Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The queer cost of becoming a saint: John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman, left, and Ambrose St. John

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.

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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.
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6 comments:

Terence Weldon said...

Thanks for the long quote, Kitt, and for your own excellent analysis.

Since I first wrote my original piece, I have felt that there was much more to be said, especially with the beatification, but have been intimidated by the sheer complexity and ambiguities around the man.

I am currently busy with a further analysis on why he deserves special attention from queer Christians, which goes under the heading "out of the shadows, into the light." Newman spent most of his life as priest under attack from all sides. It was only late in life that he began to receive recognition for his achievements as a theologian, when he was suddenly promoted from parish priest directly to cardinal, and eventually beatification.

I believe that we as a queer Christian community are following a similar path, from persecution and exclusion, to ever-increasing inclusion - and even respect for what we can teach the wider church.

It is also worth noting the obvious respect that Benedict XVI has for Newman: this is the first time he has conducted a beatification personally. (He said on taking office that these should be done by local bishops. A German priest was due for beatification on the same day as Newman - but he came to the UK, not to Germany.) If we can fully understand Newman's message, we should have some useful clues to
Benedict's own thinking.

My full post along these lines should be ready in a few more days.

Veritas Vincit said...

With respect the principal reason for Cardinal Newman's imperative wish to be buried with Ambrose St John has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with his faith -Newman was in no doubt about the intercession of the saints. His deep sensitivity to the spirit of a place, its genius loci, extended to the cemetery. His studies in the early Church had impressed upon him the centrality of the ‘holy places’ where the saints were buried Just as the catacombs, outside the city, were the natural gathering place of the faithful for prayer and mutual support, so did they become the supernatural ground of posthumous miracles and healing. The burial places of the saints became the focal points of the nascent Church. And in the Early Church the faithful wanted to be ‘buried near the saints’.

The practice of burial ‘ad sanctos’ shaped the history of the Christian Church for centuries to come. Newman was intimately familiar with, and imaginatively rooted in these sources of Christian community, recorded in the lives of the Saints and remembered in the Church’s Breviary . He believed not only that Fr Ambrose St John was a saint, but that he had become a saint and given his life, through the stress of overwork, in translating from the German Fr Fessler’s account of the First Vatican Council of 1870.As Newman's death approached, he signaled his intention of commemorating the contribution of ALL those who devotedly supported him in his mission by drawing up a document illustrating his idea of the graves under a cruciform plan. He wished to be buried near the saints,[as he viewed them] in the plural: in the company of Fr Joseph Gordon, Fr Edward Caswall, and Fr Ambrose St John.Newman’s Oratorian vocation, moreover, committed him to the tradition of St Philip Neri and of Cardinal Baronius. In sixteenth century Rome the Oratorians had revived the practice of the veneration and translation of relics from the catacombs to the churches of The City and beyond. It is wholly appropriate therefore that the Church as part of the due process towards canoniasation, would wish any mortal remains however few to be venerated as part of a new reliquary in Birmingham honouring this soon to be great Saint. If we are to grasp the significance of Newman’s determination to remain in his burial place ‘ad sanctos’ we should not lose sight of his appreciation of the ‘entry of the saints’: the legitimacy of ‘translating the Saints’ to the City Churches. It is just that he did not want it ‘for himself’. He wanted to point away from himself to the community of the Oratorians in the Communion of Saints. The sooner people including Catholics grasp this the better and we can understand the Pope beatifying an Englishman for his transparent sanctity as a model to follow rather than abusing his final wishes as some centrepiece of inuendo aimed at tricking the Pope [by default] in to declaring Newman as the 'gay saint of conscience'.

Turtle Woman said...

Terry, it was a joy to read your thoughtful commentary on Cardinal Newman. I find these 19th century religious leaders a bit mysterious, and not always because they might be gay.

Also, I have fond memories of the Newman center near my childhood home, where my Mom and I heard our first guitar mass of all things in the late 1960s. Back then, my Mom was scandalized. How far we've come on the scandal hit parade :-)

KittKatt said...

This post caused quite a lively discussion on my Facebook page! A couple of friends said everyone on the path to canonization has their grave opened and body removed. I wasn’t able to confirm that with some quick research, but it has happened in other cases. Even if it was “standard procedure” to open the grave, I am among those who wonder whether this was also a convenient way to downplay the issue of Newman’s possible homosexual orientation. Why couldn’t Ambrose St. John’s remains be removed along with Newman’s?

Well, I do agree with those here and at Facebook who point out that it is progress for the church to canonize Newman, in spite of questions over his possible homosexuality. In my mind, saints are saints of God, whether or not the church is able to recognize it. Thanks, Terry and Veritas, for all the valuable background info.

I feel uplifted by Terry’s idea that we in the LGBT spiritual community are following the path of Newman… from being mostly ignored into a future of recognition (and sainthood?) May we strive to be worthy of such a fate.

Turtle Woman, your stories make Newman seem much more accessible to me. Perhaps gay saints will be as familiar as guitar Masses someday. Miracles do happen, and one is already credited to John Henry Newman.

Yewtree said...

I suddenly find myself warming to John Henry now that I know he was queer...

Newman's brother, Francis William Newman, was a Unitarian.

KittKatt said...

Yewtree, I also found John Henry Newman to be a formidable character until I knew about his love life with men. This confirms to me the value in lifting up LGBT saints. Knowing they are queer really does help other queers learn from their lives and works.

Do you know the book “Spitting at Dragons: Towards a Feminist Theology of Sainthood” by Elizabeth Stuart? I just learned about it in the lively Facebook discussion of this post -- from no less than Elizabeth herself! I ordered the book and am looking forward to reading it.