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Farewell Norman St John Stevas, staunch champion of the unborn

Lord St John of Fawsley was a colourful and charming figure, but also a scholar and a tireless parliamentarian

By on Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Lord St John, here in 1971 at a protest against anti-Semitism in Russia PA Archive/Press Association Images

Lord St John, here in 1971 at a protest against anti-Semitism in Russia PA Archive/Press Association Images

I am sad that Norman St John Stevas has died. When I was a boy at Ratcliffe College I used to read the Catholic Herald every week, and I greatly used to enjoy his contributions. He had a weekly column which was balanced by the weekly column of a Labour MP, Kevin McNamara.

Norman was then, and probably remains, Ratcliffe’s most famous Old Boy. It was thus rather thrilling to meet him when I was an undergraduate at Oxford. That was in the early eighties, and in those days, Norman, though by now no longer a member of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet, was still a hugely bright star in the firmament.

Unlike a lot of people who have trodden the corridors of power, he was not in the least secretive about his experiences. He loathed Mrs Thatcher, and he idolised the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Pius IX. His house in Northamptonshire was filled with relics and pictures of all three. He even had a cassock which was supposed to have belonged to the Blessed Pius, and I had heard that on occasions he wore it to fancy dress parties.

In the garden of that house were peacocks; the male peacock could not get on with the females and had to be cordoned off in his own little enclosure which was known as “the Vatican”. Also in the garden were a marble pulpit which ad been given to him by Fr Tony Hamson when it was being thrown out of the fine church, St Mary’s in Stow Hill, Newport. Upstairs were an altar and tabernacle, with reserved sacrament, which had come from the oratory at Ratcliffe College, again rescued items. They were the work of Pugin, the son, not the father, both of whom had worked on the building and decoration of Ratcliffe.

Fr Hamson was Norman’s great friend, and they had been contemporaries at school; also in that year, if I am not mistaken, was Fr Kit Cunningham. It was through knowing them and others that I was able to glean details about Norman’s early years. He had a sister called Juno, who was an actress, and who married the actor Terence Alexander, who later became famous in the television series Bergerac. His mother was an Irish Catholic, who had married a Greek, and, after the marriage broke up, had been left very badly off, but the Order educated the young Norman for free; indeed the family even lived in the Lodge at Ratcliffe. Or at least, so I was told; it is all rather long ago, but I think these details are right.

Norman was rightly celebrated for his wit and his panache and his charming persona, but he was also a very serious character, and a scholar as well. He was, above all, a staunch champion of the rights of the unborn, and in the sixties and seventies was tireless in fighting that battle in parliament. He also wrote several books that used to be standard texts on the question. One of the ambitions of the great headmasters of Ratcliffe in Norman’s youth, Fathers Cuthbert Emery and Claude Leetham, was to turn out Catholics who would take a full part in public life. Norman certainly did that – and more. They would have been proud of him. May he rest in peace.

  • Paul Halsall

    He even had a cassock which was supposed to have belonged to the Blessed Pius, and I had heard that on occasions he wore it to fancy dress parties.”

    You can say this, but you cannot just say that he was gay?

  • Anonymous

    What does it matter whether or not he was gay? The point is that he dressed up as Pope Pius  at fancy dress parties, which is amusing in itself and a good example of Lord St John’s sense of humour. 

  • Paul Halsall

    It matters because the closet is stultifying and destructive.

    As the Telegraph obit made clear, St. John-Stevas flaunted his gayness in a way that would make Larry Greyson and Liberace blanche with embarrassment.  

    Not all gay men are fey, camp, or sissy (and good luck to those who are), but he was.  It is ludicrous not to mention it.

    [BTW is Fr. Lucie-Smith related to the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith?]

  • Paul Halsall

    More seriously, such denial during life, and then at death, makes it easier for people in the future to shove people back in the closet.

    Cardinal Newman was widely noted at the time for his “unmanliness”. His closest relationship was with Fr. Ambrose St John.  I am not suggesting they ever had sex.  But Newman was what we would now call a gay man.  And he is a saint (or virtually one).But every official effort is made to deny this, simply because people refused to be explicit in the past.

  • Recusant

    To call Newman a “gay man” goes to show how the sexualisation of everything has pushed the notion of male friendship out of our mental landscape. More has been lost than gained, I would suggest.

  • Paul Halsall

    Well he was not “straight”, was he?

  • Edmund Burke

    What utter nonsense. Why must everything be reduced, in this case on no basis whatsoever, to the genital? 

  • Edmund Burke

    We should not impose the preoccupations of our time on an innocent relationship. Newman would have been horrified, as Ian Ker, his most authoritative biographer, has demonstrated so convincingly. In this matter, the old saying “Speak for yourself” appears apt. Certainly, you have no right to speak for, let alone speculate about, John Henry Newman.

  • theroadmaster

    Some can argue over 
    Lord St John of Fawsley’s  perceived sexual orientation, but the fact remains that he was an indefatigable defender of human life from conception to natural death and the public witness which he gave to his Catholicism was of a very high order.  We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by such useless speculation and instead reflect on his great contribution to the furtherance of Christian values in the world.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Yes, I am his second cousin. All people with our surname are related. Or so i am told.

  • Edmund Burke

    Why have such narrow views of such characteristics. I have known very effete, camp and “cissy” men who were wholly heterosexual and very macho men who were homosexual, as well variations in between. There are men who are entirely heterosexual in their attractions who have very close friendships with, and prefer the company of, other men to that of women. There are women who prefer male company to other women and vice versa. These outward characteristics may, or, more often, may not, have anything to do with sexual inclination. And of course there are asexual people, who have no particular attraction to anyone…

  • Paul Halsall

    Actually, I did *not* reduce anything to the genital.  In fact, I specifically excluded that.  But being gay is not only, or even primarily, about sex: it is about affection, what one finds beautiful (Newman used to ponder whether Christ was “comely”), and how one relates to the world.

    Fr. Ian Ker is a Catholic priest, and has a vested in interest in denying Newman’s sexuality.

  • Edmund Burke

    At that rate everyone is “gay” and the term becomes meaningless.

    Why should Fr Ker have a vested interest in denying Newman’s sexuality? 

  • daclamat

    He was an effete fop, who invented and projected himself, and made catholicism an object of ridicule. How was he a defender of human life, any more than Pius XII  condemned genocide? Jesus of Nazareth would have a hard time finding Christian values in his words and deeds.  Empty vessels. I don’t really care whether he was gay so long as he was happy. Transvestite nonsense with papal fancy dress may seem a joke but Benedict and his cardinals are happy enough to perpetuate it.  They’ve certainly come a long way from Jesus on a donkey

    How on earth was he qualified to speak about abortion?  No more than a parrot or a ventriloquist.

    In the whole of the animal kingdom spontaneous abortion occurs whenever there is a a mal-formed foetus. Human intelligence, God given, has suceeded in over-riding this process, to be replaced  by accurate clinical conclusions which indicate humane clinical procedures. Amen. I’m deeply ashamed that people who recognise this fact are pilloried for God only knows what end by leading churchmen whose undoubted intelligence should make them know better.

    If St. John Stevas was Ratcliffe’s most famous old boy (alumnus) I’m happy (not gay) to have got no further than it’s preparatory school, Grace Dieu. Sounds familiar. Good to know that he was a pal of Kit Cunningham. Doubtless they have lot to talk about.

  • Lee

    Hit the nail right on the head Recusant. If I may, I recommend this as to home in thy point on such a low view that many take towards a man’s friendship towards another man (companionship somewhat).

  • Anonymous

    Obviously, in the Catholic church, it is fine to be gay if one is in a powerful or monied position and can disguise it with “dressing up”. If one should dare to be honest or, *shock* working class!!!!…. the wrath of the patriarchy will be unleashed.
    Ah, the hypocrisy!

  • Anonymous

    No speculation.
    Is there something in Catholic doctrine that required believers to lie and cover-up?
    Not as far as I remember.

  • theroadmaster

    My comment concerning speculation was in relation to those who are basing their skewed and rather narrow view of the sexuality of  St John Stevas, on his well-known flamboyant dress-code and behaviour during his life-time.   In what context are you referring to “speculation”?  Is it an allusion to any perceived cover-ups in this gentleman’s life or are you referring to other matters i.e role of bishops in covering up scandals?  if it is the former, then were is your evidence for this groundless assertion?  If your point refers to the latter, then you are going off topic into another area which is not being discussed in this piece.

  • Ellie Harvey

    The Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is clear.  She teaches that homosexual people
    deserve respect, justice and pastoral care, regardless of social status.  *Obviously* you are here with a blunt axe.

  • Roryodonnell

    Lord St John had a male companion with whom he shared his later life, a banker. ( His altar and reredos aren’t by EW Pugin by the way)

  • Edmund Burke

    Even so,unless someone has details to the contrary, we know nothing about the nature of their friendship and can only, in the absence of contrary evidence, assume that it was wholly chaste and innocent. Whatever happened to basic discretion; not to mention respect for the dead?

  • SPQRatae

    Golly! I hope I never get trapped in a lift with you!

  • Moor_larkin

    According to a 2003 biograph of Stevas,
    “his father having been a Civil Engineer and company director was able to send his son to Ratcliffe, whence he went to… Cambridge”.

    He is also described with reference to his political career as,
    “…was a new arrival in the upper class, his father…..”.

    This book seemed to be getting its information from Who’s Who. Either St.John was born with a silver spoon or wished it to be thought later that he had.