SAINT CHRYSOSTOMOS (ca. 347-407)
Greek patriarch of Constantinople, the first to claim its primacy over the eastern sees, and leading theologian of the Orthodox church. This most famous Greek father fully brought the extreme asceticism of the desert fathers into the mainstream of the church.
Chrysostom was educated at Antioch by the pagan sophist and rhetorician Libanius, more of whose works have survived than of any other pagan writer. After being baptized about 370, John retired to the desert for asceticism and study, but after ten years illness forced him to retum to civilization. Ordained deacon in 381 and priest in 386, he won fame for his inspiring sermons and only reluctantly became bishop of Constantinople in 398. Having alienated many by strident criticism and fanaticism, including the empress Eudoxia and bishops in the Eastern provinces, who were resentful of his attempts to subordinate them to his see which he deemed preeminent, he was deposed by the Synod of the Oak in 403. Banished, recalled by popular demand, and then banished again in 404, he died in exile in Armenia in 407.
For his eloquence he received the title Chrysostom, "Golden mouthed," but many Western scholars consider his theology mediocre. In the Antiochene tradition, he expounded scripture historically, practically, and devotionally, denouncing luxury and demanding alms for the poor. His numerous writings fill volumes 47 to 64 in J.-P. Migne's Patrologia Graeca. The people loved him for his charities and his support of hospitals, as well as for his devout and eloquent denunciations of the extravagance of courtiers. He forbade the clergy to keep "sisters" as servants, and confined wandering monks to monasteries where they could be disciplined. Upon his second deposition arranged by his numerous enemies, the populace set fire to the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia and the Senate House. In 437 the Emperor had to bring his bones back to the capital, imploring divine forgiveness for the empire's persecution of the saint. Probably the most venomous of a long line of vehement early Christians who preached against Judaism, he was also the most violent of a long series of homophobes stretching back to St. Paul.
Chrysostom's invectives against homosexual sins reveal the paradoxes and circular reasoning in which the Christian apologist was trapped by his need to justify the apodictic prohibition of the Old Testament in terms adequate to Greek philosophical notions of right and wrong. The Stoic reverence for nature and the Manichaean condemnation of pleasure both determined his rhetoric; on the one hand "the passions in fact are all dishonorable," but on the other homosexual acts fail even to provide pleasure: "Sins against nature . . . are more arduous and less rewarding, so much so that they cannot even claim to provide pleasure, since real pleasure is only according to nature." The later view that "excess of desire" led to homosexual depravity he expounded as the outcome of God's abandonment of those in question because of the heinous sin of--excess of desire. Aware that the Greeks had long practiced pederasty, he nevertheless denounced homosexuality as a loathsome invention, "a new and insufferable crime." And he was among the first to rank homosexual sins as the supreme evil thanwhich "nothingismoredemented or noxious," though in other passages he let the rhetorician in him declare that "there are ten thousand sins equal to or worse than this one." He managed to reason that the male who takes the passive role with another not only loses his maleness but fails to become a woman; he forfeits his own sex without acquiring the opposite gender.
Chrysostom thought the gravity of homosexual transgression merited God's punishment of Sodom: "The very nature of the punishment reflected the nature of the sin [of the Sodomites]. Even as they devised a barren coitus, not having as its end the procreation of children, so did God bring on them a punishment as made the womb of the land forever barren and destitute of all fruit." Chrysostom is thus a classic exemplar of Christian unreason in regard to homosexuality, but also the prototype of preachers and moral reformers in later centuries who from the pulpit incited the authorities and the populace to campaigns of repression against those guilty of "unnatural vice." More homophobic even than St. Augustine, he set the stage for the persecutions that would fill the annals of the centuries to come.
William A. Percy