Saturday, September 25, 2010

Making a saint out of Newman

I have to say, I have watched the recent scenes of the visit of Benedict the 16th to the United Kingdom, with some amazement. Besides the screams, the adulation, the mumbled apologies and exchange of pleasantries, the highlight was the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Personally, I have not a single doubt in my mind that he should be recognised. If sainthood provides the context for that to be done – then so be it, and jolly good luck to it. At university, I read his works and they inspired me. I changed my perspective fairly fundamentally because of him. As a student, I read his “Apologia pro vita sua”. And found it both moving and profound.

But until very recently, I had missed something fairly essential about the man. He had a long term relationship with another priest, by the name of Fr Ambrose St John. They lived together for a considerable period of time and it was Newman’s express wish to be buried with him.

His desire was very clear and unambiguous. On no less than three occasions, he indicated it, in writing. The last time, a few months before his death in 1890.

“I wish with all my heart to be buried in the grave of Fr Ambrose St John. I give this as my last, my imperative will.”

On the death or Fr Ambrose, Newman wrote the following:

"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 any one's sorrow greater, than mine”.

He had waited some 15 years to be buried with his beloved. This was no will-o’-the-wisp. It was obviously something very clearly thought out. It was something he wanted very passionately.

Two years ago, in preparation for making him a saint – the Vatican gave the order for him to be disinterred and to leave any remains of Fr Ambrose in situ, and to remove Newman’s remains to the Birmingham Oratory.

On opening the grave, very little was found. Some hair, apparently, and a brass plaque with his name. The coffin was a wooden one and the ground wet.

Since discovering this, I have to say my mind has played on it a lot. I am left aghast at the sheer arrogance of it all. Newman had expressed his will in the clearest terms imaginable. Yet the Vatican decided that his body should be elsewhere. I understand that moving the bodies of saints – or people soon to be saints – is “traditional” (whatever that might mean!).

Now, obviously, I think it is at this stage impossible to prove conclusively that Cardinal (now “Blessed”) John Henry Newman and Ambrose St John were lovers. But it certainly looks likely. And one would not need to be a member of the “homosexual lobby” to come to such a likely conclusion, based on the evidence which is already at hand. Whether or not they remained celibate is another matter entirely and, from my perspective anyway, has little bearing on the substance of the enquiry.

But for the church to simply extract elements of his life which they like – and make a big hullabaloo about them and sanctify him because of them, while ignoring other equally significant elements, is sheer cynical manipulation of the facts. Indeed, the same could be said for the way that the church generally does its theology. It parades the easy bits and ignores the more difficult, as a matter of course.

But there is a problem with doing this, because eventually common sense (or science, or history) will catch up with it and expose it as fraud, as it has already, on so many other issues. The secularism of the United Kingdom, which the Pope seems to find so problematic, is in fact not only a consequence of the church’s continued fraudulent theological thinking, but represents a triumph of progress and rational thinking over idiocy and ignorance.

The only way in which this could be seen to be problematic is if one had some kind of vested interest in keeping people stupid, by denying the facts. Such as the facts about HIV/Aids; contraception; women; abortions etc etc. Oh, and did I neglect to mention the historical prevalence of gay and lesbian people within the ranks and hierarchy of the church itself?

On the tombstone where John Henry Newman and Ambrose St John lay buried for just shy of one hundred years, was written the following:

“Out of the shadows and phantasms, into the truth”.

Maybe one day, a long time from now, society will write the same on the grave of the church itself.

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