BY SIMON CALDWELL
CLAIMS that Cardinal John Henry Newman was a closet homosexual have been debunked in a new version of the definitive biography of him.
Fr Ian Ker, author of John Henry Newman, used private letters and diaries to show that the Victorian convert and theologian was a heterosexual.
He said the cardinal’s wish to be buried in the grave of his friend, Fr Ambrose St John, meant it was “inevitable” there would be speculation about his sexuality in an age that has “lost the concept of affectionate friendship untouched by sexual attraction”.
But a diary entry of December 1816, when Newman was a 15-year-old Anglican, showed he was worried that dances and parties with girls would be a sexual temptation for him. As an adult Newman later wrote about the deep pain of the “sacrifice” of the life of celibacy to which he felt he had been called.
“A modern reader should not need to be reminded that in 19th-century England homosexuality was illegal and generally considered to be immoral,” wrote Fr Ker. “The only ‘sacrifice’ that Newman could possibly be referring to was that of marriage,” he said. “And he readily acknowledges that from time to time he continued to feel the natural attraction for marriage that any heterosexual man would feel.” Fr Ker wrote that in the Victorian period there was nothing unusual in friends sharing the same graves. “Newman would scarcely have left such an instruction had he even dreamed that it could ever be interpreted as having any significance beyond the significance which he attached to it – nor would the oratory or the Church authorities have ever permitted a joint burial if they had the slightest suspicion about what must have seemed to them a totally innocent, not to say praiseworthy gesture,” he said.
“Newman had plenty of critics, not to say enemies, in his time; yet not one of them, not one newspaper, not one casual observer, even dreamed of reading a significance into an act of loving friendship, and indeed humility, such as was left to the 20th century to read into it.” Fr Ker said he always knew that such speculation was “baseless” but acknowledged he might have been “wrong in not specifically dealing with it” in earlier editions of his 1988 book. Claims that Newman had homosexual inclinations first emerged in Geoffrey Faber’s 1933 Freudian psychobiography Oxford Apostles. Newman’s Autobiographical Writings, published in 1957, provided evidence to disprove them.
Cardinal Newman retained most of his friends throughout his life and his friendship with Fr St John lasted 30 years.
He felt partly to blame for Fr St John’s death in 1875 because he had asked him to translate a book on papal infallibility by the Austrian theologian Joseph Fessler, a work which left the priest exhausted.
Newman later wrote: “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 stated on three occasions his desire to be buried with his friend and shortly before his own death in 1890, aged 89, he wrote: “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 ... this I confirm and insist on.” Gay rights activists have argued that such words indicated that Newman was a closet homosexual.
Last year they opposed the exhumation and transfer of his body to the Birmingham Oratory ahead of his likely beatification, saying that it was wrong to separate the cardinal from “the man he loved”.
The dispute petered out after the undertakers who opened the grave at a secluded cemetery in Rednal, Worcestershire, last October found the body had totally disintegrated.