Catholic fact check: St. Basil and St. Peter Damian on pedophilia and homosexuality

Every so often, a quotation attributed either to St. Basil the Great or St. Peter Damian circulates. The quotation reads:

Any cleric or monk who seduces young men or boys, or who is apprehended in kissing or in any shameful situation, shall be publicly flogged and shall lose his clerical tonsure. Thus shorn, he shall be disgraced by spitting into his face, bound in iron chains, wasted by six months of close confinement, and for three days each week put on barley bread given him toward evening. Following this period, he shall spend a further six months living in a small segregated courtyard in the custody of a spiritual elder, kept busy with manual labor and prayer, subjected to vigils and prayers, forced to walk at all times in the company of two spiritual brothers, never again allowed to associate with young men for purposes of improper conversation or advice.

I am increasingly suspicious of “surprisingly relevant” quotations attributed to early or medieval Saints, not because those holy men and women had no pertinent wisdom, but because I so rarely encounter a quotation that is actually accurate. In this case, two such prominent saints have had their letters thoroughly documented and numbered, so the lack of a source is a red flag.

False starts

a search for “any cleric or monk who seduces young men” before:2010 on Google retrieves 4 results. I like checking forum posts first, if there are any, because many times someone else has asked my question already.

On April 23, 2005, on The Byzantine Forum, someone asked about the authenticity of this quotation1. Below was the only reply with leads:

All four links are dead, and none is archived on the Wayback Machine. We must consider these links lost to the pixels of time.

However, John Allen's book All the Pope's Men2 has previews available on Amazon.

We at least can confirm that Allen attributes this quotation to St. Basil, and this is one of the earliest - possibly the earliest - attribution to St. Basil I can find. However, Allen cites no actual source beyond St. Basil.

Thanks to websites like New Advent and Christian Classics Ethereal Library, many patristic sources are freely available for consultation online. New Advent has hundreds of St. Basil's letters, none of which seem to have any of the key words from the quotation.3

A promising lead

Another Google result looks more promising: an essay by C. Colt Anderson, “When Magesterium Becomes Imperium: Peter Damian on the Accountability of Bishops for Scandal."4 Anderson says:

Even if the bishop never personally committed such a deed, Peter Damian concluded he was still guilty of the crime of spiritual incest if he allowed his clergy to sexually abuse boys, young men, mistresses, and even prostitutes. Damian exhorted Pope Leo IX to enforce the canons of church law on the scandalous matter of priests seducing boys and young men. The law clearly prescribed the following penance:

Any cleric or monk who seduces young men (adolescentium) or boys (parvulorum), or who is apprehended in kissing or in any shameful situation, shall be publicly flogged and shall lose his clerical tonsure. Thus shorn, he shall be disgraced by spitting into his face, bound in iron chains, wasted by six months of close confinement, and for three days each week put on barley bread given him toward evening. Following this period, he shall spend a further six months living in a small segregated courtyard in the custody of a spiritual elder, kept busy with manual labor and prayer, subjected to vigils and prayers, forced to walk at all times in the company of two spiritual brothers, never again allowed to associate with young men for purposes of improper conversation or advice.42

Footnote 42 reads:

42 Ibid. 31.38; MGH, vol. 1, 298. Peter Damian is citing Burchard of Worms, Decretorum libri XX, 19.5.

The Ibid. and MGH refer to a critical edition of St. Peter Damian's letters, which unfortunately I do not currently own or have access to. However, much more interestingly, Anderson says that Peter Damien is in fact quoting someone himself, Burchard of Worms.

Burchard of Worms

Burchard was the bishop of Worms from 1000-1025. He wrote a multi-volume work of canon law, as one did in those days, called the Decretum libri (Wikipedia lists several title variations.)

Documenta Catholica Omnia has indexed this massive work and provided it for free.5

You can see the relevant page (p. 925) as a PDF here. The relevant section is below:

Clericus vel monachus adolescentium vel parvulorum insectator, vel qui osculo, vel aliqua occasione turpi deprehensus fuerit, publice verberetur, et coronam amittat, decalvatusque turpiter, sputamentis obliniatur in facie, vinculisque artatus ferreis, carcerali sex mensibus angustia maceretur, et triduo per hebdomadas singulas ex pane hordeaceo ad vesperam reficiatur. Post haec aliis sex mensibus sub senioris spiritalis custodia segregata in curticula degens, operi manuum et orationi sit intentus, vigiliis et fletibus subjectus, et sub custodia semper duorum fratrum spiritalium ambulet, nulla privata locutione, vel consilio deinceps juvenibus conjugendus.

Did he say it?

A happy ending, for once, in the fact checking world! Burchard of Worms most decidedly said this.

It appears as though St. Peter Damian quoted Burchard in a letter, which I hope to confirm in the future.

It seems reasonable to think that Burchard was the original author, at least the codified of this quotation, so barring any other evidence, it is extremely unlikely that St. Basil said it.

Sources


  1. “Did Saint Basil Say This?". 2005. The Byzantine Forum, April 23. http://www.byzcath.org/forums/ubbthreads.php/topics/68625

  2. Allen, John L. 2004. All the Pope's men: the inside story of how the Vatican really thinks. New York [etc.]: Doubleday.

  3. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202.htm.

  4. Anderson, C. Colt. 2004. “When Magisterium Becomes Imperium: Peter Damian On The Accountability Of Bishops For Scandal.” Theological Studies vol. 65. http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/65/65.4/65.4.3.pdf

  5. Burchardus Wortatiensis Episcopus. c. 11th century. Decretorum Libri Viginti. MPL140. https://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/04z/z_1000-1025__Burchardus_Wortatiensis_Episcopus__Decretorum_Libri_Viginti__MLT.pdf.html

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Sharon Kabel
Librarian; Nuisance

I like Catholic newspapers, amateur data visualizations, and walls of text.

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