Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Something Very Newmanesque"

David Gibson has an interesting (and rather entertaining!) piece at dotCommonweal about the mysterious absence of remains in the tomb of John Henry Newman (1801-1890).

As you may know, the body of Cardinal Newman was to be exhumed and moved to a more suitable location for veneration – planned in anticipation of his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

Yet surprise, surprise: when the tomb was opened . . . well, I’ll let the Vatican tell the rest via the following media release:

Brass, wooden and cloth artifacts from Cardinal Newman’s coffin were found. However there were no remains of the body of John Henry Newman. An expectation that Cardinal Newman had been buried in a lead-lined coffin proved to be unfounded. In the view of the medical and health professionals in attendance, burial in a wooden coffin in a very damp site makes this kind of total decomposition of the body unsurprising. The absence of physical remains in the grave does not affect the progress of Cardinal Newman’s cause in Rome.

In his dotCommonweal article, Gibson quotes Austen Ivereigh who suggests that there is “something very Newmanesque” about all of this. And it’s not because Newman wanted to Rest in Peace with Ambrose St. John (pictured at left), a fellow Oratorian who Newman described as the great love of his life.

No, as Ivereigh puts it, we’re dealing with “a shy, delicate, bookish man [who] was never at ease with some of the aesthetic and ritual habits of the Church to which he spectacularly converted in 1844. The fact that there will be no lying-in-state, no marble sarcophagus to venerate, and no relics to distribute (beyond the few locks of hair that exist), seems hugely appropriate.”

Following are some highlights of David Gibson’s dotCommonweal article, one entitled The Empty Tomb: Cardinal Newman’s Last Laugh?

Was Cardinal Newman gay? Or (as the joke has it) simply divine? That was the controversy that dominated the dust-up over exhuming John Henry Newman, the great nineteenth-century English convert to Rome, in order to move his body to a more suitable location for veneration – that in anticipation of his beatification (the penultimate step to canonization) by Pope Benedict XVI next year.

Newman, you see, had requested – indeed insisted, with his final breath – that he be buried in a grave at Rednal Hill cemetery outside Birmingham with Ambrose St. John . . . the great love of his life. “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, “This I confirm and insist on.”

Many today thus insisted that removing Newman’s body from the grave would violate his last wishes as well as what they saw as a relationship that was more than Platonic – hence Newman was, improbably, becoming a gay icon of the twenty-first century.

Not surprisingly, that argument sparked more than a bit of debate, and strong counter-reactions. Those reactions may say more about a 21st-century American culture that is hinky about male friendships than it does about Newman. Still, theirs was an especially intense bond.

[English Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh’s] judgment that it is a bit much to consider the two men as a “couple” or “partners” in the modern, homosexual sense, seems about right, even if one must also consider the possibility that they were homosexually-inclined men [!] who shared an intense if chaste relationship. [I wonder if chaste is being equated with celibacy here? They are different, you know. Theoretically, Newman and Ambrose could have had relationship that was both sexual and chaste, i.e., pure in heart. If this was actually the case, then the only thing that would have blemished this purity would have been the fear that ensured that this sexual aspect of their relationship remained cloaked in secrecy - even to this day.]

Is there anything wrong with [two homosexual men sharing in a chaste relationship, by which I'm assuming Ivereigh means “celibate”]? A Newman biographer, Father Ian Ker, seemed to think so, penning a piece in the Vatican newspaper (CNS story here) in which he blamed the “homosexual lobby” for stirring up controversy (actually the first hurdle was a British law barring exhumation; that was eventually waived) and echoing a favorite line that celibacy can only be a sacrifice for a heterosexual not a homosexual because only a straight man is giving up marriage with a woman. “The only reason for which celibacy could be a sacrifice was that Newman, as every normal man, wanted to get married,” Ker said. [Oh, Father, give it a rest. Newman clearly wasn’t “as every normal man.”]

Of course, Ker’s pathetic blathering simply highlights the Church’s obsession with “acts” as opposed to “relationships.” Indeed, the extent to which some in the Church negatively fixate on what two consenting adults do or don’t do to express their love borders on the “pervy” (as we say in Australia for “perverted”).

But back to the disappearance of Newman’s body. What happened? Where did it go? Could it really have totally decomposed, bones and all?
And what about Ambrose’s body? Wasn’t it and Newman’s body buried together in the same tomb? The drama of it all, you have to admit, is, well . . . really quite gay! (Hey, as a gay kid I was always into mysteries like the fate of the Romanovs, the Man in the Iron Mask, the lost Ark of the Covenant, the Yeti . . . even the events of Fatima at one point. Maybe it’s this love of drama and mystery that, in part, draws so many gay people to religious life!)

Crystal, over at the always insightful Perspective blog, highlights a fascinating Independent Catholic News story that examines an 1890 newspaper report that may shed light on Newman’s empty tomb. Apparently during the burial service, “the [non-lead lined] coffin was covered with mould of a softer texture than the marly stratum in which the grave is cut.”

Hmm, not so dramatic after all.

Still, Newman’s wish to rest forever with his great love, Ambrose, remains honored after all. And there’s definitely something beautiful about that, don’t you think?

Recommended Off-site Link:
Keep It Secret - Nihili Obstat, September 15, 2008.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Many Forms of Courage
What Is It That Ails You?


Anonymous said...

Michael, there's something in your marginalia that reminds me of a great review of the book "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity." The full review I'm thinking of can be found here:

The quote is this: "There's a certain temptation to leaf through the book shouting "Caribou? Gay! Red-necked Wallaby? Gay! Golden Plover? GAY GAY GAY!" But of course it's not that simple."

Its not that simple for the saints, either. Must we parse every part of the life of every saint looking for clues to sexual orientation and expression?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Mark, you ask: "Must we parse every part of the life of every saint looking for clues to sexual orientation and expression?"

To which I say: No. But in the case of Newman and Ambrose it would seem that the "clues" (at least with regards to orientation) appear both obvious and unavoidable.



Anonymous said...

As someone who reveres Newman, regardless of his sexual orientation, I find this post macabre and grotesque.

Newman's scholarship has not been outdone since his time. His keen mind understood "modernity" better than anyone before or since. His sermons, both to St Mary's and mixed congregations, remain exemplars of homiletics in which passion and intellect coexist.

Vatican II was nicknamed the "Newman Council," because of his overt influence after the extreme Mariology of the 19th century. I am fully confident that Newman's homophilia was a great asset to the greatest churchman since Aquinas. You cannot help but feel his androphile sensibilities, albeit cloaked in Victorianism, but even those qualities pale in contrast to his rhetorical skills.

Newman, lest we forget, wrote the great Idea of an University, which became the great treatise for catholics and non-catholics to embrace a liberal education, and which most religious orders still try to embody. Newman is not gay first, but first a great man, with noble aspirations, a huge intellect he shared with faithful and foreign alike, and who brought more people to the Church of Rome for his reasons, not for his sexuality.

I hope he loved one of the "Oxford Apostles," because his temperament shows he knew love. But, he remained celibate, because he was faithful, and his fidelity was born and lived in its times for his acceptance of conditions we today might reject. I do, and I respect his choices. Above all, I respect his conscience, which his autobiography Apologia pro vita sua remains an extraordinary testament to authenticity.

Newman is, for me, the saint of authenticity. His commitment to the supremacy of conscience, his commitment to consulting the faithful, his commitment to righteousness not distinct from "justification," are hallmarks of a Brit that the Church of Rome still find alien. It is Rome that is alien, as Newman was a herald of a church that had to evolve from its deficits. The comingling of the sensory, the sensual, and the spiritual -- hallmarks of the Tractarian Movement -- remain the last demarcation of a church open to the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Maurice Zundel captured Newman's sensibility in the 1940s:

Gestures turn inwards, words becomes silent, chants listen, colours set forth the soul's reasons, incense bears her prayer aloft, the whole of matter offers the depths of its being to be the tabernacle of the Spirit. Creation is seen from within, transparent in the living unity of love. The light of the world shines in the flame of a candle, its heart beats in the mystery of the flickering lamp. In this state of contemplation, the universe has becomes one IMMENSE SACRAMENT. . .

This is NEWMAN via Zundel writing in the Splendor of the Liturgy, 1939. Some might call it noble simplicity, others might call it the sacramentalization of the world; it was Newman and his Oxford Tractarians that sought to re-unite the sacred with the temporal, and those who see his successes cry at others' failures.

But I would never try to make Newman fit our times, because he truly is a man for all times. Unless one understands the British philosophers of the 18th century, they'll never understand Newman. Newman is the ONLY theologian I know to address modernity head on. He may ultimately fail, but not for trying. That he tried is more than others begin.

Michael J. Bayly said...

"Macabre and grotesque"?

So we can't talk about the genuinely interesting and intriguing reality that there were no remains found in Newman's tomb? How boring.

Nothing in this post detracts from Newman's scholarship, rhetorical skills, or any of his other qualities which you obviously "revere."

No disrespect, but I think you need to "lighten up" on this one, Gay Species.