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Fr Ian Ker brings clarity to the question of Newman and his male friends

If you caught the Radio 4 play about Newman, you have all the more reason to read this new booklet

By on Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Cardinal Newman was played by Derek Jacobi in the radio play Gerontius. He came across as fey, self-absorbed and querulous (CNS)

Cardinal Newman was played by Derek Jacobi in the radio play Gerontius. He came across as fey, self-absorbed and querulous (CNS)

Blogging about books obviously includes blogging – occasionally – about booklets. These can be very useful sources of information, as any scanning of CTS stands in church porches will testify. I have just read Fr Ian Ker’s CTS booklet, Newman, His Life and Legacy. At £2.50 it is well worth the price and covers so many of the important landmarks in Newman’s life and thought that it makes it easy for me to pretend to an expertise about him that I do not possess. Among other things, I learnt that Newman’s Tamworth Reading Room was a riposte to a speech by Sir Robert Peel suggesting the replacement of religion by education and knowledge as the moral basis of a new pluralist society. How modern Peel sounds: today we have education, knowledge, pluralism – and very little morality.

However, what I wanted to single out in Fr Ker’s little essay was the common sense and clarity he brings to bear on the question of Newman and his male friends. He writes that since it became current knowledge that Newman’s wish was to be buried with his fellow Oratorian, Ambrose St John, “there was widespread speculation in the international media that there might have been some kind of homosexual relationship between the two friends. In an age that has almost lost the concept of affectionate friendship untouched by sexual attraction, such speculation was no doubt inevitable.” Fr Ker briefly discusses the Victorians, friendship, joint burials and Newman’s recognition of the sacrifice celibacy would entail. It is well worth reading.

It is also a necessary rebuttal. Last week I chanced to listen to a play about Newman on BBC Radio 4 called Gerontius in which the role of Newman was played by Derek Jacobi. It had nothing to do with the soul’s progress towards Purgatory (not a subject to set modern listeners alight) and much to do with his burial plans and his “particular friendship”. Halfway through this breathless, melodramatic dialogue between Newman and his guardian angel, a young male voice declares: “The Roman Catholic Church is homophobic!” It is further inferred that Newman’s motto, “From shadows into the truth”, could be a disguised code for his wanting to come out of the closet. Jacobi himself, brilliant actor though he is, tends to convey a slightly fey quality in the timbre of his voice. Inevitably Newman came across as highly emotional, self-absorbed, querulous and remorseful. He expostulates: “I am an Englishman. I buried my feelings!” All the more reason to read Ker.

In this context, I’ll briefly mention C S Lewis. Not the fact that he was buried in the same grave as his brother, Warnie, but his chapter on friendship in The Four Loves. Although published in 1960 it sounds prophetic. Lewis writes: “It has actually become necessary in our time to rebut the theory that every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual.” I won’t quote more as it would take too long, but as always Lewis brings great insight and intelligence to bear. The whole book is a classic and I understand was a favourite of the late John Paul II.

I’ll conclude with a remark made by a member of the Birmingham Oratory, Fr Dermot Fenlon, to a young chap I know who is thinking of becoming a Catholic: “When we truly love Christ, we become alike, in our opinions, our pursuits and our behaviour.” This, I think, was the bond between Newman and his friends.

  • Dwight Lindley

    The pop cartoon of Newman as “fey,” a strange, vacuous, yet ethereal figure, runs back to Matthew Arnold, who described his memory of Newman thus: “Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St. Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful?” Arnold was interested in re-imagining Newman for his own, dogma-free purposes, convinced as he was (like all 'clear-thinking' rationalists) that it is actually possible to live without dogma of some sort. The new radio production trots out the same old ditty, 300th verse.

  • Nesbyth

    There are many homosexuals in all walks of life, the Church not excluded; but those in the Church, especially priests, must try to live chastely as too must the heterosexual priests. It's the same rule for both.
    However, in today's world when sex is taught in schools, children sexualised early and the majority of adults finding everyday sex normal between any sort of consenting adult, chastity is not understood, nor are chaste friendships. Contemporary “man” attributes contemporary behaviour to those such as Newman and therefore will say that “The Catholic Church is homophobic”. What these misunderstandings miss is that all priests must live chastely, whether homo or heterosexual, and I'm glad that Francis Phillips has introduced us to Fr Ian Ker's booklet and reminded me to re-read “The Four Loves”.

  • Marypettifor

    Francis, I listened to a trailer on Radio 4 for this play. Naively, at first I was delighted that Newman's story would be relayed to many who would not otherwise encounter him. I quickly realised however that it would be simply another chance for licence-payers money to be thrown at the debunking of a soon-to-be saint.
    Watch out for more of this piffle as the Holy Father's visit draws closer.