Cardinal Newman: The Questions Continue

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jun 20, 2010 | Categories: Faith, History, Humor, Lesbians & Gays, Saints, Scandals

On March 16, 2010 the Holy See announced that Pope Benedict XVI will preside over the beatification of the Venerable John Henry Newman on September 19, 2010. The location for the Mass  hasn’t been decided yet, but  the site of the former MG Rover factory is now the “preferred venue” for Benedict XVI’s beatification of Cardinal Newman.   It is easier for security, and is closer to the place where Cardinal Newman will be venerated: Birmingham Oratory. One of the concelebrants of the Mass is sure to be the Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminister and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

In preparation for his beatification,  in October 2008 authorities opened  Cardinal Newman’s grave  to exhume and rebury  his  body.   Gay rights activists protested the separation of Newman from his longtime companion with whom he shared his burial place.   The idea of Catholic pilgrims going to the gravesite of two men to venerate one of them as a “Blessed” was too  uncomfortable  for church authorities to tolerate.

In a queer coincidence on the eve of Newman’s beatification, Birmingham Oratory experienced an upheaval over  a relationship between the provost of the Oratory and a young man.   Their relationship appeared to echo  Cardinal Newman’s  relationship with a priest, Fr. Ambrose St John a century before.

At the heart of the conflict are the allegations surrounding a close but chaste friendship between the former  Provost of Birmingham Oratory, Fr. Paul Chavasse, and a young man.   Fr. Chavasse had  also served as Actor for the Cause of Newman’s canonization. He has been replaced in both positions by the Very Rev. Richard Duffield. paul chavasse

“Around 2 1/2 years ago, in the autumn of 2007, Fr. Chavasse began to form an intense but physically chaste friendship with a young man, then aged 20, which the Fathers of Birmingham Oratory regarded as imprudent,” an Oratory spokesman said.   The young man had been rejected as a candidate for the priesthood, and Fr. Chavasse had complained on his behalf. Fr. Chavasse assured skeptical members of the community that he was not sexually involved with anyone, but these men continued to confront Fr. Chavasse and informed Rome of their concerns and suspicions.

Fr. Felix Seldon was appointed to conduct an “apostolic visitation” of the Birmingham Oratory.   Here is the upshot:

– Fr. Paul Chavasse “willingly” resigned as Provost of the Oratory and also as Actor for the Cause of Newman’s canonization in December 2010 – less than a year before Newman’s beatification.  He was directed to leave for a long retreat, or a fund raising trip to America–depending on which news story you read. Anyway, he’s vanished.

– The three members of the Birmingham Oratory that complained the loudest about Fr. Chavasse–Fr. Philip Cleevely, Fr. Dermont Fenlon and Br. Lewis Berry have been ordered “to spend time in prayer for an indefinite period” in religious houses hundreds of miles apart. No date was given for their return to the Birmingham Oratory.

An Oratory spokesman downplayed the homosexual allegations of the conflict. He explained there had been disagreements in the community how best to approach the beautification of their founder, Cardinal Newman. Fr. Fenlon, Fr. Cleevely and Br. Lewis were described on one blog as “known upholders of tradition and conservative Catholic values.” They have publicly opposed an interpretation of Cardinal Newman as a patron of conscientious dissent. As a theologian, Cardinal Newman played an important role in developing the modern formulation of the primacy of conscience, which is of fundamental importantance to gay and lesbian Catholics who reject in good conscience the standard teaching on sexuality.

The three men have also publicly protested the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales lack of vigorous opposition to sex education and relationships policy in schools put in place  by the British government. Archbishop Vincent Nichols is president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He previously served as Archbishop of Birmingham from 2000 to 2009.

Bishops of any stripe don’t appreciate publicity-seeking troublemakers.   With the halogen glare that will accompany the pope’s visit in September, I’m not surprised all four men were sent packing to distant monasteries.

Questions about Cardinal Newman’s sexuality revived when he was exhumed in 2008.

Newman, a  founder and member of the Birmingham Oratory, was buried in the small cemetery at Rednal near the Oratory County house. At his request, he was buried with Fr. Ambrose St John.

At the request of the Vatican, the British government gave permission for the cardinal’s remains to be transferred from Rednal into a sarcophagus that will stand between the marble columns opposite the Holy Souls’ Altar in Birmingham Oratory Church.   The Vatican is understood to have made the request so that Roman Catholic pilgrims could come and pray at Newman’s tomb. It is not traditional for veneration to occur at shared tombs.

Responding to recent insinuations in the British press that Cardinal John Henry Newman was gay and was an intellectual forefather of today’s dissenters from Catholic teaching, Fr. Ian Ker, the author of the “definitive” biography of Newman, called the claims that the cardinal was gay are “absolute rubbish.” He says there is “irrefutable evidence of Newman’s heterosexuality.”

This evidence rests in the “sacrifice” to a life of celibacy to which Newman felt he had been called at age 15. “A modern reader should not need to be reminded that in 19th century England homosexuality was illegal and generally considered to be immoral,” wrote Fr. Ker.   “The only ‘sacrifice’ that Newman could possibly  been referring to was that of marriage,” he said.

In a article entitled “John Henry Newman and the sacrifice of celibacy,” published in L’Osservatore Romano on September 3, 2009, Fr. Ker comments that “the decision to exhume the body of Venerable John Henry Newman has provoked reactions, in particular on the part of the homosexual lobby.” According to Ker, this “protest” carries the idea that “Newman wanted to be buried with his friend because he had some kind of bond with him or something more than just a simple friendship.”

When Fr. Ambrose St John, who was 14 years his junior, died in 1875, Newman compared his own grief to that of a husband’s for a wife. “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or wife’s, but I feel it is difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

Newman wrote in his diary about Fr. St John’s love for him: “From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable.” He later added: “As far as this world was concerned, I was his first and last…he was my earthly light.”

The cardinal repeated on three occasions his desire to be buried with his friend, including shortly before his death in 1890. “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr 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.”

The two men had a joint memorial stone that is inscribed with the words he had chosen: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth.”)

British gay rights activist Mr. Peter Tatchell observed: “It is impossible to know whether or not the relationship between Newman and St John involved sexual relations. Equally, it is impossible to know that it did not.”

“To be fair and to err on the side of caution, given both men’s rather orthodox religious beliefs,they probably did not have a sexual relationship. It is likely that they had a gay orientation but chose to abstain from sex. Sexual abstinence does not, however, alter a person’s orientation. A person can be gay and sublimate hteir gayness into spiritual and artistic pursuits, and into strong, intense platonic same-sex relationships, which is probably what Newman and St John did.”

“But many of these platonic relationships were, in fact, expressions of latent homosexuality which never fund physical expression because the men concerned lived in a homophobic culture where they either had no conception of the possiblity of same-sex love or, for religious reasons, dared ot express this love sexually.” newman 1

“Ker’s article is full of bald assertions that Newman was heterosexual, but it offers no proof or evidence. It dismisses the possibility that the Cardinal could have had a relationship with St John and even condemns the plausible suggestion that he might have been gay and celibate.”

The history of the Catholic Church is littered with popes, cardinals, bishops and priests who were secretly gay.   Down the ages, lots of clergy have had gay relationships. Indeed, about one-quarter of the current Catholic priesthood is estimated to be gay. Why should anyone be surprised by the suggestion Cardinal Newman might have had a same-sex relationship?”

The sexuality of Newman has long been a subject for conjucture. Charles Kingsley’s famous attack on Newman for his dishonesty, insincerity and sexual ambiguity. Kingsley compared Rome’s Catholic descendants as treacherous and effeminate and the pagan Germanic people or their English Protestant descendants as honest, trustworthy, and physically strong defenders of truth. When in 1864 Kingsley asserted that “truth, for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy . . . [and] Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage,” Newman roared back with his seminal work Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

John Henry Newman’s first steps toward Roman Catholicism came from his participation, study and writings as part of the Oxford Movement. This  religious movement began 1833 by Anglican clergymen at Oxford University to renew the Church of England by reviving certain Roman Catholic doctrines and rituals. This attempt to stir the Established Church into new life arose among a group of spiritual leaders in Oriel College, Oxford. Prominent among them were John Henry Newman  Richard Hurrell Froude. Froude died in 1836 at the age of 33.   Newman, 35 years old at the time, was  profoundly moved by his death. hurrell

The idea that the Oxford Movement contained a significant stream of homoeroticism was popularized by Sir Geoffrey Faber in the book Oxford Apostles – A Character Study of the Oxford Movement, published in 1933. One commentator declared, “Of the mutually feminine attachment which bound Newman and Froude together, there is no need to say more.”

In his journal of the late 1820s Froude records his struggle against “vile affections” and, referring to an unnamed undergraduate private pupil, cautions himself “above all (to) watch and pray against being led out of the way by the fascination of his society.”

Newman’s poems of the 1830s echo similar themes (“A Blight”), but also use well-known Biblical male pairs to make suggestive homosexual statements (“David and Jonathan” and especially “James and John,” with its reference to a state where “man may one with man remain.”

To his elegiac poem,  “Separation of Friends,” Newman added these final lines after the death of Froude in February 1836:

“Ah! dearest, with a word he could dispel
All questioning, and raise
Our hearts to rapture, whispering all was well,
And turning prayer to praise.
And other secrets too he could declare,
By patterns all divine,
His earthly creed retouching here and there,
And deepening every line.
Dearest! he longs to speak as I to know,
And yet we both refrain:
It were not good; a little doubt below,
And all will soon be plain.”

“But isn’t it about time,” said one commenter on a British news site, “that the Church stopped all this hypocritical nonsense and admit that the man they are about to beatify was gay, and that he was in loved with Fr Ambrose St John to the extent where they even wanted to get buried together. They may well have lived chaste lives and suppressed their sexuality successfully, but you cannot get around the content of the letters passing between the two of them.”

“And instead of branding Newman as ‘intrinsically disordered’, and effectively saying that he should never have been a priest, let alone a Cardinal, as the current regime would have to say, they should celebrate the life of a wonderful thinker, a truly gifted writer, and a man who was not ashamed to express his love for another man while at the same time observing a celibate life.”

“I can’t believe the irrational and inhuman knots this hierarchy ties itself up in.”

These two books provide interesting reading on Cardinal Newman’s sexuality and careful expression:  in The Friend (2003) the late  historian  Alan Bray presented  major research on the relationship between Newman and St John, sifting thorugh the Cardinal’s diary, letters and notes.    Secret Selves: Confession and Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Autobiography (2009) by Oliver Buckton  argues that literary “secrecy”–the very act of holding back information in a novel or memoir–was a primary and provocative indicator of Victorian homosexuality. One of the works he examines in his book is Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

A great deal more can be said  by  quite consciously saying much less.

My first  Nihil Obstat post about Cardinal  Newman  – “Keep it Secret” –  can be found here.

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10 Responses to “Cardinal Newman: The Questions Continue”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Why do you say that Fr. Philip Cleevely, Fr. Dermont Fenlon and Br. Lewis Berry were ordered to leave the Birmingham Oratory because they complained about Fr. Chavasse? Is it not just as likely that they were ordered to leave because they objected to his removal?

  2. Petrus Says:

    It is worth noting that in the review of the now widely considered ‘definitive’ biography of Newman by Ian ker -V Boland OP in the Blackfriars periodical this year states that the new edition:

    “The bulk of the ‘Afterword’ is devoted to the other issue that continues to encourage speculation, the question of Newman’s sexuality. It is only a post-Freudian hermeneutic of suspicion that feels obliged to see a sign of homosexual feelings on Newman’s part in his desire to be buried in the same grave as Ambrose St John. The impoverishment of the range of possible friendships between human beings implied in this suspicion is lamentable and Ker rightly argues against it. In fact Newman’s desire is complex, originating in his indebtedness to Ambrose St John whose death may have been hastened by the work Newman had asked him to do, in his preference for a simple grave among his colleagues rather than a grand tomb and, most striking of all, in the fact that buried on either side of St John were Joseph Gordon and Edward Caswall. These three were the men Newman described as ‘the life and centre of the Oratory’, faithful friends and supporters during the years of his conversion and his difficulties within the Catholic Church. To be buried among them, literally, seems like a very fitting way to acknowledge what they had been through together.

    There is evidence in Newman’s diaries of adolescent struggles with a strong heterosexual attraction. In 1840 he wrote a beautiful reflection on ‘the sympathy of a woman’s interest’, something that is not, and cannot be, his, ‘yet not the less do I feel the need of it’. The issue is already considered in the body of Ker’s biography, as Paul Parvis pointed out, with its concern to speak up the ‘masculine’ side of Newman’s character against accusations that his over-sensitivity and effeminacy might also be taken as signs of homosexuality. It might just as easily be argued now (where Freud is as likely to be dismissed as anyone else for what he has to say about homosexuality) that all this indicates that Newman was simply a man in touch with his ‘feminine’. He was, after all, a poet.”

    The Venerable John Paul was also a poet – does that make him someone repressing his latent homosexuality too? I doubt it

  3. Anonymous Says:

    To my mind it is extremely likely that Fr Dermot, Fr Philip and Br Lewis were sent away from the Oratory because they protested at the decision to make an example of Fr Paul Chavasse and humiliate him. Anyone who knows the personalities at the Birmingham Oratory could think of a much more plausible explanation. Whatever the reason, poor Fr Richard Duffield who was brought in from the Oxford Oratory to sort out the mess has been left in an invidious position. The absence of Fr Paul, who was such a reassuring presence to all of us, in addition to that of Fr Dermot, Fr Philip and Br Lewis, is entirely destructive to the prayerful and holy atmosphere which is characteristic of the Oratory.

  4. Sapientia Says:

    It is completely out of order to discuss whether a chaste friendship between two people is that of two gays, two heterosexuals, or one of each. If a person is celibate, what on earth does it have to do with anyone else whether they are attracted to the same sex or the opposite sex or neither? I find it completely unacceptable that the militant gay lobby claim people as one of them unless there is absolute proof that they are not. Believe it or not, some of us are simply not interested in sex and have more interesting things to do. And as for chaste friendships, isn’t that a basic human need, and particularly for a man whose vocation to the priesthood has denied him the opportunity for marriage and children?

  5. Censor Librorum Says:

    For the sake of argument….if the Venerable John Newman WAS gay, and WAS in loving (if chaste) relationships with other men during his life…would you still respect him? Would you feel he should be named a saint in the church for his enormous intellect? His deep well of faith? Clarity of vision?

  6. Sapientia Says:

    If you are asking me if I would still respect Cardinal Newman if he was a latent homosexual, yes, of course I would, it would make no difference to me at all. There is no evidence whatsoever, nor even any suggestion from the likes of Peter Tatchell as far as I am aware, that Newman was engaged in any homosexual activity. I have intense friendships with other women, but no-one would ever consider me to be gay. It is not for me to say whether Newman should be named a saint, but certainly a chaste friendship with another priest would not influence my opinion one way or the other.

  7. Veronique Says:

    Sapientia, what is in your eyes a ‘latent homesexual’? Is there such a person as a ‘latent heterosexual’? If you mean a chaste homesexual, as you would a chaste heterosexual, I would suggest just those words ‘chaste heterosexual or homosexual’. Would you say that Abelard’s love of Heloise was chaste and heterosexaul after his -unwilling- surgery? Or was he a latent heterosexual?
    As a young woman I was in love with another young woman. It was an unrequited and, alas, chaste love. Trust me, this homosexual passion was nothing but latent. I knew to name it for what it was.
    Once in religious life I had more of those strong emotional attractions. Again, no sexual interactions. But, trust me, homosexual, yet chaste relationships, are ‘sexual’ albeit not erotic, when the intensity of the emotion engulfed the whole person. That is what seems to have happened to Cardinal Newman, at least that is what is so well transcribed in his letters.
    The erotic part of homosexuality is not what makes the homosexual. No more than it makes the heterosexual.
    So Cardinal Newman was homesexual. Praise the Lord!

  8. Póló Says:

    How can anyone imply any but the basest motives to the RC church in this affair, given their general attitude to homosexuality. Newman’s sexual orientation would be completely irrelevant were it not for church hypocracy on the issue.

    I am always fascinated by the whole process of canonisation and sainthood. It is a very imprudent invocation of a celestial absolute in a fallible and imperfect world. It is increasingly coming back to bite the butt, so to speak.

    But it is not only the RC church that is tying itself up in knots. Look at this for medico-homophobia combined with arrogance and stupidity:

  9. Sapientia Says:

    Veronique, I am perhaps not the best person to know if there is such a person as a latent heterosexual, as I am one of those people for whom sex is rather irrelevant except for procreative purposes – I am always willing to do it if there is the possibility of a little reward nine months later. So maybe I am a heterosexual for convenience, but with latent asexual inclinations! Perhaps this is why I can’t see that it matters if Newman did have a chaste friendship with another man. I believe there is also plenty of evidence that he regretted that his calling meant giving up the possibility of marriage and children, and he certainly enjoyed chaste friendships with women too. I acknowledge that my understanding of this subject is rather limited though.

  10. Mick Ludden Says:

    As an ex-pupil of St Philips Grammar School I feel that I have some right to contribute a few words. When I was a pupil there in the 1950s homosexuality was treated as a foul, filthy sin by our ‘betters’ and a cause for mockery and dirty jokes by us. It seems that your community hasn’t grown up at all; the same old screwed up hotch-potch of pious religiosity dressed up for today in a parody of intellectual deliberation. I have spent most of the rest of my life since leaving that awful school rejoicing in the beauty and fscination of a god-free world. It’s a world that needs looking after, not by missionaries and preachers but by scientists and ecological activists. Let it go guys, girls and gays, liberate yourselves and let Newman’s memory be as gay or not as he was or wasn’t!

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