News about Newman

Pope Benedict XVI (3rd R) participates in a beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham, central England September 19, 2010. The Pope is on the final day of a four day state visit to England and Scotland.   REUTERS/Darren Staples (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)

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.

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  • John D

    My knowledge of history does not extend to 19th-century British funerary customs. You state that the writer should have noted that shared burials of friends was common in Newman’s period. Really? Got a cite for that?

    Certainly, the article should have noted whether or not this was a common practice. I’ve only heard of two examples, this and Oscar Wilde/Robbie Ross.

    So, someone has failed to “get” religion. Either Hagerty or you.

  • Julia

    An English group called Catholic Voices has been pulling interesting coverage together at a blog-site and making its members available for interviews and commentary at events to provide accurate and understandable info on the Pope, Church teaching and Catholic rituals.

    Today the monitoring site features the Monday morning summing up of the Pope’s trip in all 5 main newspapers in Great Britain – The Times, the Guardian, Daily Mail, Telegraph and the Independent.

    There is a very short piece describing each newspaper’s coverage. You may have to scroll down a bit to where it starts with

    Post-Pope Monday Papers (5): The Telegraph

    I’m wondering if Get Religion is the inspiration for this group.

    I don’t think John Allen has commented on Catholic Voices yet, but I’m pretty sure he will. It’s a great model for what “the Vatican” should do about it’s normally bad press.

  • Martha

    I’m not surprised about the gay angle, though it does make me indulge in eye-rolling. Same way you get the “David and Jonathan are an example of a loving gay relationship in the Bible” boilerplate (or Naomi and Ruth if you’re looking for the lesbian exemplars) and this is trotted out as the rationale behind changing doctrine and practice.

    It stems, I think, from a basic confusion that can be reduced to “Catholic Church says being gay is a sin!” (no, that’s not what the Church says) and then activists seeking either to embarrass the church (in the worst case) or garner support for their view (in the best) do the bit about pulling out “Hah! You say being gay is a sin, but this man you declared a saint is gay! What about that, then?” and they imagine that they’ve caught out the church in a contradiction. Oops, red faces all round, and we’ll have to completely change the Magisterium on the proper regard of sexuality.

    Except no, it doesn’t work like that, but the kind of detailed explaning of what exactly church teaching includes is the dull, boring stuff that doesn’t make for sexy attention-grabbing headlines and usually gets buried down in the second-to-last paragraph.

  • Mollie

    John D,

    Maybe not “common” so much as “not unheard of.” I just think that context — about friendship and homosexuality, etc. — should have been included in the story.

  • Julia

    There has been speculation about Eleanor Roosevelt, too, because of some flowery letters she wrote to a close woman friend. She was from a different era. In many European and Asian countries it is very, very common to see women friends strolling with linked arms. It must be our Puritan heritage.

    Here’s some info on Eleanor Roosevelt’s friend, the letters and the speculation about her relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt.

  • Chris

    I think all groups who claim that a person who achieved great things is “one of them” could be seen as “high-jacking” that person. It is almost impossible to describe who a famous individual was and what he/she did, after the fact, without impressing ones own cultural assumptions. In cases where the work done is technical or arcane (science, mathematics and theology come to mind), the temptation is to focus on the personal life of the famous person, because it is more understandable to the general reader. For example, it’s much easier to write about the sexual relationships of great physicists than the physics that they did. I think this applies a little to the coverage of Newman here. The theology involved at the time would be pretty arcane stuff for the general reader–but the issue of whether Cardinal Newman was homosexual or heterosexual is much more interesting.

  • Norman

    It says something about the ideological rigidity of the American media that the ferocious UK press judged the trip a triumph, while US journalists are unwilling to say as much.

  • Jerry

    John D’s request for a site on shared burials of friends interested me and I found this site that says that practice was common.

    Of course, in this hypersexual era, people automatically assume that really good friends must be gay or repressed gay. That reductionism is understandable but still sad.

  • Lori Pieper

    Great article, Mollie, but one correction: It’s John Cornwell, not Cornwall.

    The notorious author of Hitler’s Pope — so yes, he has quite a reputation for mangling the facts.

  • Sarah Webber

    I actually heard the report live and I was incensed, and I’m not even Catholic! It’s so disappointing to recognize how even our concept of friendship has been sexualized. Very disappointing.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A historian on ETWN said that in the 19th Century even a married man would sometimes be buried with his best friend rather than his wife.
    And Mollie, you described NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty as an “excellent religion reporter.” However, the evidence you presented clearly proves she is now a “former” excellent religion reporter. I know one piece does not a reputation make, but sometimes a reporter does such a lazy or incompetent job someone should put him or her on the unemployment line. In addition, I believe NPR gets my tax money (which I want refunded).

  • Joe

    If one is familiar with Newman’s handling of Scripture, the idea has was gay is laughable. Did no one mention he felt from an early age called to celbacy? Course not.

  • michael

    I too am baffled by why mentions of Barbara Bradley Hagerty on GR always seem to be prefaced by something like “the excellent.”

    This is not the first dubious story angle that we’ve seen from her or the first time we’ve seen one of her stories cater superficially to some trendy contemporary preoccupation.

  • Passing By

    Last year, the pope announced the Ordinariates, through which Anglicans could become Catholic in bulk (as it were), bringing some cultural elements with them. If memory serves, The Times used the analogy of the pope parking a tank on the lawn of Lambeth Palace. Everyone in the Anglican world, it seemed, had an opinion, mostly outraged.

    Times change, though, and as much as I cast around, I can’t find reporting of outrage at the pope beatifying Newman – a high profile Anglican-to-Catholic convert – on British soil. People seem more interested in the fact of the pope’s doing it than in where it was done. Call me bellicose, but “in your face” is the phrase in my mind.

    And, speaking of “in your face”, how about giving a lecture on faith and government taking as your point of departure the Catholic martyr St. Thomas More. How about giving said lecture in the same room that saw St. Thomas’s trial? Am I the only person who sees the cheek in that? Or at least the irony. I admit, I’m a sucker for the ironic, and would be getting a charge out of it were I Anglican.

    And they loved him. Are all the reporters in England pope-drunk?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I don’t think they were pope-drunk. They were surprised to see an elderly gentleman who could be anyone’s kindly grandfather. Remember, the English press and media had played him up as the Second Coming of Dracula or the invasion of the rotweiler. The shock of the difference between the truth and the charicature was too much for them.
    And Passing By–another irony–apparently the pope was in England on the anniversary of the start of the air attack by the Germans on Britain called “The Battle of Britain” in WWII. The German pope made it a point to praise the British people for their heroic struggle against Nazi Tyranny on that date.
    Also most of the American press didn’t report on words and issues that the pope probably picked up from Americans–like sticking up for the celebration of Christmas (Bill O’Reilly’s big holiday issue) and the pope’s use of a phrase coined by a late American priest and convert from Lutheranism, Father John Neuhaus,:: The Public Square.

  • Hector

    Re: If one is familiar with Newman’s handling of Scripture, the idea has was gay is laughable

    The idea that he had sex with anyone (men or women) is probably pretty laughable, but the idea that he was attracted to men isn’t, necessarily. Being a celibate doesn’t mean that one lacks sexual feelings, it means that one chooses not to act on them. Plenty of people feel called to celibacy, and I have the highest regard for those who do- my (Anglican) priest back home is a vowed celibate- but it doesn’t mean that they are nonsexual beings. I’ve heard it suggested that St. Anselm (the greatest light of the English Church, bar none) was a celibate gay man as well.

    Re: The theology involved at the time would be pretty arcane stuff for the general reader

    I love what he did with the 39 Articles though (though I’m not the biggest fan of the 39 Articles in any case, and regard them as historically interesting but very far from infallible) and I don’t really think the issues involved are that arcane. “Does Purgatory exist” is a pretty simple question, with either a yes or no answer. (For my money, I’m betting on the answer being ‘yes’.)

  • Donna

    As for the October 9th feast date – The C of E may commemorate him on August 11th, but on the Roman calendar that’s already the feast of St. Clare of Assisi . I think the move was probably more about not competing with the Franciscans than antagonizing Anglicans.

  • tmatt


    Thanks for the correction on Cornwell.

    I think MZ has been out of pocket again, most of today. I just saw your note and made the correction.

  • Bram

    This kind of tripe is absolutely par for the course in Literature departments. Any time two men appear together on the same page, they’re secretly “gay.” One had hoped this particular version of the left-liberal dum-dum virus wouldn’t spread to History as well, but apparently it has. Sad, but not surprising at all. And even less surprising still is its migration to NPR. Again, par for the course.

  • Jeffrey

    I hope someone at GR can respond to the concerns about Hagerty and how the bloggers refer to her. Concerns about her reporting are nothing new, but I know she has personal connections here. A little transparency would be helpful.

  • tmatt


    Sure, I will. She is one of the best professionals working in religion news coverage in the mainstream.

    To say that does not mean that one agrees with everything that she writes or that is aired by NPR.

    She is a pro. We can only wish that more newsrooms contained professionals with her experience and training.

  • Julia

    And, speaking of “in your face”, how about giving a lecture on faith and government taking as your point of departure the Catholic martyr St. Thomas More. How about giving said lecture in the same room that saw St. Thomas’s trial? Am I the only person who sees the cheek in that? Or at least the irony. I admit, I’m a sucker for the ironic, and would be getting a charge out of it were I Anglican.

    I was transfixed. To see these high level Brits sitting there so calmly listening to the Pope – the Pope who is burned in effigy every year in the UK!!! – speaking right where More was condemned to death for refusing to acknowledge the King as head of the church is just astonishing.

    That was a much more fascinating story than the goofy protesters. Regardless of what you think about what Benedict said, the fact of him addressing the issue straight on in that place is incredible. That speech and his visit to Istanbul after his Regensberg speech are huge.

    We won’t be around to read history books in the 22nd century, but I’ll bet both events will be considered significant examples of walking into the lion’s den of historical memory.

    However, in general, people today apparently don’t recognize the big sweep of history when it’s staring them in the face from the TV screen.

  • Mollie

    Hagerty writes a ton of religion news stories. And some of her stories are some of my favorites. Not everything is going to turn out great, but she consistently finds the important religion angles in some of the most provocative and interesting stories of our day. She also does a great job of letting sources explain their own point of view (without stating that one side or another is the right view) and usually does a good job of answering questions that are raised in a given story — wherever that may lead.

    I like her a lot. You can search through GR archives and find that many of her stories have been well received by other reporters as well as her readers.

  • Norman

    This makes for an interesting juxtaposition:

    First, an extraordinary editorial from the UK’s Independent. In part:

    One of Private Eye’s most enduring satirical devices is the imaginary letter of apology by the press as a whole, when their commonly-held opinion about an individual is confounded by events. This would certainly apply to the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI. The headline on this newspaper’s leading article yesterday – “Benedict spoke to Britain” – was not one that could have been imagined a week earlier.

    Or, as Private Eye might put it: “The Pope. An Apology. We wish to apologise for describing His Holiness as the jackboot-wearing tyrannical leader of a corrupt institution committed to the rape of children and the extermination of the entire African continent. We now accept that he is a sweet old man, never happier than when kissing babies, and that this country has much to learn from his humanity and concern for the weakest in society.”

    Contrast with a post in the WaPo’s On Faith blog:

    “Now that Pope Benedict XVI has returned from the UK, most commentators will surely label the trip a failure, in spite of Vatican characterizations to the contrary.”

    And from the NY Times account:

    “A day after drawing both adoring crowds and the largest protests of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up a historic and *contentious* four-day visit to Britain on Sunday…” (emphasis on “contentious” mine)

    What is sad is that there are probably many in Britain who will be happy to substitute the American medias account of the Papal Visit for the reality they witnessed ith their own eyes. We could be in the process of seeing history re-written before our eyes.

    I have always loved and been a fan of journalism, but with this, and the spate of reports on women’s ordination, it is all beginning to look like propaganda to me, and I am nearly ready to cheer the medias economic demise.

    Something must have gone seriously wrong in journalism programs in the last generation to come to this pass. Maybe some of that post-modernism filtered in. I find it very sad.

  • Dan

    I heard the NPR piece on the radio. It is very common for secular liberals to focus on sexuality as a key to understanding. In the last year the New York Review of Books has had articles about Gerard Manly Hopkins and Flannery O’Connor, two great, and thoroughly Catholic, artists whose lives were dominated by Catholicism. The focus of the articles was, however, not on how Catholicism impacted their work but, rather, on the burning question: were they GAY? How are we to explain this obsession of the modern secular with sex? My theory is that sex they understand, and is their true god, while to them Catholicism and theology are incomprehensible gibberish abut which they have nothing to say.

  • Norman

    Sorry, forgot some links:

    The Independent

    And On Faith:

    “The traitor Trotsky was never in this picture with Comrades Lenin and Stalin. You have never seen the traitor Trotsky in this photograph of Comrades Lenin and Stalin.”

  • Jeffrey

    It is very common for secular liberals to focus on sexuality as a key to understanding.

    Given that Hagerty is the opposite of a secular liberal, why did she take this approach? Does the story get more credence given Hagerty’s alleged biases have usually gone in the other direction: favoring religious conservatives?

  • Mollie


    Where are you getting the idea that Hagerty has “alleged biases,” or that they favor religious conservatives?

  • Jeffrey

    Google “Hargerty, biased, NPR”

    There’s a sense among some that her conservative Christian beliefs (and ties to Howard Ahmanson) color her reporting.

  • Mollie

    Oh wow. I see that some people are offended that she treats conservative Christians as one of the groups deserving of fairness and coverage. I can’t say I’m surprised that such an approach is disconcerting to some used to a different media approach. But to say that these critics failed to make a case of bias — much less conservative bias — is a massive understatement.

    Anyway, I know many reporters and readers liked her story on Baha’i Sunday School and her story on a new Muslim college that opened, and she did some very tough but fair coverage of the Vatican lawsuits that were working their way through U.S. courts.

    I had quibbles with this story, as I have had with others. But there’s really no question that she’s a solid religion reporter who does a great job.

  • Maureen

    Meanwhile, Greg Kandra thinks it’s pretty weird that the US media is ignoring a lot of the juicy bits of the story.

    Fr. Z had some interesting info yesterday about the vestments the Pope chose to wear.

  • StewartIII

    NewsBusters| Completely Bizarre: NPR Speculates If Historic Cardinal Is Gay, Admitting There’s No Evidence

  • Jeffrey

    I can’t say I’m surprised that such an approach is disconcerting to some used to a different media approach. But to say that these critics failed to make a case of bias — much less conservative bias — is a massive understatement.

    Well, perception of bias is largely viewpoint driven, isn’t it. That’s why I said alleged.

    But a lot of commenters here asserting a bias based on the fact this was from NPR, even though there’s no evidence Hagerty actually has that bias. That’s viewpoint-driven too and not really based on making a strong case of bias.

  • Mollie


    I agree. We get the same thing from commenters who just assume that a story in the NYT will be unworthy and full of bias. This, again, despite the fact that there are some excellent religion reporters there who do consistently amazing work.