August 3, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The year was 1568, but the situation in the Catholic Church was uncomfortably similar to our own. After many decades of corruption and moral decadence, the Church faced the scandal of a clergy who were widely reputed to be involved in the “horrendous crime” of sodomy. When the saintly Pope Pius V was elected in in 1566, he decided to act.
Since the middle of the 15th century, the papacy had been mired in almost continuous scandal as wealthy and powerful Italian families vied for control of the Holy See and the lucrative benefices it controlled. The mentality and behavior of the pontiffs was ostentatiously worldly, and they became infamous throughout Europe for their nepotistic exploitation of ecclesiastical and governmental offices. Their spending on expensive art and frivolous entertainments brought the papacy close to bankruptcy. Some were even credibly accused of bribing the cardinals to secure their election, and of selling cardinal appointments.
This atmosphere of moral mediocrity and laxity was accompanied by an increasing problem with sexual immorality among the clergy, and particularly the practice of sodomy.
The problem even seemed to have reached the papacy during the wretched pontificate of Julius III, who in 1550 appointed a teenage boy of uncertain parentage as his “cardinal nephew,” giving him powers roughly equivalent to today’s Cardinal Secretary of State, one of the highest positions in the Vatican.
The young Cardinal Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte, who had no formal education and was completely unfit for his post, was strongly rumored to share the pope’s bed, and his strange appointment and relationship with the pontiff were openly derided in Rome. Following the death of his papal patron in 1555, Innocenzo was accused of both rape and murder, and suffered multiple banishments to monasteries. He died in isolation and obscurity, having never achieved social acceptance from the other cardinals.
Pope Pius V immediately sought to address the crisis upon his accession to the papal throne. In 1566, the year of his election, he issued a reform bull, Cum primum, which sought to suppress clerical vice, including sodomy. In paragraph 11, the bull stated, “If anyone perpetrates the nefarious crime against nature, because of which the wrath of God came up on the children of unbelief, they are to be turned over to the secular court, and if they are a cleric, they are to be stripped of all [clerical] order and to be subjected to a similar penalty.” However, this provision appears not to have had the effect desired by the pontiff.
Two years later, Pope Pius V issued a new decree directed solely against the practice of sodomy among the clergy. It was titled Horrendum illud scelus – “That horrendous crime,” for which the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God.
“That horrendous crime, for which polluted and filthy cities were burned by the frightful judgment of God, pains Us most bitterly, and gravely stirs our soul, so that, insofar as it is possible, we might strive to crush it,” wrote Pius.
Pius noted that the Third Lateran Council (1179) had decreed that those clerics guilty of sodomy, the crime for which “the wrath of God came upon the children of unbelief,” were to be confined in monasteries or be removed from the clerical order altogether. However, the pope expressed his concern that such a penalty was too mild, particularly for those who “do not fear the death of the soul.”
“Lest the contagion of such a disgrace, from the hope of impunity – which is the greatest incentive to sin – strengthen in boldness, we have decided that the clerics who are guilty of this nefarious crime are to be more gravely punished, so that the avenger of the civil laws, the secular sword, might certainly deter those who do not fear the death of the soul,” wrote Pius.
He therefore decreed that “any and all priests and other secular and regular Clergy of whatever grade and dignity who practice such a dire sin we deprive of every clerical privilege, and of every Ecclesiastical office, dignity, and benefit, by the authority of the present canon,” and added that they should then be “handed over to the secular power, which may exact from them that same punishment that is received by laity who have fallen into this ruin, which is found to be constituted in legitimate ordinances.”
At that time, the “legitimate ordinances” of many jurisdictions in Europe decreed death, castration, or forfeiture of one’s property for the crime of sodomy.
Click here to learn about St. Peter Damian’s struggle against an epidemic of sodomy and corruption among the clergy of the eleventh century, a story with great relevance for the Catholic Church today.
Pius V’s decree was the latest of a long line of canons and decrees issued by the Catholic Church to penalize sexual immorality, both among the clergy and the laity. Since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had provided various penalties for those clerics and religious who committed homosexual acts and other crimes of sexual perversion. Early canon law required those guilty of such acts to do long penances while under an interdict from receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Some canons specified that penance be performed in a monastery, while others mentioned degradation from the clerical state.
In 1049, in response to a letter from St. Peter Damian alerting him to an epidemic of sodomy among priests and monks, Pope St. Leo IX responded with a letter condemning the behavior and determining that the worst perpetrators must be removed from the clerical state, while others must do penances in accordance with the traditional canons.
In the thirteenth century an ecumenical council took up the issue. The Third Lateran Council (1179) decreed: “Let all who are found guilty of that unnatural vice for which the wrath of God came down upon the sons of disobedience and destroyed the five cities with fire, if they are clerics be expelled from the clergy or confined in monasteries to do penance; if they are laymen they are to incur excommunication and be completely separated from the society of the faithful.”
However, Pope St. Pius V’s decree was the strongest of all, requiring all clergy guilty of such behavior to lose their titles and their clerical state, and to be turned over to the secular authorities for punishments normally only given to laity. This was a particularly difficult punishment for clergy to endure, given that they normally enjoyed the right to an ecclesiastical trial and penalty for any infractions of the law that they might commit.
Below is my complete translation of Pope St. Pius V’s Horrendum illud scelus, which can also be found in PDF form here:
P I U S , B I S H O P
Servant of the Servants of God: For perpetual memory
That horrendous crime, for which polluted and filthy cities were burned by the frightful judgment of God, pains Us most bitterly, and gravely stirs our soul, so that, insofar as it is possible, we might strive to crush it.
§ I. It is reasonably established in the [Third] Lateran Council that any Clerics who are discovered in that act of incontinence that is against nature, because of which the wrath of God came upon the children of unbelief, should be expelled from the clergy, or be cast into monasteries for the purpose of doing penance.
§ 2. However, lest the contagion of such a disgrace, from the hope of impunity – which is the greatest incentive to sin – strengthen in boldness, we have decided that the clerics who are guilty of this nefarious crime are to be more gravely punished, so that the avenger of the civil laws, the secular sword, might certainly deter those who do not fear the death of the soul.
§ 3. And therefore, seeking to more completely and forcefully pursue what We already decreed regarding this matter at the beginning of our Pontificate, any and all priests and other secular and regular Clergy of whatever grade and dignity who practice such a dire sin we deprive of every clerical privilege, and of every Ecclesiastical office, dignity, and benefit, by the authority of the present canon. So that, having been degraded by Ecclesiastical Judgment, they may be handed over to the secular power, which may exact from them that same punishment that is received by laity who have fallen into this ruin, which is found to be constituted in legitimate ordinances.
“Nulli ergo, etc.” (Note: The Nulli ergo is a reference to a standard clause following many papal bulls that read, roughly, as follows: “Let no one whosoever infringe this page of our declaration or to dare to oppose it.” It is normally followed by the Si quis clause, which reads, “If, however, anyone attempts to do so, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of his holy Apostles Peter and Paul.” Often only the first two words of the clause are given in reference works like the Magnum Bullarium Romanum, followed by “etc.”)
Given at St. Peter’s in Rome, in the year of the incarnation of the Lord 1568, on the third Kalends of September (August 30), in the third year of our Pontificate.