Was Cardinal Newman Gay?

A Talk by Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry

For University College Dublin’s LGBTI History Month Event: “Cardinal John Henry Newman: Saint; Cardinal; Egalitarian; Gay?”

Friday, February 26, 2021

Thank you to John Gilmore and to University College Dublin’s LGBTI Staff Network and LGBTI Subgroup for the invitation to be on this panel today.  John Henry Newman is a personal hero of mine both religiously and academically.  My academic degree is in rhetoric, and Newman stands out in the history of rhetoric not only as a great theorist, but as a premier practitioner.  And his influence on helping the Catholic Church to understand how it can develop in doctrine is immense.

I wish I could be with you all in Dublin, where I have visited three times, twice leading LGBTI Catholic pilgrimages to your sacred sites, and most recently in 2018 to report on the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit.  I want to give a shout out to my friends in the Catholic Church reform movement there, those in We Are Church Ireland and the Association of Catholic Priests Ireland, and those who belonged to the group Gay Catholic Voice Ireland, as well as to my friends who organized and participated in the Archdiocese of Dublin’s “All Are Welcome” mass for LGBTI people and allies.

And since today we are talking about a saint, I just want to name one person you are familiar with who is like a living saint to those of us in the Catholic LGBTI world:  St. Mary McAleese, your former president.  She certainly has the intellectual prowess and facility with language that Cardinal Newman had.  But, she also has one thing more:  as a mother of a gay man, she approaches the topic with the ferocity and passion of a mother bear protecting her cub.

Today, I hope to give you some information about gay men and the Catholic priesthood, look a bit at Newman’s language of love, and examine a bit what it is that we mean by the word “gay” itself.

To find an answer to the question “Was Cardinal Newman gay?” I think may best be answered by rephrasing the question to Was Cardinal Newman straight?  I don’t mean to say this in a flippant way, but simply to point out that the way the question has been framed implies that a gay identity is the exception to the clerical rule. Although there are no statistics available, my experience—and that of many Catholics–tells me that the large majority of Catholic priests are gay, and that a heterosexual orientation is the exception to the rule.

This should not be a surprise as the Catholic priesthood is a very attractive life for gay men, and has been for centuries.  Many who would agree with this claim do so because they think that gay men “hide” in the priesthood.  Since marriage is not an option for Roman Catholic clergy, the priesthood offers a place where gay men can live peaceably without constant societal and family pressures to marry a woman. There is a joke that goes around that one reason the leadership of the church won’t allow priests to marry is that they don’t want it made public how few of those in the priesthood would actually seek a female partner.

But this view on the call to priesthood comes from a negative perspective, looking at it as an escape, rather than as something which has its own particular appeals to gay sensibility.  It is a male-only profession, allowing men to bond personally and emotionally with one another. It is a profession which allows men to exhibit traits considered more feminine than masculine: caring for other people, dealing with emotions, and not least, a strong emphasis on spirituality.

More importantly, in Catholic imagination, priesthood and religious life are often thought of as a sort of spiritual marriage with the Godhead, which in the Christian Church has traditionally been thought of as male and whose human incarnation, Jesus Christ, was male.  So in terms of religious imagination and spirituality that the men who would be most attracted to this kind of union are men whose emotional, personal, and sexual attractions are oriented toward other males.

A common pattern among many gay Catholic priests today is that many entered the clerical system honestly not knowing how to name their feelings.  Most had no information on homosexuality or gay men available to them either from the church or the public realm.  Although this pattern has been changing in more recent decades, I daresay that this silence was likely the prevalent atmosphere in the 19th century when Newman lived.  As an anecdotal example, I offer the scene in E.M. Forster’s novel, Maurice, where a student in an Edwardian elite school is seen reciting a text from Plato, but the instructor warns him to skip the next passage because it discusses what he refers to as the “unspeakable vice of the Greeks.”

And so, when I meet a Catholic priest, my default presumption (not assumption) is that he is gay.  So, I believe that should be the default presumption about Cardinal Newman.  But of course, there is also more positive evidence for thinking of Newman as gay, and that is material from his writings that describe the intense emotional relationship that he had 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 described the quality of their relationship, writing:

An 1847 painting by Mary Giberne deopicting Ambrose St. John (left) and John Henry Newman.

“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,” which to me sounds like it could be a motto for any modern Catholic LGBTQ equality organization.   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.”

We cannot deny the passion and strength of his love that is evident in just these few lines–especially from a man who was ever so precise and deliberate and calculating in the language he used.  Newman was a rhetorician.  He did not say things casually.

Some critics argue that overly emotive language between men was more common in past times than it is now, so we can’t read these words with our modern eyes. While that is an important caution, we have to stop and ask, “If that’s the case, then why didn’t more men express their relationship to another man with the force and passion that Newman used for St. John?”  Obviously, there was something very different about this particular relationship which evoked a stream of eloquence from Newman.

Ian Ker, one of the foremost Newman scholars, claims that Newman was not gay because he was expressively affectionate in relationships with both men and women. He tries to explain away Newman’s love for St. John by saying it was how he treated everyone. But, of course, he did not treat Ambrose St. John the way he treated everyone.  He did not live with other people, and he did not firmly ask for his mortal remains to spend eternity with any other people. He chose one particular person.

These lines of Newman’s bring us to another important question about whether or not Newman was gay, and that’s the definition of the word “gay” itself. Ian Ker and many traditionalists who have balked at the idea of a gay Cardinal Newman assert that since there is good evidence that Newman was celibate he couldn’t be gay.  That assertion is based on the erroneous understanding that if someone is known as gay, it implies that the person is sexually active—and oftentimes thought of as promiscuously so.  So, according to these critics, to say that Cardinal Newman was gay would mean that he was a sexually active man, and perhaps was wanton in his behavior.

This assumption an insult to gay people.  It is a common trope throughout various cultures and history to denigrate a marginalized group by describing them as overly-sexualized. The assumption ignores the fact that not all gay people engage in sexual activity. It is amazingly ordinary that two gay men can have a strong affectionate and intimate relationship each other without being sexually active. Such is the case of many, many gay men in the priesthood today who maintain deep and loving relationships with other men while maintaining their promises and vows of celibacy.  It is also true of many gay lay men who experience love with other people, or perhaps one special person, while by choice or circumstance are not sexually intimate with the other.  That doesn’t make them less gay. Everyone needs love, even people who choose not to have sex.

We must also remember that in Newman’s time, the concept of a gay sexual orientation had not yet been identified by science. It wasn’t until very late in the 19th century (Newman died in 1890) that scientists even began discussing the idea that some people were constitutionally homosexual (and not until the mid-20th century did scientists recognize that homosexuality was not a psychological disorder).  Before these advances, the assumption was that everyone was constituted heterosexually and that some people chose to behave homosexually—against their presumed natural state.  So Newman would not even have understood the term gay or homosexual. And most likely, since he was probably very dedicated to celibacy, he would not have thought of himself as gay or as St. John as a gay loved one.  But not having the language to describe the relationship doesn’t mean that such a relationship didn’t exist.

Underlying all the negative arguments about Newman’s identity is a fear of homosexuality and of love between men.  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. What is wrong with men expressing love for one another?

Why do people—especially people in the Catholic Church–oppose this presumption of Newman as a gay man with such vehemence?  One obvious answer is that they don’t want one of the church’s greatest intellectual personalities and a canonized saint to be associated with something the church as an institution has spent so much energy opposing. But of course, there have always been LGBTI saints.  And there will be more in the future.  Many LGBTI people, despite great opposition, have found always found ways to develop an intense relationship with God, and through that, to be of service to their churches and communities.

St. John Henry Newman is known as a patron saint for theologians, ecumenists, and college students. But he is also claimed as a patron saint of those who want to renew our Catholic Church through the development of doctrine, including on matters of sexuality and gender.

When he became a Catholic, Newman wrote to a friend, “There is nothing on this earth so ugly as the Catholic Church and nothing so beautiful.”  And he was also fond of saying, “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  Those hopes are echoed in the souls of many LGBTI Catholics and their allies, and so we proclaim, “St. John Henry Newman, pray for us!”