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The Newman Wars: Papal Visit to England and Battle over Newman’s Legacy

As Benedict’s visit to England nears, it’s fascinating to watch the drawing of battle lines among Catholic commentators on the visit, re: the legacy of John Henry Newman. Better thinkers and more astute bloggers than I am are already commenting on this topic, including James Martin at America‘s “In All Things” blog, John Cornwell in London’s Financial Times, Colleen Baker at Enlightened Catholicism, Michael Bayly at Wild Reed, and Andrew Sullivan at his Daily Dish site. And then there are Ann Widdecombe at the Telegraph and Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter.

I don’t want to comment on any one of these readings of Newman’s legacy (and of the controversy surrounding how to read that legacy as Benedict prepares to beatify Newman). I’ve already blogged frequently at my Bigrimage site about Newman and his effect on my life and thought, noting as I’ve done so that my reading of his Apologia as a young teen spurred me to consider the claims of the Catholic church at a moment in which I was seeking religious community after my family’s church spectacularly failed to support the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

I’ve also reflected on the significance of Newman’s long-standing love for another man—Ambrose St. John—with whom he requested that he be buried (and here). And when their shared grave was opened in 2008 as plans were underway to separate Newman from St. John and remove his body to a separate shrine for veneration, and it was discovered that Newman’s body had completely dissolved (along with St. John’s) into the earth in which they were buried, I noted that I saw miraculous import in this discovery:

Though the church refuses to offer us loving community during our lives, it will also not leave us gay folks alone, as it constantly finds ways to denigrate us (e.g., by defining us as disordered in our very nature), and to trample on our rights (e.g., by colluding in attempts to remove the right of civil marriage from us where that right has been granted, by lobbying for the “right” of church institutions to refuse employment to gay folks or to fire gay folks without due process solely because we’re gay, etc.).

The church refused to leave Newman and the man he loved alone even in death. And miraculously, the two lovers escaped from the clutches of the church, as an attempt was made to separate Newman from St. John despite Newman’s explicit end-of-life request that he be buried with St. John, with whom he shared—as he himself suggested—a relationship akin to marriage.  Following St. John’s death, 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 any one’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

Newman and St. John shared a house, and he spoke of St. John’s death as “the greatest affliction I have ever had in my life.”  Newman himself and those close to him noted that the death of the man he loved  and whom he called “my earthly life” produced almost insurmountable grief in Newman.  Of their love, Newman wrote, “From the first, he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable.  As far as this world was concerned I was his first and last.”  Hence Newman’s desire to be joined to St. John in burial as they had been joined in life: Newman left as his express end-of-life dictate, “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.”  (For further information along with sources regarding the preceding citations, see Alan Bray, The Friend [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003], pp. 289-306).

I have no doubt at all that the attempt to dig up Newman’s bones and place them in a separate shrine has had a strong homophobic undercurrent. Imagine the discomfort of many magisterially inclined Catholics who buy into the church’s hostility to gay human beings heading to Newman’s grave to venerate his remains and having to confront, in the burial site itself, the disconcerting memory of his marital relationship with Ambrose St. John.

And so Newman has worked a miracle, it seems to me, by disappearing in death, by escaping the grasping hands of church officials intent on burying the evidence of his love for St. John, by commingling his flesh with that of St. John in the English earth in which they are buried together, so that the church officials intent on separating them cannot possibly know what atom of dust belongs to the blessed and what to the man he loved. And so that the church officials so intent on separating the lovers must now leave them alone, and leave those who wish to venerate the blessed free to visit their shared grave, if they wish to pray at the spot where this gay saint is buried.

And these reflections are really what, I suppose, I’m winding around to saying yet again as the beatification ceremony nears: John Henry Newman lived and died a gay man. Indubitably so. And that experience is part and parcel of both his legacy and of his magnificent theological heritage.  He enjoyed a long-standing committed relationship of love with another man, which he regarded as akin to a marriage. He explicitly asked that he be buried with the man he loved.

The choice to beatify Newman is the choice to beatify a gay saint. It is a choice to beatify a man whose every word about redemptive love is imbued with the loving gay sensibility of a gay man who loved another man intensely and with devotion.

The church may do all it wishes to deny that such love exists, or that it is holy, or that it offers other Christians an admirable example of Christian charity. The church may do all it wishes to make such love difficult, by heaping one burden after another on the backs of those who love in this gay way, in committed gay relationships full of self-giving and self-sacrifice that emulate the agapic love of Christ.

But nothing the church is capable of dishing out will ever stop such love from flowing into the hearts of gay and lesbian human beings, from flowing between one loving gay or lesbian person and  another, and from flowing like a river from committed gay couples into the lives of many other human beings who benefit in innumerable ways every day from gay love and loving gay relationships.  Into the lives of other human beings,  including those in Christian communities who want to pretend that such love does not exist, or who, when they deign to notice gay love, prefer to stigmatize it as dirty and unholy . . . .

And apologists for a church whose penchant for cruelty is on full display for all the world to see in its contempt for gay human beings and loving gay relationships will work in vain to deny that Newman was gay and that he loved St. John passionately. They will work in vain to make John Henry Newman a bolster for the restorationist (and cruelly homophobic) papal regimes of John Paul II and Benedict.

They will work in vain to remove the traces of gay love from Newman’s legacy, because those traces are everywhere on display in his life and thought.  They’re on full display in the grave he shares, at his own request, with the man to whom he regarded himself married.  And they’re on display in the picture of the married couple that adorns this posting, in which only a blind person cannot see the evidence of their love and their marital relationship.

Evidence of the gay love that a gay saint shared with another man.  A saint now about to be beatified—mirabile dictu!—by a pope who, perhaps more than any other pope in recent history, has besmirched his own legacy and undercut his own pastoral witness by the cruelty he has been bent on displaying to his gay brothers and sisters.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 14 Sept. 2010.

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4 Responses

  1. While I don’t think Newman’s legacy could be descirbed aptly as liberal (he wrote famously against liberalism in religion), and I think it is clear he was adamantly orthodox (in that he assented to every public mystery of the faith), I think this is a very good post.

    Newman opposed the methods of seminary formation in his day, the same methods of formation which saw the fostering of a culture of clerical psychpathy, which discouraged relationships with any degree of intesnity (leaving priests isolated to foment on moralism or dogmatism) and, whiile assenting to the definition of Vatican I, was adamantly against the ultra montane attitudes that we see the neo-cons reviving today.

    But most of all, as you said William, for people like us, this is a saint that did not hide an intense same-sex relationship that was obviously tender and devoted.

    The fact of his celibacy aside, this can not be ignored, it is very significant. The Church is giving us GLBT Catholics a great blessing in canonizing him.

    • Thank you, Jordan. I agree: it’s crucially important for every Catholic to find some saints who reflect our own human experience, and provide a model for holiness for the group to which we belong.

      Re: liberalism: the term had a very different, and quite specific, meaning in Newman’s England, which it doesn’t have now. Most conservatives in the U.S. (and perhaps throughout North America) aren’t true conservatives in the classic sense of that term at all. They’re liberals in the classic sense of the term liberalism.

      Where they differ from those they now call liberal is in the degree of state intervention in the economic sphere that the two groups are willing to tolerate. Otherwise, both “conservatives” and liberals in the North American context hold to a philosophy of atomic individualism that is totally alien to the traditional concept of conservatism, with its view of an organic society in which everyone is connected, and everyone has a responsibility to everyone else, from top to bottom.

      Newman wrote so much, and so variously, that I think it’s extremely hard to pigeon-hole him in terms of contemporary liberalism or conservatism. Wherever we might fit him in our contemporary theological and political spectrum, it’s rather difficult to imagine him fitting neatly into the restorationist mode, though.

      Not when he could write, “Truth is wrought out by many minds, working together freely.” That has decidedly not been the governing philosophy of the current ruler of the church, nor was it the governing philosophy of his predecessor, and the church is immeasurably poorer as a result.

      Had many minds been given the freedom to work together, we’d be able to make a far more compelling case for the pertinence of our religious tradition in contemporary culture than we’ve been able to make, with the top-heavy, utterly controlling model we now have, which is contemptuous of the thinking of the many minds that together constitute the people of God.

  2. When I came out to a professor of mine in university, a Medieval specialist, Mennonite convert and theologian with a mandatum, he pointed me to Newman’s toast to conscience, as well as the passage in the Catechism that the Marian dimension of the Church precedes the Petrine.

    This professor of mine is a Newman specialist and he is ostenibly orthodox, but I greatly appreciated his ability to see my struggle, to refuse to patronize me with moral theology and, instead, help lead me into the Catholic intellectual life with the guidance of my conscience.

    I am so happy to so Newman becoming a Saint.

    If it is so that in beatifying Newman the Church authorities are sainting a man whose thought is subervise to ecclessial authoritarianism, then I think there is some glimmer of hope in the institutional Church.

    By the way, did you read the comments of Diarmaid McCulloch in the “Five Minutes with the Pope” piece? You probably have, but if not, I think you would certainly appreciate it. He is a superb scholar.

  3. Jordan, it seems as if you had a wise mentor in that professor. I do think that the notion of conscience is at the very heart of Newman’s theology. There’s the famous toast he is said to have proposed at a banquet–to the pope, yes. But to conscience, first.

    It’s hard for us to imagine, I think, the climate within which he thought and worked, as the pressure to freeze theological thought and emphasize papal infallibility rose. This made it very difficult to write theology that would convince his fellow countrymen, who were imbued with centuries of democratic experience, to appreciate the increasingly autocratic claims of Catholicism.

    What I find wise in your professor’s approach to Newman and his legacy (and our complex, multivalent Catholic tradition) is the emphasis on religious experience first and obedience second. The autocratic, anti-intellectual strain in our tradition keeps wanting to reverse the order of the two, putting the cart before the horse.

    And this results in our inability to do the very thing we claim we want to do in defending our tradition and its values: interact creatively and convincingly with the culture around us.

    I don’t think I have read Diarmaid McCulloch’s piece. I’ll look for it–and I appreciate your telling me about it.

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