John Henry Newman, who is often considered a gay saint, was beatified Sunday (Sept. 19) by the Pope. But Papal recognition comes with a queer cost.
The Catholic Church is trying to downplay Newman’s loving relationship with priest Ambrose St. John. The Pope even stooped so low as to disturb the grave that the two men share in an unsuccessful effort to separate them. (They’re also covering up Newman’s criticism of Papal infallibility.)
Even the mainstream media is buzzing with headlines such as “Will the Pope canonize a gay saint?”
Newman is Britain’s most famous 19th-century convert to Catholicism. He began as an Anglican priest and had to give up his post as an Oxford professor due to his conversion. Eventually he rose to the rank of Cardinal. Because Newman was an excellent scholar, Catholic centers on U.S. college campuses are named after him. Newman tells his own story in his acclaimed spiritual autobiography, "Apologia Pro Vita Sua." With Newman in the news, it’s important to remember why many honor him as a gay saint.
He spent most of his life with his closest friend Ambrose St. John. After St. John died in 1875, Newman wrote, “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.”
Here is a short bio of Newman written by Terence Weldon. It appeared first at his ever-informative blog “Queer Saints and Martyrs (and Others).”
Newman deserves particular attention from LGBT Catholics for two reasons:
As a man, he had a well known lifelong deep commitment to his friend, Ambrose St. John. This relationship was so intense that he particularly desired to be buried alongside his friend. This became controversial among gay activists when, as part of the beatification process, the Vatican insisted on removing the remains of Newman, but not those of his friend, to the Birmingham Oratory. In the event, the activists lost the battle, but gained smug satisfaction when the grave was found to contain no human remains. (Some advanced this a further ‘miracle’ in support of his cause).
“An excavation of the Cardinal’s grave at the Oratory House in Rednal near Birmingham, last year revealed no human remains. It is believed his body, which was buried in a wooden coffin, had completely decomposed.
Newman was buried alongside his close friend – who some presume to have been his gay lover – Ambrose St John. But the Vatican wanted his remains to be moved to the Birmingham Oratory, in preparation for his beatification.” [The Independent]
Many people object to the description of Newman as ‘gay’ on the grounds that there is no evidence that the deep friendship with St John took sexual expression. This is irrelevant: all priests are under a vow of celibacy. Many, whether gay or straight, keep their vow, some do not. The adherence or otherwise to the vow does not affect or determine their underlying orientation. (We do not claim that celibate priests are thereby not heterosexual).
As a theologian, Cardinal Newman played an important role in developing the modern formulation of the primacy of conscience, which is of fundamental importance to LGBT Catholics who reject in good conscience the standard teaching on sexuality – or the high proportion of heterosexual couples who reject “Humanae Vitae”.
The venerable, soon to be Blessed, John Henry has a strong claim to be regarded as a patron saint of English gay Catholics.
Thank you, Terry, for sharing your thoughts on John Henry Newman here. And thanks to Michael at the Hell’s Teeth Blog for alerting me to the article, “Vatican orders Cardinal Newman to be parted from priest friend in shared grave” in telegraph.co.uk.
I conclude this post with more of Newman’s own words, as quoted in that article: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will,” he wrote, later adding: “This I confirm and insist on.”
With beatification, Newman is now only one step away from official sainthood. He is already a saint in the hearts of many, including the LGBT people who are inspired by his life and love. Let’s keep his full truth alive.
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.