Friday, September 17, 2010

Newman and the, uh, Queens

Don't blame us. We're just quoting our friends at New Liturgical Movement.

Here's the deal: John Henry, Cardinal Newman, was one of the essential figures of his age. He was a "convert" from Evangelicalism who became first a pioneer in the modern re-imagining of Anglicanism and then, when he abandoned that project, a prominent spokesman for the idea, then controversial in English life, that Romanism was compatible with intellectual independence. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua is a masterpiece of strategic self-representation, and several of his works -- A Grammar of Assent, The Development of Doctrine, and The Idea of the University -- have a lasting value which should not be restricted to historians.

He was not, however, a burly-chested he-man. Some people think he was a little, well, you know. The Wikipedia article gives a taste of the special pleading:

... the longest friendship in [Newman's] life was with Ambrose St John, who lived with Newman for 32 years from 1843 (when St John was 28).

Newman wrote after St John's death: "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." Newman directed that he be buried in the same grave as St John.: "I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John's grave — and I give this as my last, my imperative will."

John Campbell Shairp, who knew Newman at Oxford, described him as "a woman's soul in a man's body"; Lytton Strachey described Newman's "soft spectacled Oxford manner, with its half-effeminate diffidence". ...

[B]iographer Geoffrey Faber wrote of Newman's relations with Hurrell Froude: "Of all his (Newman's) friends Froude filled the deepest place in his heart, and I'm not the first to point out that his occasional notions of marrying definitely ceased with the beginning of his real intimacy with Froude."

The case is far from proven; Victorians constructed both friendship and sexuality very differently than we do. Arguably, both were more emotionally intense than the common run of modern experience, but that does not mean that the lines between them were less clear. If anything, we suspect the line was drawn more sharply then than now, in the age of "friends with benefits" and all that.

It hardly matters. Except, that is, to a society divided, at either extreme, between those who want to use the existence of homosexuality in history to argue for their pet theories and policies today, and those who want to sweep the whole business back under the rug or, if you prefer, into the closet. Sadly, we live in just such a society.

As a result, the visit of Benedict XVI to Britain -- the first state visit there ever by a pope, and one which will feature the beatification of Newman -- has stirred up a bit of chatter. Fr Hunwicke is quick to decry the "The methodology of the anti-Catholic and anti-Papal propaganda machine [which is] very similar to that of Goebels."

This strikes us as unfair to the press; here is an excellent essay from the FT, which -- while describing the questions about sexuality -- concentrates upon a picture of Newman as an inspiration to Catholic liberals suspicious of papal tyranny. It may not be quite fair to Newman, who used "liberal" derisively, but it is certainly not sleazy or propagandistic.

As opposed, for example, to this attention-grabbing headline in NLM today: Cardinal Newman and the Two Queens of England.

Get your head out of the gutter. They mean Victoria and Elizabeth II. Of course.

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