Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008

Cardinal John Henry Newman

Dates: 1801-1890
Status of Cause: Venerable (step before beatification)
Prognosis: Probably beatified later this year

Newman's body is at the center of one of this year's weirdest religious mysteries. In life, the Cardinal had been one of the world's most famous English-speaking preachers and theologians; his conversion from Anglicanism in 1845 gave Catholicism new intellectual credibility and his idea that church doctrine develops in response to history laid a groundwork for Catholicism's great acknowledgement of the modern world in the 1960s. A posthumous miraculous cure seems near confirmation. One glitch: For 47 years, Newman shared a home (quite possibly in celibacy) with another man, and — in keeping with his explicit wish — the two were buried alongside one another beneath a single stone. Recently, the Church decided to exume and move Newman's body, ostensibly to make it more accessible to pilgrims, although gay rights advocates sniffed homophobia. The grave was opened last week and... the body had vanished. Was it simply, as the Church believes, natural decomposition? Whatever the answer, it allows Newman's beatification to go forward without a nasty spat over habeas corpus.

David Van Biema