Blessed John Henry Newman is being canonized a saint in Rome today at a spectacular ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. Is he the Catholic Church’s first openly gay saint?
The answer to that question depends on your definitions of “openly,” “gay,” and “first.”
Cardinal Newman is probably the most famous Catholic theologian of the late 19th century. Ordained as an Anglican priest, he studied and taught at Oxford University. His studies and prayer led to his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845, and he continued to write and teach on theology, though at this point as a defender of the Roman Church. His most famous works are Apologia Pro Vita Sua (his autobiography), A Grammar of Assent (a treatise on logic and belief), and The Idea of a University (an outline for the study of the liberal arts for Catholic higher education). In addition to his theological acumen and creative forms of argument and persuasion, Newman is also known for being one of the premier stylists of the English language, having been a master of the periodic sentence, a verbal form where the writer composes an unusually long sentence so well that it seems amazingly natural.
Most recently, scholars have also begun to examine Newman because of the intense emotional relationship he shared with another priest, Ambrose St. John. During their lifetime, the two were inseparable, and, in fact, lived together. Newman described St. John as “my earthly light.” They studied theology together in Rome, and were ordained together. Newman reflected on the quality of their relationship:
“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.”
Perhaps most significantly, the two requested to be buried in the same grave together. Their chosen epitaph for their tombstone: “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth.” When St. John died, Newman grieved:
“I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.”
Many traditionalist Newman scholars refute the idea that this was a gay relationship. Ian Ker, one of the foremost Newman scholars, says that the relationship was not homosexual because, by all accounts, the two were celibate. Ker also maintains that Newman wrote affectionately to both men and women, and he also notes it was quite common for men to request to be buried together. Other scholars believe that to call the couple gay is reading our own 21st century ideas into 19th century phenomena.
I agree that it is not right to interpret a past relationship in terms of today’s modern awareness of homosexuality. We should not imagine that things of the past can be understood by modern values and concepts. But that’s where we need to question what we might mean by “gay” and “openly.” Ker believes that Newman and St. John were not gay because it is apparent that they were celibate. Ker’s presumption then is that “gay” means “sexually active.” Of course, that is a totally false idea. Of course, the two men could be gay and have had a strong affectionate and intimate relationship without being sexually active, just as many gay men in the priesthood and religious life today maintain their promises and vows of celibacy. Many gay laity also live their lives by choosing not to be sexually intimate with someone. That doesn’t make them less gay.
But Ker is wrong in another way, too. Defending Newman’s non-homosexuality by saying that the priest was affectionate in relationships with both men and women tries to explain away Newman’s love for St. John by saying it was how he treated everyone. The presumption here is that there is something wrong with a man expressing affection for another man. What would be wrong with Newman loving St. John? Why can’t men express love for one another? While some people think that homophobia against gay men comes from a revulsion about male sex acts, I think that for many people the more horrifying and scandalous phenomenon is men being emotionally sensitive, tender, and affectionate with one another. Of course, such gentle and intimate responses by men is only a problem if one suffers from intense homophobia or believes in the enforcement of strict gender expectations that men should not be emotional and caring toward one another. In other words, what is wrong with men expressing love for one another?
The other issue about Newman’s sexuality comes from our understanding of what it means to be “openly gay.” In the 21st century world, there is an unspoken expectation afoot that to be “openly gay” means having made some very public statements about one’s orientation and identity. But, that expectation should not apply to people in other eras. Though there is no public record or statements by either Newman or St. John about their sexual identities, I think the fact that they lived together for so long and chose to be buried next to one another are very public statements about how emotionally and essentially close they were to one another. That is pretty “open” to me.
Finally, if we of Newman as the first openly gay saint, we also have to look at what we mean by “first”? Other canonized male saints like St. Aelred of Rievlaux and St. Augustine of Hippo both wrote effusively of emotional love between men, so maybe Newman isn’t the first. Yet, I think a good case can be made for Newman being the “first openly gay” Catholic saint for the simple reason that we know so much more about him and his relationship than we do about the other examples. Less is in doubt about Newman than previous saints, mainly because the historical record is more accurate. From what I know (admittedly limited), I think the case for Newman’s openly gay identity is the strongest.
But I think there’s another reason to award Newman this honor. He was also a great believer in reforming the Roman Catholic Church. I will offer just two examples. In 2013, a Catholic bishop remembered Newman’s attitude toward the Church. Australia’s Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a great voice for reform, recalled:
‘Cardinal John Henry Newman, before he became a Catholic, wrote to a friend, ‘There is nothing on this earth so ugly as the Catholic Church and nothing so beautiful.’ We’ve all seen the ugliness, and abuse is one of the ugliest chapters of all, but I’ve also seen the beauty, mostly in all of the good people I’ve worked with over the years. I don’t want to just walk away and leave that beauty behind. So I’ll work to overcome the ugliness wherever I can.”
That’s a good reminder for all those who are working and praying to stay in the Catholic Church and to work to make it more equal and just for LGBTQ people.
And then there’s the quotation from Newman which New Ways Ministry’s co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, have cited often:
“To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
So, on this day of canonization for John Henry Newman, and for all days forward, let all who work and pray for making the Catholic Church a just place for LGBTQ people offer the following plea: “St. John Henry Newman, pray for us!”
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 13, 2019