Gay or not, let Cardinal Newman rest in peace
Published 01/09/2008 | 00:00
I FIRST encountered the rumour in the 1990s, when I was engaged in presenting a radio documentary on Cardinal Newman for the BBC. It was a senior British Catholic who remarked casually to me: "Don't you think John Henry Newman was a homosexual? I mean, just look at the portrait!"
The best-known portrait of Cardinal Newman -- soon to become the last British Catholic saint -- is by Millais and shows an elderly gentleman with a refined and perhaps, indeed, rather feminised appearance. In his lifetime, contemporaries remarked on Newman's "effeminate" manner, as they then said, although sometimes this was a sly way of attacking him.
The Rev John Henry Newman had many critics after he sensationally quit the Church of England in 1845 and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Through his long deliberations and brilliant intellect, he had come to believe -- although not without regret, for he genuinely loved the Anglican church and preached a poignant last sermon when bidding it farewell -- that the Church of Rome held the apostolic succession of Christianity, and was the historic mother-church of the faith.
Newman's decision created a storm in mid-Victorian Britain, but it laid the foundations for the restoration of the Roman faith in the United Kingdom (which until the 1850s was permitted no diocesan structure at all).
Famously, John Henry Newman had strong links with Dublin, and could be said to have been the godfather of University College Dublin.
He came to Dublin in the 1850s to set up a Catholic university. He was inaugurated at the Pro-Cathedral, as rector of the university, and he commissioned the beautiful University Church on St Stephen's Green, designed by the architect John Hungerford Pollen.
He lived from 1855 to 1856 at 85-86 St Stephen's Green, later inhabited by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and subsequently James Joyce as a student. Newman's Catholic university never became operational, but he laid the intellectual foundation, not least by composing, in Dublin, his celebrated essay 'The Idea of a University'.
Newman was a very clever and very holy man and died at the age of 89 in 1890, a cardinal. He most specifically mandated in his will that he should be buried with his lifelong, most cherished friend Father Ambrose St John, with whom he shared so much of his life and indeed, his living quarters.
When Father Ambrose died in 1875, Newman wrote: "I have always thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that anyone's sorrow can be greater than mine."
He wrote, in approaching his own death, that "I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John's grave ... I view this as my last, my imperative will." The cardinal's wishes were observed and he was duly interred with his friend in a small cemetery at Rednal, near Birmingham. In the fullness of time, the wheels began to turn to elevate Newman to sainthood, the first step of which, as the world knows, is being pronounced a 'blessed'.
Pope Benedict is expected to make Newman 'blessed' in December, and in preparation for this step, Newman's remains are to be dug up from Rednal and transported to a much grander resting-place at Birmingham Oratory.
Enter the gay rights lobby, led by a gay Catholic campaigner, Martin Prendergast, and supported by the crusading Peter Tatchell. Vehement protests have been lodged against removing Cardinal Newman's bones. Newman was, so the claim goes, gay, and wished to be buried with his gay companion, and that should be respected. Come the exhumation, any day now, we can expect much ado.
Firstly, though, was Cardinal Newman a homosexual? The simple truth is we cannot know. It is entirely possible that this was his orientation; it is also entirely possible that the thought didn't enter his head.
It is always tricky reading backwards into the mentality of people who lived in former times. Although the Victorians outlawed male homosexuality in 1861 -- largely because there were gay brothels flourishing in London which the police thought should be suppressed -- they also had a refreshingly open attitude to same-sex friendships.
They thought nothing of individuals declaring their special love for a person of the same sex. Alfred Tennyson dedicated his most moving poem, 'In Memoriam' to a young man he loved deeply, Arthur Hallam.
The Catholic Church seems now to be set on a collision course with the gay lobby. The Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O'Connor, insists that Newman's remains must be removed to the Oratory, while Mr Prendergast and his supporters point out that it was Newman's specific wish to be with his friend in death.
Who is right? Why not solve the problem by respecting John Henry Newman's wishes and transferring Father Ambrose's remains, along with the future saint, to the Oratory? Then they can rest in peace together and Newman will have a proper place of dwelling for a saint (and an influential thinker of his time).
My own reading of Newman is that, whatever his orientation, he almost certainly led a chaste life, since he clearly valued the spirit as well as the custom of celibacy. And if he loved Father Ambrose as a person and a companion, he would have taken that as part of God's great plan.