Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St. John: Gay saint and his "earthly light" share romantic friendship

A rare photo of John Henry Newman and Ambrose Saint John together

John Henry Newman, a renowned scholar-priest and Britain’s most famous 19th-century convert to Catholicism, was beatified in 2010 amid rampant speculation that he was a gay saint because of his relationship with Ambrose St. John. The two priests lived together for 32 years and share the same grave. Newman’s feast day is today (Oct. 9) in the Catholic church.

Some say they shared a “romantic friendship” or “communitarian life.” It seems likely that both men had a homosexual orientation while abstaining from sex. Newman described St. John as “my earthly light.” The men were inseparable.

“Blessed Cardinal
John Henry Newman:
Lead Kindly Light”
by William Hart McNichols ©
Newman (Feb. 21, 1801 - Aug. 11, 1890) is considered by many to be the greatest Catholic thinker from the English-speaking world. He was born in London and ordained as an Anglican priest. He became a leader in the Oxford Movement, which aimed to return the Church of England to many Catholic traditions. On Oct. 9, 1845 he converted to Catholicism. He had to give up his post as an Oxford professor due to his conversion, but eventually he rose to the rank of cardinal.

Ambrose Saint John (1815 -1875) apparently met Newman in 1841. They lived together for 32 years, starting in 1843. St. John was about 14 years younger than Newman. In Newman’s own words, St. John “came to me as Ruth came to Naomi” during the difficult years right before he left the Anglican church. After converting together to Catholicism, they studied together in Rome, where they were ordained priests at the same time. When St. John was confirmed in the Catholic faith, he asked if he could take a vow of obedience to Newman, but the request was refused.

Newman recalled their early years in this way:

“From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable. At Rome 28 years ago he was always so working for and relieving me of all trouble, that being young and Saxon-looking, the Romans called him my Angel Guardian.”

Portrait of John Henry Newman, right, and Ambrose Saint John by Maria Giberne, 1847

A portrait of Newman and St. John together in Rome was painted by Maria Giberne, an amateur artist and a lifelong friend of the Newman family who followed him into the Catholic church. She painted the couple sitting together with their books in one of their rooms at the Propaganda College in Rome on June 9, 1847. Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal stands between them as if blessing and watching over the priests who loved each other.

St. John, a scholar and linguist in his own right, helped Newman with his scholarship and shared other aspects of daily life as if they were a couple in a same-sex marriage. John Cornwell, author of Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, told National Public Radio that St. John’s support for Newman included “even doing things like packing his bags before he went away, making sure he was taking his medicine, making sure he kept dental appointments, that sort of thing. So it was almost like a wife, but without the marital bed.”

They lived together until St. John died on May 24, 1875. He was only about 60 years old. According to a memorial letter written by Newman himself, St. John died of a stroke that “arose from his overwork in translating Fessler, which he did for me to back up my letter to the Duke of Norfolk.” Newman needed a translation of the German theologian Joseph Fessler's important book in the wake of the First Vatican Council.

In the memorial letter Newman goes on to describe their dramatic last moments together, including how St. John clung to him closely on the bed and clasped his hand tightly. Newman, unaware that his beloved companion was dying, asked others to unlock his fingers before saying the goodbye that turned out to be their last.

Newman was heartbroken by the loss of his beloved partner. “I have always thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that anyone’s sorrow can be greater than mine,” Newman wrote.

He insisted three different times that he be buried in the same grave with St. John: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave -- and I give this as my last, my imperative will,” he wrote, later adding: “This I confirm and insist on.”

John Henry Newman, left, and Ambrose St. John

Newman died of pneumonia on Aug. 11, 1890 at age 89. According to his express wishes, he was buried with St. John. The shroud over his coffin bore his personal coat of arms with the Latin motto, “Cor ad cor loquitur” (Heart speaks to heart), which he adopted when he became cardinal. Their joint memorial stone is inscribed with a Latin motto chosen by Newman: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem.”(Out of the shadows and reflections into the truth.”)

John Henry Newman’s coat of arms with the motto “heart speaks to heart” (Wikimedia Commons)

During the beatification process, the Vatican tried to violate Newman’s desire to be buried with his beloved companion. Controversy arose as some LGBT activists saw the decision to disturb the shared grave as an attempt to separate them and cover up the queer side of Newman’s life. Vatican officials hoped to excavate and move his remains in preparation for his beatification. However when the grave was opened in 2008, the remains had completely decomposed, leaving nothing that could be separated.

“John Henry Newman”
by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. ©
www.trinitystores.com
Newman’s legacy is wide-ranging. Because Newman was an excellent scholar, Catholic centers on U.S. college campuses are named after him. Newman tells his own story in his acclaimed spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua . He is known for writing the poem “The Dream of Gerontius” and the popular hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.”

His theology of friendship and his emphasis on conscience are both significant for LGBT people and allies. Although the Catholic church tends to frown on special friendships among priests, nuns or monks, Newman taught, “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.” He preached, “The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate our intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”

Terrence Weldon at Queering the Church explains how Newman’s teaching on conscience laid the groundwork for LGBT Christians today. “As a theologian, Cardinal Newman played an important role in developing the modern formulation of the primacy of conscience, which is of fundamental importance to LGBT Catholics who reject in good conscience the standard teaching on sexuality – or the high proportion of heterosexual couples who reject ‘Humanae Vitae.’” Weldon writes.

This post is illustrated with icons of Newman by Robert Lentz and William McNichols. Both artists faced controversy for their alternative and LGBT-affirming images.

Newman is honored by Catholics on Oct. 9, the anniversary of his 1845 conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Naturally Anglicans chose a different date for Newman’s feast day -- the anniversary of his death on Aug. 11.

With beatification, Blessed Newman is now only one step away from official sainthood. He is already a saint in the hearts of many, including the LGBT people who are inspired by his life and love.

___
Author’s note: I decided to write this comprehensive piece about the love between Newman and St. John when I discovered that it had not been done yet on the Internet from a LGBT-positive viewpoint. I was one of many bloggers on both sides who wrote about whether Newman was gay at the time of his beatification, citing a few facts. I thought I would just do a quick update to focus on his achievements and his relationship with St. John.

But as I got into the research, I was surprised both by how compelling their love story is, and how hard it was to find an overview of their relationship on the Internet. Details of their deep love for each other are available on the Web, but mostly on websites that aim to prove they were not homosexual. It’s odd how they end up supporting the very point that they are trying to discredit. So I put it all together from a queer point of view.

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Related links:
Was Cardinal John Henry Newman Gay? (NPR)

Was a would-be saint gay? (Time.com)

Cardinal John Henry Newman and Father Ambrose St John (Idle Speculations Blog) (with extensive quotes from Newman’s writing about St. John)

Hurrell Froude, John Henry Newman, and the Oxford Movement (glbtq.com)

Wedded friendships (The Tablet)

Reflections on the Life and Legacy of John Henry Newman (Wild Reed)

Blessed John Henry and Ambrose: Newman’s Last Sermon (Queering the Church)

“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”:Blessed John Henry Newman (Queering the Church)

_________
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.



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7 comments:

Trudie said...

This is a brilliant piece of writing, Kitt. I'm just getting around to it, due to the confusion of being away from my own computer, but so glad I managed to log in and see it.

Terence Weldon said...

Thanks, Kitt. This does indeed contribute important new insights. (I had not realised that their relationship began before the conversion to Catholicism, nor how closely it mirrored a marital one, in all except the sexual).

A fun observation on the empty grave that was found when they wanted to move the remains: somebody described it as the "third miracle" that would serve to upgrade canonization to full sainthood.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I love the idea that of the “miracle” of Newman’s empty grave, Terry! And Trudie, I thought you would especially appreciate that this saint story doesn’t end in tragedy, but is an example of a long-term loving saintly relationship that ends peacefully.

Yewtree said...

What a beautiful relationship, and so clearly a romantic one. And a very well-written post too.

Frances Power Cobbe, founder of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, feminist intellectual, theist, biographer of Theodore Parker, attender of Unitarian churches, lived with another woman for 32 years. It seems pretty certain that if you live with someone that long, it's more than just a friendship - it must be a deep and profound attachment, which is most likely romantic.

Also, John Henry Newman's less famous younger brother, Francis William Newman, was a Unitarian.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Adding some Unitarians to the LGBT saints page is a good idea. Thanks for the suggestions, Yewtree. I will add these to my ever-growing list of saintly queers to research and write about.

The Newman family seems quite adventurous on a spiritual level!

A quick check at Wikipedia has this to say about Francis Power Cobb (4 December 1822 – 5 April 1904): “She formed a marriage with Mary Lloyd, whom she referred to alternately as "husband," wife," and "dear friend." So that sounds definitely lesbian. But it doesn’t say anything about her religious connections.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Power_Cobbe

James Koenig said...

"Heart speaks to heart"
Doesn't that really say it all-- except perhaps
that when heart speaks to heart in love and responds
in love, it is a vision of God who is love. This
piece is a beautiful testament to the love of these two
men. And, yet, they were forced to blend with a certain ambiguity into their ecclesiastical environment. *I'm not ignoring the fact that it was in the 19th century. They were ahead of their time-- Hell! They were even ahead of Catholicism today! So many are alienated from the church because of the church's refusal to make peace with sexuality.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Indeed it is ironic that Newman’s motto was “Heart speaks to heart,” and yet he did not speak out about “the love that dare not speak its name,” to quote a euphemism for homosexuality used by his contemporary Lord Alfred Douglas. James, it’s great to hear from you again after a long time. Thanks for commenting!