“Was Cardinal Newman Gay?” By Peter Tatchell
London – 8 September 2008
“The Vatican is panicked that allegations about Cardinal Newman’s sexual orientation may derail its plans to make him a saint”, said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell of the London-based gay rights group OutRage!
“The Pope’s spin doctors have gone into over-drive to denounce claims that Newman was gay and to justify his exhumation and reburial. This reburial is contrary to Newman’s instructions to his executors. He wanted to be buried with the man he loved and with whom he lived for much of his life, Father Ambrose St John.
“Following news stories suggesting that Cardinal Newman might have been gay, the Pope ordered Archbishop Angelo Amato, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Sainthood, to go on the offensive and issue a stern rebuttal.
“Archbishop Amato asked Father Ian Ker, an Oxford theologian and Newman biographer, to assert the Cardinal’s heterosexuality, which he did in an article published on 2 September in the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
“Although he denounced suggestions that Newman could have been gay as “quite horrendous” and “absolute rubbish”, Ker offered no evidence of the Cardinal’s heterosexuality, only speculation and conjecture.
“Why are Ker and the Vatican being so defensive? After all, in a major theological document authored two decades ago by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), The Vatican conceded that having a gay orientation is not a sin. Why, then, does the Catholic Church apparently have such a big problem admitting that Newman might have been gay by orientation?
“Ker claims that the Newman-St John relationship was typical of the “loving friendship” between two heterosexual men that often occurred in the nineteenth century.
“But many of these platonic relationships were, in fact, expressions of latent homosexuality which never found physical expression because the men concerned lived in a homophobic culture where they either had no conception of the possibility of same-sex love or, for religious reasons, dared not express this love sexually.
“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.
“How can the Vatican be so sure? Were its spies in Newman’s bedroom every night of his life?
“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 that Cardinal Newman might have had a same-sex relationship? It would not be extraordinary. It is fairly normal in the priesthood.
“It is impossible to know whether the relationship between Newman and St John involved sexual relations. Equally, it is impossible to know that it did not. That is why the Vatican’s and Father Ker’s denials lack credibility. They claim to know something that is unknowable.
“Why should we believe The Vatican? It has a sad history of dishonesty and suppressing the truth. It lied, for example, in its anti-safe sex propaganda which claimed that condoms have tiny holes through which the HIV virus can pass. The church’s lies, promoted by the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, were exposed in a BBC Panorama programme, Sex and the Holy City, broadcast in 2003.
The denials about Newman’s sexuality should be treated with the same contempt. Even if the Vatican knew he was gay, it would never admit it. The Pope would deny the truth to suit the Vatican’s homophobic agenda.
“Although we cannot know for certain, it is not unreasonable to believe that Cardinal Newman could have had a loving, long-term same-sex relationship with the man whose grave he shares. The passion of his letters and writings about Father Ambrose suggest this possibility.
“There is little doubt that Newman and St John were mentally and spiritually in love; sharing a deep bond and intense relationship. They were inseparable; living together for over 30 years, like a married husband and wife.
“The Christian historian Alan Bray has done major research on the relationship between Newman and St John, sifting through the Cardinal’s diary, letters and notes. His findings are published in his book, The Friend (2003): http://tinyurl.com/6qq5nb
“They include the following admission that Newman wrote in his diary about Ambrose’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.'”
“Newman stated that St John was “fair and Saxon-looking, my Angel Guardian,” who, he said, had come to him as Ruth came to Naomi and as the angel Raphael came to Tobias.
“Reflecting on St John’s death in 1875, Newman compared their love to that of a married couple: “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…This is the greatest affliction I have had in my life.”
“While we need to be careful about making stereotyped assumptions, it is true to say that the Cardinal was not exactly macho. In his portraits, he looks quite camp. His soft, gentle, effeminate demeanour is typical of what we often associate with some gay men (and, to a lesser extent, some straight men too). There were allegations during his lifetime about his circle of young homosexual friends. Close relations with women did not feature at all in his life.
“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 their gayness into spiritual and artistic pursuits, and into strong, intense platonic same-sex relationships, which is probably what Newman and St John did,” said Mr Tatchell.
For further information, see my 4 September Guardian website article:
Violating Cardinal Newman’s wishes: