Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cardinal Newman: Did the Pope beatify a gay saint?

“Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman: Lead Kindly Light”
By William Hart McNichols ©

Cardinal John Henry Newman was beatified last year while the news media buzzed with questions such as “Will the Pope canonize a gay saint?” His feast day is today (Aug. 11) in the Anglican tradition, and Oct. 9 for Catholics.

[Update in Oct. 2012: For more on the love story and achievements of John Henry Newman, see my new post Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St. John: Gay saint and his “earthly light” share romantic friendship.]

The Catholic Church tried to downplay Newman’s loving relationship with priest Ambrose St. John, but went ahead and beatified him despite questions about his homosexuality. Controversy focused on the church’s decision to disturb the grave that the two men shared in an unsuccessful effort to separate them.

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.”

John Henry Newman, left, and Ambrose St. John

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).”

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.

“John Henry Newman”
by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. ©
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

Newmanis honored by Catholics on Oct. 9, the anniversary of his 1845 conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Naturally Anglicans chose a different date for Newman’s feast day -- the anniversary of his death on Aug. 11.

This post is illustrated with icons of Newman by Robert Lentz and William McNichols.  Both artists faced controversy for their alternative and LGBT-affirming images.

Finally, here are 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.
Recommended links
Was Cardinal John Henry Newman Gay? (NPR)

Reflections on the Life and Legacy of John Henry Newman (Wild Reed)

Blessed John Henry and Ambrose: Newman’s Last Sermon (Queering the Church)

“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”:Blessed John Henry Newman (Queering the Church)

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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Trudie said...

Thank you for another relevant post, and sharing two more lovely icons. As I have commented in many other contexts, people really need to get beyond what I've heard referred to as the "pelvic issues".

We also need to understand the different shades of meaning implied by such words as "celibacy", "virginity", "chastity", and so on.

Again, I can't help referring back to the point you so cogently made in "Jesus in Love". Eros is creative love that can be expressed in a material, physical way as well as spiritually. Under certain circumstances, physical genital expression may enhance eros, and in other circumstances, may negate it. Clearly, the emotional content of the relationship between Newman and St. John was intensely erotic. And also, clearly, that relationship sang of love and fidelity of the highest order.

Kitt, I believe that here may be your example of a gay pair whose relationship did NOT end in the tragedy either of rejection or martyrdom!

KittKatt said...

I don’t know the details of how Newman and St. John died, but obviously they lived into old age and stayed together “until death do us part.” Thanks for pointing out that this is one of the “happy endings” that we have been thirsting for. Trudie, you summed up all the issues beautifully.

graybw said...

Anyone who has done any, even mild, research on Cardinal Newman knows this to the reality - that there was a very deep and loving relationship between the two men. Several of their contemporaries have commented thus. Whether or not that was'physicaly consumated' is not sure, but we can be sure a 'gay relationship' at a deep an meaningful spiritual level existed.

KittKatt said...

Same-sex love does not have to be “physically consummated” for someone to be honored here in the LGBT Saints series. As you point out, Gray, it’s enough that they experience a deep love between two people of the same sex.