The Pope, The Gay Saint, and His Lover: The Beatification of Cardinal Newman

John Henry NewmanOn September 19, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify John Henry Cardinal Newman.[1] A controversial figure in Nineteenth-Century England, Cardinal Newman converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism towards the middle of his life. Yet during the recent lead up to his beatification it has been Cardinal Newman’s purported sexual rather than his religious affections that have caused the greater controversy. This shift in public interest from the spiritual to the sex life of Cardinal Newman raises some interesting questions. For example, there is the problematic categorization of historical forms of sexuality: in what sense, if at all, should people describe a man from the Nineteenth Century as “gay”? or even as having sexual desire categorized solely in terms of male objects? or as having “suppressed” such desire? That is, how should people attempt to understand the shape and contours of Newman’s sexuality, given the great discursive shift which has occurred between then and now, in particular within the West?

Newman’s imminent sainthood has reignited a debate which is typically framed anachronistically (and so is somewhat predetermined) as the question of his “homosexuality.” And the ill-defined debate has been discussed on and off for about a century, with a variety of answers and conclusions. A further major problem is that the evidence concerning Newman’s sexual appetites is quite inconclusive. In a 1976 article, “A Gay Saint or A Saintly Gay”[2] – written 34 years ago in the expectation of Cardinal Newman’s imminent canonization – Martin Smith produces one of the more persuasive pieces of evidence: Oscar Wilde comments on Newman’s sexual proclivities in a letter he wrote in April 1876 to the artist, William Rothenstein. Wilde recounts a visit he made to Cardinal Newman:

“Today have been to see Father Newman. Dunskie [David Hunter Blair] took me. A sparrow of a man is Newman but sharp and saintly. I’d heard talk he was a devotee of Greek Love but now I know. We chatted about Oxford and other matters.”

By this stage in the Nineteenth Century, “a devotee of Greek Love” had become a recognized yet covert term for a man who enjoyed sex with other men. So there is little doubt concerning Oscar Wilde’s meaning, nor his authority on the matter, given that Wilde was an Achilles to more than one Nineteenth-Century Patroclus. But what does this mean? Did Wilde merely recognize some such quality in Newman, or did Newman explicitly disclose something to him? And what would Wilde have recognized? Newman’s desire for Wilde? Newman’s desire for other men in their company? Perhaps a telltale saintly erection?

Then there is the fact that Newman claims that he decided to become celibate at age 15 -when he was a newly converted evangelical Anglican (just to make it clear: this was well before his conversion to Catholicism, and so was an unusual, if not “perverse” choice for an Anglican Christian). What do we make of this claim? Was the adolescent Newman trying to prevent his same-sex desire from actualizing into what he understood as a carnal sin? In 2010, when “celibacy is the new deviancy,”[3] how do we adequately evaluate his decision to abstain from sex? Another frequently adduced piece of “evidence” is that, towards the end of his life, Newman stated his desire to be buried alongside Ambrose St. John, a man with whom he had lived for some decades and by all accounts formed an intense bond. Yet was this merely a spiritual, or also a sexual, bond? And if the former, can we speak of a suppressed sexuality? Yet doesn’t that categorization presume that sexuality is already some pre-packaged “thing” that precedes the objects of our desire? And is it, or to what extent is it?

The present controversy over the shape and proclivities of Newman’s sexuality has provoked a fierce exchange between Peter Tatchell of London-based gay rights group ‘OutRage!’ and various Catholic spokespersons.[4] Yet certain aspects of the exchange also reveal that the two groups share many of the same underlying assumptions. For one, the issue is framed as one of “gay orientation,” that is, whether Newman had it or not. One group vehemenantly affirms it, the other denies it with equal passion. It is assumed, or at least not challenged, that this tendency is something that can be “had,” something that could have been essential to Newman’s person. And so if this essential same-sex orientation did not realize itself in sexual intercourse with other men, it is assumed that this thing must have been “suppressed”. According to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on homosexuality and “homosexual persons” from 1986,[5] Newman’s suppression would probably constitute a sign of his saintly virtue, overcoming a “disorder” caused by “the Fall.” But for OutRage!, abstinence must be viewed as the outcome of oppression by a homophobic society. In addition, each group decries the other’s “agenda”, thus claiming for themselves the ground of neutral objectivity and rationalism. The Catholic News Agency protests “the calumnies” leveled against “the Servant of God” by “the homosexual lobby”, whose leaders “are attempting to manipulate the image of the cardinal in order to promote their agenda.” (And this from a religious organization which was in the process of claiming that “miracles” were being performed by Newman from beyond the grave, in order to establish that he was enthroned in heaven beside God Almighty—which presumably the Catholic Church regards simply as agenda-free “Truth”.) Furthermore, each group also denounces the other as basing their claims on nothing more than an argument from silence. Tatchell accuses Catholic spokesperson and Newman biographer Father Ian Ker that he “offered no evidence of the Cardinal’s heterosexuality, only speculation and conjecture.” In reply, the Catholic spokesperson could safely point out that there is no explicit evidence about same-sex activities, and that Newman’s homosocial activities do not necessary imply anything sexual.

One conclusion that might be drawn from this inconclusive debate is the impossibility of such positivist postures. An insurmountable problem for traditional historical biographical research arises when, as possibly is the case here, the subject deliberately keeps a secret about some part of his or her life. When the constant threat of persecution hangs over any speech, including speech about same-sex desire, the rules of evidence must change. For the alternative is that we must rule out-of-court what might be some of the most important information about the past; we might perpetuate the conditions which silenced certain ways of thinking and acting. Where there is a relevant environment of persecution, as there is in some shape or form in every society, evidence cannot simply be taken at face value. What truth can be found lies precisely in the silences, in what is not said, in what cannot be said. Rather than accepting the normal assumptions concerning evidential burden of proof, we might then adopt Leo Strauss’s thorough, anti-positivist approach to historical biography, which attempts to highlight the apparently minor sites in texts in which the author furtively reveals his secret, minimizing the major thesis of his text as a obfuscatory veil.[6] Or we might apply Jean-François Lyotard’s search for what the strictures of the law prevent people from phrasing, that is, for what is inexpressible within the current confines of discourse, as indicated by the presence of a differend.[7]

So on September 19, 2010, we might as well relish the (unestablished, unable-to-be-established, and indefinable) “fact” that Pope Benedict XVI will declare a “gay” man to be a Christian saint!

[1] The Birmingham City Council’s guide to the Pope’s visit; Pope Benedict XVI In the United Kingdom

[2] Gay Literature 5 (1976): 25-30.

[3] Graham Hart and Kaye Wellings, “Sexual Behaviour and Its Medicalization: In Sickness and In Health.” British Medical Journal 324 (2002): 896-900.

[4] “Biographer of Cardinal Newman answers calumnies of homosexual lobby,” Catholic News Agency (Sep 3, 2008); Peter Tatchell, “Violating Cardinal Newman’s wishes,” The Guardian (Sep 4, 2008); “Was Cardinal Newman gay?” (Sep 9, 2008).

[5] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect), “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (Oct 1, 1986).

[6] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (New York: Free Press, 1952), esp. pp. 27-30.

[7] Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Tr. G. Van Den Abbeele; Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

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