Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Hype and Hooplah Regarding Bones, Miracles, and Dead Englishmen

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 “├╝ber-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….


Dad29 said...


A genuine male/male friendship can, indeed, be very deep and close, without a hint of homosexuality involved whatsoever.

Your position that the Church's teaching somehow rules this out is stretching quite a bit...

And I cannot recall the specific teaching which says that marital friendship is the sine qua non--that no earthly friendship can be deeper.

Jason Pennington said...

You are absolutely correct, and that is my point, that such relationships -- intimate platonic relationships between men -- are indeed possible. I do make that clear.

At the same time, however, we are taught that the consumation of creation is realized only in marriage, that is, in the union of a man and a woman as husband and wife which symbolizes the union of Christ and the Church. In the shadow of such a weighty image, any friendship outside marriage pales in comparison, regardless how intimate, especially one between two males. For the same reason, this symbiosis of male/female and Christ/Church, Roman Catholic priests may only be men, for it is a similar construct of Christ in union with his bride, the Church. Thus, in comparison to marriage, any other friendship approaches the sacramental union of matrimony solely via Zeno's paradox: a route equal to half the total distance. Newman's mention of his grief being greater than that of a husband or a wife gives rise to the theory regarding the nature of his relationship to Ambrose St. John. It is indeed quite a profound statement to make that his relationship, as demonstrated by his grief, is deeper even than that of a husband or a wife, together the true and sacramental embodiment of the union of Christ and the Church. For one to make such a statement, especially a priest, makes one wonder what exactly the nature of the relationship was, which could produce such sorrow. Surely not one which by its nature can not possibly come close to the intimacy of man and wife.

Thanks to our 21st century mindset, the theories regarding Newman's orientation will no doubt be raised. In fact, they already have been raised, some already noting simply from these few facts not a possibility, but a definate conclusion, that Newman was a homosexual. I myself find that the information at hand is not truly enough on which to make such a conclusion, but since such a conclusion may in fact be inferred (and has been -- and not by me) from it, I have therefore presented it. It is important to consider both sides of the argument. The bottom line is that however one wishes to behold Newman, he is an important figure in Church history and scholarship, and whether or not he may have been a homosexual should have nothing whatsoever to do with his worthiness for canonization. We have been taught that he had lived the celibate life since age 15, however, we know well that this says nothing regarding his orientation. I tend to agree with theorists who believe that translation of the remains from their rightful place reflects a certain modicum of embarassment on the Chruch's part regarding their entombment. We know, as I stated, that translation of relics is not a sine qua non for sainthood. The Church also is not comprised completely of idiots. The powers that be know exactly what the scene looks like, and they know Newman's statements regarding his burial wishes, and they know the inscription upon the tombstone. Appearances mean much. As the addage goes: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well then...

I predict Newman's cause will sit in canonization limbo for some time, predominantly due to the question whether or not he may or may not have been. When the dust settles, someone will remember that his case is sitting in the file. There is also the fact that there still is one miracle yet to be documented. And, as the Pope stated regarding the situation, "Miracles are hard to come by in Britain."


Dad29 said...

This is an excellent essay which touches on the question.

Note his mention of eros and the Thomistic understanding of same.

Jason Pennington said...

Thank you for directing us to this essay. It is, as you said, excellent, especially its consideration of eros. In fact, the misunderstanding of the concept which the author describes is the very trap a very esteemed, now retired priest of this Diocese fell into when commenting at a meeting of regional priests upon the Pope's first encyclical. I was told about the address afterward by my then boss, who felt the speaker had misunderstood the Pope's remarks, having deconstructed the word caritas to imply carnal desire. I agreed with my wise pastor.

I am familiar with the false notions of implied "incest" regarding the procession of Father and Son, as well as the improper notion of an incestuous bond between Christ and the Marian Church. I stand in complete agreement with the essay's author. The relation of Christ to Church is a mystical union, and, as stated in the essay, is indeed a self-gift, not a carnal, "ravenous" one. We must also realize that the Bride of Christ is not Mary herself, but the Church herself.

The argument regarding Newman's possible homosexual orientation does not necessarily imply a physical, carnal relationship. Further, given accounts of his strict celibacy, such a notion seem absurd. But, as the CCC makes clear, one's orientation has nothing at all to do with its physical expression. We are taught that homosexual orientation is in fact in-born, but that one has a choice whether or not to act upon it. So, just as there are heterosexual couples who may or may not make a choice to engage in heterosexual contact, there are also homosexual couples who do the same. The frequency or infequency of sexual contact does not impact orientation.

What is interesting in the Newman case is his comparison of his relationship with Ambrose St. John as being like that of a husband or a wife. I would venture it quite safe to opine that, two straight males, regardless of the degree of intimacy of their relationship would hardly compare their friendship to that of spouses. And I would venture further to say, that it would be considered quite unusual for one to grieve the other's death as if he had lost a spouse. Brother, yes, but spouse? No. The natures of the two unions are so different, despite their outwardly similar spiriual intimacy.

For those who shudder at the possibility of such a notable figure of Christian thought to have had any other orientation besides hetero, would similarly baulk at the idea of his possible homosexuality. Considering the statistic, that 10% of the population is homosexual, chances have it that there do exist gay theologians. Perhaps even one of the Apostles was gay -- who knows. We do know each of them had their own crosses to bear. Who's to say this might not have been one of them? I know for a fact that there are homosexual priests. One dated a male friend of mine for several years and I have often invited both to parties and dinners at my home. Many have secret relationships with their boyfriends, which, in certain circles are not secret at all -- the Roman collar comes off and the civilian clothes go on. Given Newman's seriousness regarding his celibacy as well as the era in which he lived, I would not consider that he at any time would have practiced the behavior of many a gay priest of our day.

In addition, the treatment of gay priests in my own piece is in reaction to those certain ones (there are many gay priests who, like Newman, take their celibacy seriously, and who are real, spiritual leaders of their congregations), who, despite their outspokenness against the homosexual lifetyle, secretly act upon their orientation when not in the pulpit. I know several of those as well, and I also know many of their boyfriends. I hope it's not expected for me to name names. I could very easily off the top of my head, but that's a story for them to tell their bishop. These are the hypocrite priests who say one thing and do another. Again, this is not the type of priest that Newman embodied, and unfortunately, these hypocrites and are the ones whose behavior will make it difficult for a celibate gay theologian to advance with any speed towards canonization.