Peter Damian Society’s Wednesday penance is a mark of what is needed: for us to deprive ourselves, and sacrifice of ourselves, to make reparations for the sins those within the Church have committed. And we must put our trust in the Mass, and in the Eucharist. For the Mass was given to the Church by Christ, and Christ gives us His Body and His Blood. They are a promise, a declaration that for all its sins and all its crimes God will never leave the Church abandoned. The Mass will remind us of this; it will fill us all over again with love for the Church, and the Bread of Angels which we imbibe, the Blood of God which we consume, will give us strength to continue on our mission of reform. Let this be a thing we do, and a thing all the Church needs to do. And let us not cease to remind our leaders that these things must be done.