A 21st-century Catholic grassroots movement to reform the Church has found its champion in an 11th-century saint, St. Peter Damian, who rallied the laity and clergy of his time to fight the scourge of abuse rooted in a toleration of sexual immorality among the clergy.

The St. Peter Damian Society formed in August after two revelations from the summer: first, the allegations that the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, had abused a minor during his time as a priest in New York and was known to have sexually harassed seminarians and priests for decades; second, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report which claimed that in one state alone, at least a thousand children allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of 300 priests, and were systematically denied justice by their bishops.

Jonathan Carp, general director of the newly established “Damianites,” told Angelus News that many Catholics were aghast at how often bishops and chanceries resorted to “bureaucratic legalese,” acting no better than corporations caught in scandal, rather than followers of Jesus Christ filled with sorrow, penance, and righteous anger.

“The problem of the Church’s response is that it is not been Catholic enough,” Carp said. The movement that started to come together through social media found “an obvious choice” for their patron in this Doctor of the Church.

The Damianites are calling for the hierarchy to restore widespread public and private penance, publicly excommunicate sexual abusers and their enablers in the Church, and restore the Church’s “rite of degradation” that publicly strip shepherds who preyed on their sheep or turned a blind eye to be stripped of their offices before the congregation of the faithful.

The group is demanding the Vatican reform its disciplinary powers and amend the “Pontifical Secret,” so the Church’s confidentiality rules are not used to stymie abuse investigations and the public administration of the Church’s justice.

“These are public crimes, and public crimes deserve public punishment,” Carp said. The scandalous failure of justice and systematic betrayal of the victims, he added, was driving devout Catholics out of the Church.

The Damianites also are calling for audits of the Church’s records on sex abuse, with lay oversight, including a full account of the men, women, and children victimized by clergy, along with who made these decisions between the chancery and the Vatican, and what happened to the Church’s resources.

They have called on the Church’s leaders to hand over accused clergy to the civil authorities, and for well-intentioned civil authorities to investigate.

The Damianites have established a presence on Twitter (@Damianites), built a coordinating website, and gathered a thousand people on their email list — a project put together entirely by volunteers without financial patrons, explained Carp.

They have an established chapter in Dallas, with more being established in Seattle, Chicago, and California as the grassroots movement grows.

“One of the things we advocate for is doing what you can in your station of life,” said Anthony Mazur, the group’s media relations coordinator. Every member is expected at a minimum to pray, fast and do penance, particularly on Wednesdays, for the good of the Church. Mazur explained interior conversion is a prerequisite for each person to listen to what more Jesus Christ asks of them in reforming his Church.

“We have to turn to Christ for this problem to be fixed,” he said.

Who was St. Peter Damian?

Professor C. Colt Anderson, a St. Peter Damian scholar and Church history expert at Fordham University in New York, told Angelus News the Church’s corruption in the 11th century was far more advanced than the 21st century, from the standpoint that there were no newspapers and mass media to uncover such crimes and raise them to a widespread audience.

Born in 1007, St. Peter Damian studied theology and canon law in Ravenna until the sexual corruption of the Church there made him seek a monastery. He wrote widely-circulated letters and sermons condemning the rampant sexual abuse of men, women, and children within the Church, and the failures of the Pope and bishops to punish clerical misconduct. He became a cardinal bishop of Ostia in 1057, and reformed the papacy, eventually returning to monastic life and dying in 1072.

Anderson said both periods share factors that contribute to a widespread crisis within the Church: systematic tolerance of sexual misconduct in the clergy, and laxity in applying existing canon law.

The disregard for clerical celibacy within the hierarchy created an environment for women, girls, men, and boys to fall victim to abusers, with bishops looking the other way.

Damian taught clearly clergy could not have relations with any of the faithful who looked to them as spiritual father, or with clergy of different rank.

“He saw the betrayal the same as incest,” Anderson said.

Damian taught bishops, clergy, or religious who sexually abused their spiritual children, had to be publicly tried, excommunicated, removed from office, and confined to supervised prayer and penance in a monastery, along with their enablers.

He taught that those who enable this crime of  “spiritual incest” must share in the same punishment as an example to the local and universal Church.

Saint Peter Damian, 18th century, by Andrea Barbiani. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Laity hold bishops accountable

Anderson said the sex abuse crises of the 21st century and the 11th century have a common problem: The bishops and papacy were not enforcing the Church’s laws, and were not subjecting themselves to the laws and penalties laid down for clergy. Furthermore, Anderson said, “there was not an effective mechanism to discipline bishops.”

Damian held the laity were indispensible to holding bishops and the pope accountable, Anderson added, and in the current crisis, “He would call for the lay people to get involved.”

Anderson’s scholarship has showed Damian believed the bishops and clergy only legitimately exercised power over the faithful as “magisterium,” as magistrates or civil servants authorized to carry out only the commands of their lord, Jesus Christ.

But bishops and clergy had no right to exercise power as an unaccountable “imperium,” acting like lords treating the faithful as their subjects and the Church as their personal property.

Damian outlined the laity’s ecclesial and secular roles in enforcing Church discipline. The laity had the right from their bishops and clergy to faithful service, and so in obedience to Jesus Christ, could withdraw temporal support from bishops and clergy who betrayed their pastoral office.

The saint argued that just as Satan retained his angelic rank and lost heaven for rebelling against God, guilty clergy similarly forfeited any right to temporal support or the exercise of office.

Damian also called on Catholic women to reform the clergy themselves, saying they followed in the footsteps of biblical heroes as Deborah, Judith, Jael, Esther, and other women through whom God would “achieve a more glorious triumph” over the mortal enemies of the Church.

Restoring Christ’s Church

Anderson said these governance problems have resurfaced today, with bishops and Vatican officials pushing back against lay oversight in the Church, citing existing canon law.

But Anderson said the evidence shows canon law is not working, and that because the current code reflects a post-Second Vatican Council legal construct, it could be amended by reaching into the Church’s tradition to bring the order of laity back into the governance structures of the Church.

That Council of Trent taught — like Damian — that canon law is subordinate to Sacred Scripture and Tradition. For this reason, Anderson said, canon law has changed to serve the Church’s mission in every age.

Unlike Damian’s time, the Church now has a massive amount of educated and qualified lay people to assist in the Church’s governance and enforcement of law and order.

“We need to reject the idea that competent lay people can’t be part of the dialogue or the solution in the contemporary world,” said Anderson.

The Damianites say the Catholic grassroots reform within the laity is just at the beginning of their call to restoring justice and mercy by truly healing the victims and correcting the clergy. They aim to have a 501c3 nonprofit established by Feb. 21, the day the bishops and pope meet in Rome to discuss the global sex abuse crisis, and the feast of St. Peter Damian.

Just as the people of Israel ignored the prophets God sent to save them from their sins and were punished with the Babylonian captivity, Carp said that if the hierarchy rejects the laity’s involvement in the Church’s reform and renewal, then God will use the sword of the state — such as the Justice Department, state attorneys general, district attorneys, and law enforcement agencies — to accomplish his will.

One way or another, Carp said, “Christ will save his Church.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register, and a frequent contributor to Angelus. 

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