Interview to Matthew Hoffman–( by Michela Beatrice Ferri and Matthew Hoffman )
The Book of Gomorrah – San Pier Damiani
The new and most complete English Edition and Translation of the book
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman’s award-winning articles have appeared hundreds of times in dozens of major newspapers, magazines, and news services, including the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Detroit News, LifeSite News, Catholic World Report, and the National Catholic Register. He has been a Latin America correspondent with LifeSite News since 2007, and oversaw the creation and initial direction of Notifam, LSN’s Spanish and Portuguese language service. He is currently a graduate student at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, where he is certified for proficiency in Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian
- Matthew Hoffman, may I ask you when and in what circumstances did you decide to start this accurate work of translation of St. Peter Damian’s “Book of Gomorrah”?
As a Catholic journalist specializing in life and family news I am very interested in understanding and communicating the Catholic Church’s traditional doctrine regarding homosexuality, which has become a major social issue throughout the Western world in recent years. In May of 2013, while doing research on the topic, I happened to discover a reference to St. Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah, and after doing a bit more searching I soon realized that this largely forgotten work is of great historical significance in the Church’s ongoing struggle against the vice of sodomy among the clergy. I also discovered that no truly accurate translation of the Book of Gomorrah existed in English. I quickly concluded that a proper translation and presentation of the work to modern Catholic readers could contribute to a renewed awareness of the Church’s doctrines on sexual morality and particularly the gravity of sexual perversion, which has been minimized by many Catholic prelates in reaction to the pressure politics of the well-financed homosexual lobby in the United States and Europe.
When I began translating the work my goal was to produce an English version that could be easily accessible on line, one that I estimated would require only about five weeks to finish. I soon realized, however, that Peter Damian’s difficult Latin would require much more time to translate, and that extensive annotation would have to be supplied to the reader to clarify the text for modern readers. I also learned that Damian’s Book of Gomorrah was only one of many books and letters that Damian had written in response to a terrible crisis of moral corruption in the 11the century Church, one that parallels our own situation in many ways; I therefore decided that the translation should also include an introduction detailing the saint’s struggle against ecclesiastical corruption. So what began as a five-week project ultimately took well over two years to complete!
- What, precisely, is the topic of the Book of Gomorrah, and why did St. Peter Damian write it?
St. Peter Damian wrote the Book of Gomorrah in response to a very grave crisis afflicting the Catholic Church in the decade of the 1040s, and that was the growing prevalence of the vice of sodomy among clerics and particularly monks. As a monastic reformer who was constantly visiting the monasteries of Italy, Damian had become aware of the problem and was determined to fight it, despite the persecution he would inevitably suffer. He wrote his work (which became known as the “Book of Gomorrah” in later centuries) as a letter to Pope St. Leo IX, who praised it very highly.
The Book of Gomorrah is an impassioned critique of the evil of sodomy and particularly its destructive effect on the priesthood. It should be noted that for Damian “sodomy” includes any unnatural sexual practice, and therefore refers not only to homosexual relations but also to contraception, self-abuse, and even bestiality. Damian’s principal argument is that those who are habituated to any form of sodomy should not be ordained as priests, and that those who have been ordained should be removed from the priesthood. In support of this thesis he presents evidence from Scripture, the Church Fathers, and canon law. He also enters into a long discourse regarding the terrible effects of sexual perversion on the soul of the perpetrator, as well as the harm done to the Church when morally unworthy ministers offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
- In the foreword to your work, Juan Cardinal Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Guadalajara, begins with this sentence: “Saint Peter Damian (1007–1072) is the author of the Book of Gomorrah, which he dedicated to Pope Leo IX. In it he bluntly exposes and energetically condemns the immoral conduct of many Catholics of his time.” Could you explain the circumstances of the time in which Peter Damian lived and the sort of behaviour that led him to compose this book?
Peter Damian was born in the final years of a long period of decline and corruption in the Catholic Church that had begun with the disintegration of the Frankish empire in 887. The papacy had become a battleground for competing political factions in Italy that wished to crown their own candidates with the imperial title. Moreover, the violent incursions of Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars had devastated Western Europe and the disorder had caused a catastrophic decline in morality among the clergy. Priests and bishops regularly purchased the right to their offices from secular rulers, and often lived with illicit wives or even concubines. The papacy was politicized and made the object of manipulation by secular powers, and a number of them caused great scandal by their personal corruption and politically-motivated behavior.
The Book of Gomorrah was only one of many works Damian wrote against this terrible plague of corruption. He was an indefatigable letter-writer who sought to influence popes, bishops, and secular rulers in an unremitting campaign to restore the Church from its fallen state. Although Damian was viciously attacked by his numerous enemies among the clergy he never relented in his fight, and was ultimately raised to the second highest place in the Church of Rome, below only the pope himself. He became the pope’s representative in various embassies to dioceses suffering from corruption and inner conflict, and his interventions were generally very effective. His example of courage and principle as well as his personal purity of life were powerful symbols in a time of almost universal cynicism and moral despair. My introduction to the Book of Gomorrah gives many details regarding Damian’s struggle against corruption in the Church.
- In what language was the Book of Gomorrahwritten, and what sorts of difficulties did you encounter during the translation?
The Book of Gomorrah was written in the language that was used for virtually all writing of an elevated or substantial nature, namely Latin. However, Peter Damian’s Latinity was superior to that of most of his peers, as he had been trained in some of Italy’s best liberal arts schools where the Latin classics were emphasized. His Latinity is therefore of the highest grade among Medieval writers and employs a very extensive vocabulary. I can say that was challenged to the limits of my abilities as a translator of Latin and the project definitely improved my understanding of the nuances of Latin idiom.
I was also challenged by the need to provide extensive annotation explaining aspects of the text that might be difficult to understand for the modern reader. This drove me to do much research on the work and many of Damian’s quotations and references, and in the process I was able to solve some mysteries regarding the text. I was also able to refute a recent theory, which is totally false, that the Book of Gomorrah was somehow rejected by Pope St. Leo IX. In fact, Leo praised the book and imposed an even more severe regime of punishment for sodomy than Damian had suggested.
- Matthew Hoffman, why does the Book of Gomorrahremain so “fresh” for us and so interesting, a work that we can consider “new”, and not old?
Although the Book of Gomorrah was written almost a thousand years ago, it addresses problems that are hauntingly familiar to the modern Church. Damian was facing a generalized crisis regarding the morality of the clergy, which had compromised itself by lowering its standards to conform to the world, rather than functioning as a “sign of contradiction” in its imitation of Christ. The homosexuality that was running rampant often involved priests exploiting sexually vulnerable youth whom they had baptized or absolved in penance, and in this context Damian quotes a medieval law that requires the permanent imprisonment of clerics who even are caught in any attempt to seduce minors. If only such advice had been followed in the last 50 years!
Damian’s denunciation of sodomy is vigorous and impassioned, but he also expresses a deep compassion for those who have fallen into such vices, and offers them strong words of encouragement, reminding them that they may rise to even higher levels of spiritual advancement if they repent and do penance for their sins. So Damian does not see those who are addicted to sexual immorality as beyond redemption, but rather as wounded souls in need of the painful but healing medicine of confession and penitential expiation. This work, therefore, is not only one of indignant denunciation of evil, but also of hope.