Little Konrad was a naughty child, but a very inquisitive young fellow who paid close attention to the world around him. He had always wondered why his parish priest walked with a swish like a fashion model on a runway at a Paris show, thinking, well, the poor man may suffer from hip troubles like his grandmother. After Masses, Konrad enjoyed greeting his parish priest who would always receive him unctuously and who would always shyly extend a clammy, limp palm to shake his little hand good morning. The emaciated man with a bad hip and dressed in splendid silks would always open his wide lipless mouth attempting a gleaming, artificial, metal smile. One Sunday morning as he knelt beside his mother saying his prayers before the Divine Liturgy, a thought occured to Konrad. He turned his head up to his mother and whispered: "Do gay priests wear braces so that, at the very least, their teeth might be straight?". His pious mother was nonplused. She demurely threw aside her missal, glared with burning eyes at her impertinent offspring, and with her gloved hand, slapped little Konrad sharply across his rosey cheek as his head struck the back of the wooden pew with a thud: "Silly boy! There are no gay priests!"
Delicious, palpable irony. Since late April, when the Vatican approved the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman, poster child of converts to Catholicism, and paragon powerhouse theologian of the late 19th century, bloggers, journalists, catty queens, and femme-priests have been exchanging glances, raising pinkies, eyebrows, and questions -- enough to make any pompous, portly clerical ostrich regurgitate a sip of Earl Gray into his dainty Royal Dolton with the hand-painted periwinkles. The “John Paul II Priest(esse)s” titter away these days perched before their southern decadent Mochasippies at the Community Coffee House fretting that their covers may be blown by the news (no, that was “covers”, ladies. Get your maniples out the gutter!): “Rumors of our persuasion greatly exaggerated. Pass the nutmeg, would you, Hazel”.
The party line: Newman’s numen beatified, the remains of the venerable deserve a place of rest which bespeaks the dignity of this new position in the Church, at the zenith (actually, just in the narthex as a “beatus”) of the Communio Sanctorum. This means, the cardinal’s bones should be dug up and interred elsewhere where he can be duly venerated by the faithful.
The rub: John Henry Cardinal Newman left specific directives (at three times in his life, the final time shortly before he departed this vale of tears) that he was to be buried in the grave of his dear friend, Father Ambrose St. John. Newman indicated: “I wish with all my heart, to be buried in Fr. Ambrose St. John’s grave – and I give this as my last, imperative will. This I confirm and insist on.” Pretty clear directive, that, and so it went, that when Henry died, he was interred with Ambrose. It is said that Henry spent the night after Ambrose’s passing clinging to the corpse. Whether this account is true or hagiographic is unknown. But if it’s true, one is made to ponder whether Reverend Father had dipped young master Henry into the waters of baptism whilst holding firm of his foot. Were these the tears of Achilles for Patroclus, or the fraternal tears of Cassandra for Hector? The pious and rhetorically adroit homilist may be wise to fake a chiasmus and side with the blind seer. Meanwhile, the lavender confreres of the Second John Paul engorge their inner fire with dramatic readings of Lysistrata, toasting double espressi with boisterous shouts of: “Beniomein!” During the Weimar republic, they termed this behavior “dancing atop the volcano”.
Now this: How deep was this friendship? Post mortem, we know it was at least 6 feet, but in life? The Vatican of course indicates that the two simply enjoyed an intimate celibacy. Fine. Such a gallant, Classical model of friendship. One doesn’t in any way deny that such platonic relationships are possible. They are. But in this case, there seems to be something more. Henry relates this regarding the death of Ambrose: “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 anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.” (Raise eyebrows here). Newman shuts down the Vatican spin machine with one eloquent compound-complex. Perhaps Henry really didn’t mean that his relationship to Ambrose was something like that of a spouse (husband/wife), or like some “über-spouse”, since his grief was actually greater than that of an actual spouse. And sine dubio a mere friendship per se should come nowhere close to the Vatican’s definition of the sacrosanct husband/wife relationship. To set a mere friendship equal to the implications of “husband and wife” would seem, according to the Catholic Catechism, intrinsically disordered. It simply does not fit into the natural chain of being, the order of the universe. Friends are one thing, but husband and wife are certainly another. Here one has a sense that the relationship between Henry and Ambrose was very similar, if not identical (albeit disordered, if such, according to the Church) to a marriage, unless Henry was speaking as metaphorically about his relationship to Ambrose as Christ was speaking metaphorically about his presence in the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of John.
Then, there’s the question of the inscription upon the one, shared tombstone of Ambrose and Henry. It’s splendid: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. (From shadows and phantasms into the truth). People take this two ways, and it’s another ICEL problem. One is unsure whether the word “veritatem” is inscribed in the stone with an upper case “V” or a lowercase “v”. That is, seeing the phrase on paper forces one to pose the question of Pilate: “Quid etiam veritas?” Is this “the truth” or is this “Truth”? Mysterium Fidei! The epitaph could either be Henry’s final theological statement: “from death to life”, or it could be a bold Victorian voice daring to speak his love’s name – from the grave, where it was finally safe to do so: the truth. From shadows and phantasms into the truth, that is, from the closet to the daylight. Take it as you will.
A two-sided case if you ever saw one. And a delightfully scrumptious morsel of potential ecclesial scandal, indeed an ambrosial treat for the Schadenfreude connoisseur. The translation of Newman’s bones from their rightful place along with those of his beloved as a required action for canonization is the reddest of herrings. Countless others have been canonized without their relics being translated to other locations. Some saints’ remains have even been lost, misplaced, or mislabeled. Church history is full of such accounts. No need to cite them individually. Just pick up any history book (read Peter Brown’s The Cult of Saints). One view is that this nonsense reflects the Vatican’s embarrassment of having the bones of a candidate for sainthood lying in a grave with those of another man, other than a member of his immediate family. Officially, there are no priests of that persuasion, and certainly there never have been nor will there ever be any saints of that persuasion! A notion to the contrary would leave centuries of clerical pundits, yes-men, and propagandists naked at the erect obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, serene visages covered with eggs(benedict). Of course, if there were, that would mean reams and reams of endless re-writes and re-spins for the Vatican. The theological works associated with Cardinal Henry are just too important and valuable to Christianity simply to have them rendered heretically anathema were it to be made public that their author had a peculiar fondness for men. Don’t remind those coffee house femme-freres over there, but the Church considers folks like them unworthy for ordination. One supposes, they must have butched it up for exams and then slipped on the pumps after Mass (it’s so much easier to genuflect in flats!).
And so, if this odd bone-translation is more an example of Roman damage control, than crowd control, what does it say about the Church’s actual sentiment regarding Topic Q? Something far stricter than what stately stands written in the CCC, that “it’s ok to ‘be’ but not to ‘do’”. As far as we know, the relationship between Henry and Ambrose was non-sexual, however, even with that, the relationship still seems cause for alarm. Could it be that plans for a new stance on the issue are brewing behind the great doors of St. Pete’s? If that’s the case, this issue with Newman should have those lavenders who are sitting pretty in rectories all over the world shaking in their pumps and searching in their Gucci clutches for a tissue and a valium. Close your blinds, ladies, and hide those copies of Death in Venice, and by Jove, don’t eat strawberries in public! It’s sounding like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy soon may not be good enough to keep the closet doors shut tightly. But then again, if one does make it far enough in the Roman beauty pageant, it’s always (the art of the) possible to ignore reality, re-write history, and add a good dose of spin to cook the history books. That surely would save a pack of white-out and hours of awkward Catechesis. But on the flip side, heaven still hasn’t gotten rid of St. Christopher yet, even though the Church says his prayers are useless for travelers these days. There have and never will be (whisper: gay) priests and for sure no (whisper: gay) saints. It will be interesting how this all turns out. Whether or not Henry Newman was a queen who had a thing for his confrere Father Ambrose has no impact whatsoever upon his theological sense or upon his ministry to the faithful, both during his lifetime and now. If Henry liked the guys more than he should have liked the guys, who the hell cares? If countless popes can sire children (Celibacy? Premarital what?) and still be considered Vicarii Christi in terra, who on heaven or earth is to say that a queen can’t talk about God and be right? And who’s to say that his prayers in heaven are meaningless because he loved another man? If that were the case, thousands and thousands and thousands of Holy Masses worldwide should be rendered invalid because the hands offering them and speaking the prayers on our behalf might be attached to girly-men.
In order to get to the next level, Cardinal Hank needs another miracle to be attributed to him. I’m banking on the mitres shoving the lid off the new marble sarcophagus one day to find, miracle of miracles, the bones of Ambrose St. John locked in eternal embrace with those of his earthly companion. Relics have been known to translate themselves too, you know. Oremus….