The nastiness of Saint Jerome

I’ve just had the unpleasant experience of having to read some of Saint Jerome’s tract Against Jovinian (I had to check analogies to some passages from a Carolingian author). The tract was written in 393 AD against the arguments of the Roman monk Jovinian, who had argued that all Christians, married and unmarried were equal. (For a translation see http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-06/Npnf2-06-10.htm)

I knew from the extracts of this work of Jerome that I’d come across before that it was misogynistic: Jerome wasn’t unique in that; even though it’s still distasteful to come across a writer apparently praising both suttee and rape victims who kill themselves from shame at their violation. But that’s only a minor part of Jerome’s argument. His main theme is repeated insistently: the married are inferior Christians to virgins. A married man is the slave of his wife; to remarry once widowed is worse than to commit fratricide. Jerome takes Paul’s idea of marriage as a concession to those unable to be chaste to extremes. Marriage to him is the lesser of two evils; he even calls it defilement at one point.

Jerome’s sneering at the married is persistent: they are second-rate, as far as he concerned. At one point he complains about there being too many married clergy (men could become clerics when still married in the fourth century, but only if they ceased sexual relations with their wives):

That married men are elected to the priesthood, I do not deny: the number of virgins is not so great as that of the priests required. Does it follow that because all the strongest men are chosen for the army, weaker men should not be taken as well?…As it is, men of second or third-rate strength are chosen, that the army might have its full numerical complement… Not unfrequently it happens that married men who form the larger portion of the people [of a congregation] in approving married candidates seem to approve themselves, and it does not occur to them that the mere fact that they prefer a married person to a virgin is evidence of their inferiority to virgins.

There’s no trace of charity in Jerome’s work and all too much pride; an ascetic looking down at his inferiors. Worst of all is that he makes God and Jesus into his image. Jerome admits that the apostle Peter was married (though he argues that he abandoned her when he became a disciple). He contrasts Peter with the apostle John:

And yet John, one of the disciples, who is related to have been the youngest of the Apostles and who was a virgin when he embraced Christianity, remained a virgin and on that account was more beloved by our Lord and lay upon the breast of Jesus…If, however, Jovinianus should obstinately contend that John was not a virgin…let him explain, if he was not a virgin, why it was that he was loved more than the other Apostles.

For Jerome’s Jesus, faith, commitment, acceptance of his claims are only secondary matters. If you’ve ever had sex you can’t be Jesus’ special friend: you stuck with being second rate on earth and in heaven. A petty man creates a petty God: not a pretty sight.

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