The long-running battle between gay-rights activists and the Vatican has moved into the realm of the dead. With 19th century Anglican convert Cardinal John Henry Newman, arguably the greatest Catholic thinker from the English-speaking world, moving ever closer to sainthood, trouble is brewing over where his final resting place should be. The London-born historian and theologian died in 1890 and, following the instructions in his will, was buried beside his lifelong friend and fellow convert Ambrose St. John, who had died 15 years earlier. Newman's deep expressions of grief after St. John's death, along with other writings, have led some historians to ask whether the two men, who resided together for many years, lived much like common-law spouses.
Newman, whose ideas on conscience and faith have influenced Christian theology to the present day, is expected to be beatified next year, following the Vatican's recent certification of a Newman miracle when a Boston man's cure from a crippling spinal disease could not be explained medically. The final step of canonization full sainthood will require proof of an additional miracle achieved through the intercession of Newman's spirit. The Vatican announced plans this month to move Newman's remains from a small grave site in the central English town of Rednal to a specially built sarcophagus in the Oratory Church of Birmingham, where, officials say, they will be more accessible to venerating faithful.
But British gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell sees ulterior motives in exhuming the Cardinal: "embarrassment" because of his relationship with St. John. "They were inseparable. They lived together for half a century, effectively like husband and wife," says Tatchell. "There were repeated allegations during [Newman's] lifetime about his circle of homosexual friends. It is uncertain whether their relationship involved sex. It is quite likely that both men had a gay orientation but chose to abstain from sexual relations. But abstinence does not alter a person's sexual orientation." Tatchell says that the two men's bond, and Newman's abiding wish to have his final resting place next to St. John's, make separating their remains "an act of dishonesty and betrayal by the homophobes in the Vatican."
Father Paul Chavasse of Birmingham, who has led the cause for Cardinal Newman's beatification, said moving the remains has nothing to do with St. John. "Part of the established procedure prior to a beatification requires that, if the body of the new 'Beatus' exists, then it must be exhumed, inspected and transferred to a place of honor befitting the person's new status," Chavasse told the Vatican-sponsored Zenit news agency. "As a great man of the Church and devoted to the saints himself, Cardinal Newman would have been the first to insist on obeying a request of the Holy See and the last to insist that his own personal wishes be regarded as immutable."
To be sure, there is no evidence that Newman ever broke his vow of celibacy. British-based Catholic-affairs writer Melanie McDonagh noted in the Times of London this week that Newman "would have regarded gay sex as an abomination."
But the brouhaha over Newman's burial place can also be seen as fallout from an increasingly hard line against homosexuality taken by traditionalist Catholic Church leaders. Before rising to the papacy, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger signed a Vatican document that said gay people have a "disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent." Since his election, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly condemned gay marriage and said that no one should be admitted to the seminary who has deep-rooted homosexual tendencies.
Benedict, himself one of the top theologians of the modern era, was a student of Newman's writings. Knowing this, former Prime Minister Tony Blair brought three photographs of Newman to Benedict as a gift on his last visit to the Vatican, just months before announcing that he like the English prelate had converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. In a 1990 address marking a century since Newman's death, Ratzinger spoke about the profound impact Newman's views had on young German seminarians in the wake of the Nazi regime. "For us at that time, Newman's teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism, which was drawing us all in its sway," Ratzinger said. "We had experienced the claim of a totalitarian party, which understood itself as the fulfillment of history and which negated the conscience of the individual. One of its leaders had said, 'I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler.' The appalling devastation of humanity that followed was before our eyes." Benedict is unlikely to wade into the current debate. If he were to, the Pope would no doubt point out Newman's belief that conscience becomes complete only when the faithful follow it to the higher calling of obedience.