Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Erotic obsessions

Newman's Unquiet Grave by John Cornwell, about the soon-to-be-beatified John Henry Newman, reviewed by Anthony Kenny, describes one way Victorian society was saner than ours, although it would have been much better if the doctrinal position had been combined with legal toleration.
The title of the book alludes to the attempt made in October 2008 to translate Newman’s mortal remains from his Worcestershire grave to a place where they could be publicly venerated. The excavation recovered fragments of a coffin and an inscribed brass plate, but no trace of any bodily remains – either of Newman himself, or of the close friend beside whom he had been buried, Fr Ambrose St John. The upshot of the attempted exhumation was not to provide a shrine for a relic, but to trigger a media debate about whether Newman was gay.

The question is anachronistic. Nineteenth-century Anglicans and Catholics did not classify themselves in accordance with forms of sexual orientation. According to the Christian moral code, sexual activity, whether solitary, homosexual or heterosexual, was sinful except in marriage. For men, therefore, who had given up matrimony and obliged themselves to celibacy, sexual activity with either male or female was forbidden, and sexual attraction whether to male or female could be nothing but a temptation. No doubt different people would find themselves beset by different kinds of temptation, but they did not see these temptations as in any way defining their personality.

I do not know whether those who wish to set up Newman as a gay icon believe that he was homosexually active, but any suggestion that he was is absurd. A man so devout and conscientious would have recoiled from what his Church condemned as one of the worst of sins. Well into the twentieth century, the Catholic Catechism listed “the sin of Sodom” – along with willful murder, and defrauding the poor of their wages – as a “sin crying out to heaven for vengeance.”

Partly because of this rigorous prohibition of homosexual activity, Victorian Christians felt free to express to members of the same sex affection in language which in our very different climate would appear ambiguous. Cornwell deals sensitively and temperately with this issue, comparing Newman’s attachments with the earlier literary intimacies between Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. He goes on to show, by listing parallels, that the burial of friends side by side need have no erotic significance. .... [more]
NEWMAN’S UNQUIET GRAVE by John Cornwell, reviewed by Anthony Kenny