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Was Cardinal John Henry Newman Gay?

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Was Cardinal John Henry Newman Gay?


Was Cardinal John Henry Newman Gay?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


On Sunday, Pope Benedict will beatify John Henry Newman, bringing the 19th century British cardinal one step closer to sainthood. Newman was a prolific writer and towering intellectual who converted to Catholicism from the Anglican Church.

But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, one part of his life remains something of a mystery.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: John Henry Newman had many religious incarnations. Born in 1801, he began as an evangelical, then studied at Oxford and became an Anglican priest. Eventually, he felt drawn to the Catholic Church. In 1845, he converted, becoming a priest and later a cardinal.

According to Newman expert Father Martin Moran, he is considered one of the great teachers of Christianity, writing some 60 works of philosophy and theology, novels, hymns and poetry.

Father MARTIN MORAN: Many people think that he's very similar to the life of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. These were saints that maybe had a past, people that have embraced the Catholic faith, but also they were great intellectuals.

HAGERTY: Moran oversees hundreds of Newman Houses, which are centers for Catholic students on non-Catholic universities. He says Newman is a role model for young Catholics wrestling with their faith. Even though he questioned some church doctrines, including papal infallibility, Newman remained loyal to Rome.

Rev. MORAN: He was on the edge. Many times, he sort of crossed the line a little bit.

HAGERTY: Now, some believe Newman was on the edge in another way.

Father JAMES MARTIN (Author, "My Life with the Saints): It's not unreasonable to think that he might have been homosexual.

HAGERTY: Father James Martin is the author of�"My Life with the Saints."

Father MARTIN: His letters, and his comments on the death of one of his close friends, are quite provocative.

That friend was Ambrose St. John, a fellow convert and priest. Newman described St. John as quote, my earthly light. The two men were inseparable. They lived together for 32 years. According to John Cornwell, author of a forthcoming biography of Newman, St. John helped Newman with his scholarship, and more.

Mr. JOHN CORNWELL (Author, "Newman's Unquiet Grave"): Even doing things like packing his bags before he went away, making sure he was taking his medicine, making sure that he kept dental appointments, that sort of thing. So it was almost like a wife, but without the marital bed.

HAGERTY: When St. John died in 1875, Newman was devastated. I have always thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, he wrote, but I feel it difficult to believe that anyone's sorrow can be greater than mine. Just before his own death, Newman made a strongly worded request - not once but three times - that he be buried in the same grave with his lifelong friend.

Cornwell says if the two men had feelings, they didn't act on them.

Mr. CORNWELL: Having read all of those letters, all 32 volumes of them, I can't find any clear evidence of a sexual, physical relationship.

HAGERTY: Questions about Newman's sexuality became widely publicized two years ago. When it was clear Newman was on the path to sainthood, the Catholic Church ordered the cardinal's body to be exhumed and moved to a grander resting place in a Birmingham church. Cornwell says the Catholic Church sometimes relocates bodies so that they're more accessible. But Father James Martin, like many others, wonders if there's another motive.

Father MARTIN: Certainly, the idea of pilgrims coming to the grave and seeing John Henry Cardinal Newman on the tombstone and right above him, the name of Ambrose St. John, was certain to raise eyebrows.

HAGERTY: Especially now, when the Vatican has ordered that gay men cannot enter the priesthood. But Martin has no doubt that there are plenty of gay saints, which is acceptable under church doctrine.

Father MARTIN: It is church teaching that a gay person can be holy, and that a gay person can be a saint. And so it's just a matter of time before the church recognizes one publicly.

HAGERTY: But in Cardinal Newman's case, there are too many questions that will likely never be answered.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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