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Jerome and the Bishop of Rome: Did Jerome Affirm the Authority of the Pope?

B. A. Johnson is an avid student of history. He endeavors to provide detailed and carefully documented histories of the Christian church.

17th century rendering of Jerome

17th century rendering of Jerome

Jerome and His Standing on the Roman Bishop's Authority

Establishing Jerome’s stand on the authority of the Roman Bishop over the church is not as simple a task as either Roman Catholic or Protestant apologists (between which we must acknowledge our own partisanship) would prefer.

For this reason, this article will not attempt to define in certain terms for the reader exactly what Jerome’s stance was. Rather, we will consider the evidence he has left us in his letters and present two possible conclusions. Let the reader decide!

The Importance and Difficulties in Jerome’s Writings

Jerome’s writings offer a window into the life and structure of the church at the end of the Era of Imperial Christianity, as the West teetered on the edge of that collapse which precipitated the Dark Age of Europe. He is credited as a greater historical source on life in the Church than any of the “fathers” before him, and is considered by Rome to be one of only four “Doctors of the Church.” The influence his passionate advocacy of ascetic monasticism had on the development of Europe throughout the Dark and Middle ages in incalculable, and his scholarly efforts deserve great admiration, having produced (among other things) the Latin Vulgate, translated from both Greek and Hebrew texts of the New and Old Testament1. For all this, it is little wonder that Jerome often becomes the subject of heated debate when Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars collide.

It is clear that Jerome held certain beliefs which, broadly speaking, are accepted as tenants of the Roman Catholic Church today – the priesthood of the elders, esteem for ascetic monasticism, and a reverence for relics and holy places. The Protestant argues that these were the product of evolution within the church, the Roman Catholic argues consistent tradition, but one subject in particular should be of interest to the student of ecclesiastical history regardless of their “camp” – and that is Jerome’s perspective on the authority of the Roman Bishop over the church at large. The collapse of Western Europe created a vast power vacuum in which the Roman See flourished2, but what was the state of Roman authority prior to the End of the Imperial Era? Although Jerome can offer only one voice, his perspective would nevertheless be of great value.

Jerome never wrote to address this topic directly, and so caution is indicated when attempting to draw direct conclusions. Further complications arise when we fail to take into account the author’s own characteristics: his high reverence for bishops as a whole, his theology on apostolic succession, and a certain tendency to allow himself to be carried away with flighty rhetoric which would prove detrimental to him in later controversies*. Nevertheless, in determining Jerome’s position regarding the authority of Rome, we will consider four of Jerome’s letters: one to his friend Heliodorus(14), one to adversary Evangelus(146), and two to admirer Damasus, Bishop of Rome(15,16)**.

Statue of Jerome in Bethlehem

Statue of Jerome in Bethlehem

Letters 146 and 14: The Equality of Bishops and “Power of the Keys”

In his letter to Envagelus3, Jerome sought to settle a dispute which had arisen in Rome concerning the position of deacons relative to that of presbyters (or bishops) by demonstrating their proper rolls as laid out in the New Testament scriptures. Having demonstrated how these separate offices were established and why, he then traces the development of the Bishopric.

“When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number, chosen by themselves, and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon. For what function, excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also belong to a presbyter? It is not the case that there is one church at Rome and another in all the world beside. Gaul and Britain, Africa and Persia, India and the East worship one Christ and observe one rule of truth. If you ask for authority, the world outweighs its capital. Wherever there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome or at Engubium, whether it be at Constantinople or at Rhegium, whether it be at Alexandria or at Zoan, his dignity is one and his priesthood is one. Neither the command of wealth nor the lowliness of poverty makes him more a bishop or less a bishop. All alike are successors of the apostles.3

Three particular observations offer themselves from this passage. The first was the purpose for the appointment of Bishops in every city – according to Jerome, bishops were appointed to heal schisms and prevent division in the church, apparently without regard to an arch-bishop at Rome who had the authority to settle any such matter. Jerome also establishes that the bishop of a city has only one function that distinguishes him from his fellow presbyters, and specifically states that Rome is no exception: “It is not the case that there is one church at Rome and another in all the world beside.” Even in naming Rome as the world’s “capital,” he does so to negate its uniqueness, and it would seem indicated that this reference is to Rome as “The Royal City” as opposed to the capital of the church in light of his claim to the equality of all bishops over all cities, “Whether it be at Rome or Engubium…his dignity is one and his priesthood is one.”

Finally, Jerome attributes apostolic succession to all bishops equally: “his dignity is one and his priesthood is one…all alike are successors of the apostles.” This sentiment is echoed in Jerome’s letter to Heliodorus4, his friend and formerly a fellow ascetic:

“These [“The Clergy”,] you will say, remain in their cities, and yet they are surely above criticism. Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they judge men to some extent before the day of judgment, and guard the chastity of the bride of Christ.4

Here we see not only that Jerome held all bishops to be a part of the apostolic succession, but he also believed that they had all been entrusted with the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” which he interpreted from Matthew 18 as authority to excommunicate members of the church for unrepentance4:

Letters 15: Addressing the Chair of Peter

There is, however, another side to Jerome’s writings, which is found in two letters which he wrote to Damasus, the Bishop of Rome himself, during a period of great schism in Antioch in which Jerome was embroiled despite living in a monastic community in the desert.

It would be difficult to conceive of higher praise for the “Chair of Peter” than what is contained in Jerome’s 15th letter5, both in language and sentiment. Jerome not only admits to being “terrified” by the greatness of the Roman bishop, but also invests full trust in his decision regarding the advice Jerome sought, even to the point that he would accept to use a term to describe the union of the Trinity in place of that which the Nicene council codified, if that was Damasus’ decision.

“If you think fit, enact a decree; and then I shall not hesitate to speak of three hypostases. Order a new creed to supersede the Nicene; and then, whether we are Arians or orthodox, one confession will do for us all.5

Here Jerome exhibits that passionate language which later would haunt him. In the context of Jerome’s letter, we see clearly that Jerome has already firmly and immovably accepted the Nicene faith over and against Arianism, and he in no way meant to suggest that he would (at Damasus’ decree) be united with Arians. But he was willing to accept terminology which he deeply distrusted, if the Bishop of Rome accepted it. Whether or not the use of such terms as “decree” and “a new creed to supersede the Nicene” were intended literally or merely as strong rhetoric, let the reader decide in light of the full letter.

Regardless, In approaching Damasus for advice, Jerome affirms that the Bishop of Rome is both Peter’s successor and his chair “the rock on which the church is built:”

“Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me…Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.5

Such strong language needs no commentary to affirm its apparent meaning, and Jerome’s stance would seem undeniably in favor of full and total Roman authority if not for his other writings and the context which Jerome himself places on approaching Damasus for advice. Jerome opens the letter by explaining his reasons:

“Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord… I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ^…Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed corn is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats. In the West the Sun of righteousness is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer…has once more set his throne above the stars. “Ye are the light of the world,” “ye are the salt of the earth,” ye are “vessels of gold and of silver.” Here are vessels of wood or of earth, which wait for the rod of iron, and eternal fire.5

Jerome then proceeds to declare his fear and reverence for the Chair of Peter (quoted previously). While the language Jerome uses toward Damasus seems clear, we should we neglect to understand his preface to the letter. Jerome has found himself embroiled in a schism in the east and all around him he sees only conflict and dissention. Indeed, in Antioch – the heart of the conflict – three separate presbyters are disputing over the bishopric. Jerome is uncertain who to trust and so he writes to the Bishop of his home church.

Jerome's time as a monk in the desert was troubled by a renewed Arian schism and conflict among presbyters at Antioch which embroiled the whole East

Jerome's time as a monk in the desert was troubled by a renewed Arian schism and conflict among presbyters at Antioch which embroiled the whole East

Possible Explanations

Taking into account Jerome’s position when he wrote to Bishop Damasus, it is conceivable that he chose to personally invest an authority in the Roman See which he did not otherwise believe it had been ordained to possess. Jerome’s reasons for choosing Damasus might have been due to his own background as a Roman Christian and the fact that Rome had not yet been embroiled in the schism – “you alone keep your heritage intact…In the West the Sun of righteousness is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer…has once more set his throne above the stars.” In this case, his strong descriptions of Roman majesty and investment of authority may have simply been the characteristically passionate words of a man determined to relieve the burden of a decision from his own shoulders and rest it on the shoulders of one he trusted implicitly – namely, Damasus.

Having received no answer, Jerome wrote a second letterin which he begged, “as you hold an apostolic office…give an apostolic decision. 6” The lack of exclusivity in his description of “AN apostolic office,” combined with his perspective on succession and the keys and equality of Bishops would seem to be born out by this position.

Parts of Jerome’s 15th and 16th letters beg an alternative however. As discussed, it is possible to interpret Jerome’s passionate descriptions of the Roman Bishop as a merely personal investment of authority, but it does not always feel natural to do so, particularly when reading letter 15 without the influence of the others. As it is difficult to reconcile these seemingly contradictory writings, perhaps a plausible explanation could be a new development in Jerome’s theology – perhaps facilitated by the tumult in Antioch.

His letter to Damasus was written some years after his letter to Heliodorus and the exact date of the letter to Evangelus is unknown^^. If both letters 14 and 146 came from an earlier time, it is conceivable that his position evolved in favor of Roman authority, perhaps influenced by the very conflict that drove him to consult Damasus in the first place. Obviously this could not be proven, but it would explain his fervent adoration of Bishop Damasus in letter 15 and his declaration to the three conflicting bishops, “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.6


Neither explanation is without its shortcomings, and Jerome’s letters alone will not offer any swift resolution. The Roman Catholic is right to point to Jerome’s 15th letter as the words of a man in full subjection to the Roman Bishop. The Protestant seems justified in pointing to letters 14 and 146 as the words of one completely foreign to the concept of Roman Supremacy. But neither is justified in holding up Jerome as an ally of their own position without addressing all three.


* E.G. the controversy surrounding the works of Origen, of which Jerome was a great admirer, praising them to no end despite certain dramatically unorthodox claims the former made and which Jerome repudiated when confronted with them. See Schaff’s introduction to Jerome’s principle works, section III – Life of Jerome

** Numbered according to their order in Phillip Schaff’s principle works of Jerome.

^ Jerome was Baptized in Rome

^^ See Schaff’s preface to letters 146, 14, 15, and 16

1. Schaff introduction to principle works,

2. Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, Vol. I

C.F. How Did the Roman Papacy Develop?

3. Jerome, Letter to Evangelus (146) -

4. Jerome, Letter to Heliodorus (14), section 8 -

5. Jerome, Letter to Damasus (15) -

6. Jerome, Second Letter to Damasus (16) –