On the final day of his United Kingdom trip, Pope Benedict XVI formally beatified English theologian and apologist Cardinal John Henry Newman. Let’s look at some of the stories about Newman. NPR’s excellent religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty had a piece speculating that Newman was gay. I thought it a completely bizarre approach for the main story the news outlet chose to report on the man.
The piece itself acknowledges, eventually, that there’s no actual evidence for the claim. But that comes after the large point headline asks:
Was Cardinal John Henry Newman Gay?
There’s lots of passive voice and two sources — one who has been accused of writing false things about historical figures before — saying that the close friendship Newman had with a man makes it not unreasonable to speculate about his homosexuality. He concedes there’s no evidence of a sexual relationship. This isn’t new. The fact is that there has been a great deal of speculation, in recent years, about the close friendship Newman shared with Ambrose St. John.
Now, my main question about this story is the simple angle. Why this angle over all the others? There are so many interesting things to explore about Newman, his writings, his life, his legacy. NPR chose, instead, to speculate about his sexual orientation.
But if you’re going to do it — why not do it better? Use more or better sources. Or put the close friendship in context. Close male friendships may be difficult to find these days, but they weren’t rare at all in 19th century England. The article uses the fact that Newman asked to be buried in the same grave as his best friend, but doesn’t mention that such grave sharing was common. It is possible to have deep, abiding, platonic love with someone else, even if such a relationship is considered odd in our highly-sexualized society that sometimes denigrates friendship. Or perhaps provide better evidence. Does the Catholic Church discourage such particular friendships? Was Newman’s reputation as something of a liberal part of the reason why this accusation has spread?
There’s also the odd use of ascribing modern concepts — such as calling someone “gay” — to 19th-century figures. This is a relatively recent construct and identity. There are better ways to phrase this. I think the article is trying to ask — either because of an inability of modern people to understand 19th-century friendship or some other more mysterious reason — if Newman experienced same-sex sexual attraction. That’s something different than labeling someone “gay.”
One of the sources for the story, John Cornwell, has a really fascinating essay in the Financial Times accusing the Pope of hijacking Newman’s legacy. Cornwall is the one accused of playing fast and loose with some facts, for what it’s worth. And I mention it again because The Guardian had a completely different essay by Eamon Duffy that describes the influence Newman had on Cardinal Ratzinger. National Catholic Reporter‘s John Allen describes both views, providing more substantiation for the latter, in a fascinating daily report. He ends with some intriguing angles that might have been worth some additional American reporting:
If additional proof of Benedict’s fondness for Newman were needed, consider this: When the pontiff was elected in April 2005, he made it clear that the pope would no longer celebrate beatification Masses in Rome. Instead, they were to be performed in the diocese by the local bishop, to underscore that a “blessed” belongs to a local church.
Over these past five years, Benedict XVI has stuck to that policy, declining to celebrate a single beatification Mass — until today. Benedict chose to make Newman his first, and potentially his only, beatification Mass, confirmation indeed that Newman is close to this theologian-pope’s heart.
Whether Benedict this morning is “hijacking” Newman, or setting free the real man beneath ideologically charged interpretations, will continue to be a matter of debate. That Benedict XVI takes Newman’s life and legacy seriously, however, is beyond any doubt.
One American footnote to this morning’s events: The miracle report which qualified Newman to become “blessed” involves Jack Sullivan, a Catholic deacon in Boston, who reported being miraculously cured of a spinal disorder after praying for Newman’s intercession. Sullivan was one of the deacons who assisted with this morning’s beatification Mass.
I love learning things like this. And speaking of learning things, I have to point out one last Newman story that shows how much better religion reporting can be done with just a little knowledge. In this case, some knowledge of saints and liturgical calendars. This comes from Catholic News Service:
When Pope Benedict XVI beatifies Cardinal John Henry Newman in mid-September, he’ll announce the new blessed’s feast day as Oct. 9– not the date of his death, which is typical for feast days, but the date of Cardinal Newman’s passage from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church.
Oooh, take that, Church of England! Just kidding, but the story does explain that Vatican regulations do allow a change for the feast day if, say, the date of death coincides with a major holy day or is crowded with other saints. Then, a different significant date is allowed. It’s significant in this case because the Church of England already has him on their liturgical calendar on August 11, the date he died. The story goes into some of the labyrinthine decision making process and ecumenical implications. The subtext here is intriguing, in light of the invitation Benedict gave to traditional Anglicans to join the Catholic Church.