Category Archives: Recognized Saints

“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”:Blessed John Henry Newman, Soho “Gay” Masses

Last Sunday I went up to London for one of the regular LGBT – oriented “Soho Masses”. Earlier in the day, Pope Benedict had conducted the beatification service for Cardinal John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman is now officially Blessed John Henry – and so the liturgy used for our Mass was, quite appropriately, the newly minted liturgy for his festal day.

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Celibacy, Homosexuality, Jeffrey John and Cardinal Newman

The Pope’s visit to the UK later this year is turning the spotlight on Cardinal John Henry Newman – Newman’s scheduled beatification is the ostensible primary reason for the visit. There are many aspects of Newman’s life and work that will be worth considering: his story as a leading Anglican convert to Rome will focus attention on the relations between the two churches, on the privileged position of the Anglicans as the “established” church here, and on the legal disadvantages of the Catholic church. There will also be interest in his work as a theologian, which has led some to see him as a “progressive” for his insistence on the primacy of conscience, while paradoxically others hail him as an arch traditionalist. I hope to discuss both of these later. For now though, I want to consider another aspect of his life, his well-known intensely passionate love for a younger priest, Ambrose St John.
This love has led me, like others, to include Newman in my collection of “queer” saints and martyrs. At the Guardian, Jack Valero clearly disagrees. In his discussion of Newman, he complains, “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” My response to this, is that it is even more symptomatic of the modern Church that we conclude that anybody identifying as “homosexual”, or as gay, is not celibate. This is an important issue for the place of gay men and lesbians in the Catholic church, and of the treatment we receive.

First, let us consider the bare facts of Newman and his love, which are generally agreed. His love for St John is beyond dispute. “He loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable,” Newman wrote after St John’s death. This love was reciprocated, to the extent that it was his explicit wish that he wanted to be buried alongside his lover in a shared grave. This wish was understood and respected by his colleagues of the Birmingham Oratory, and so it was done. However, there is no serious suggestion that the intense love between the two was given sexual expression. They were, after all, both priests. Yet from the same set of agreed facts, one side acclaims him as a “gay” saint, another as obviously not “homosexual”. To make sense of this contradiction, I now want to explore some of the nuances behind the bare facts.
A priest’s desire today to be buried in the same grave as another priest would certainly be extraordinary, possibly even scandalous but in earlier times it was uncommon, but less remarkable. Alan Bray in “The Friend” describes many English churches which have tombs holding male couples, some of them priests. What is significant here, is that this practice of burying couples in shared tombs was far more commonly practiced for married couples – and many of the male couples buried together that Bray described are known to have been “sworn brothers”, made so in a liturgical rite exactly comparable to the rite of “adelphopoesis” that John Boswell describes in “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe”. Boswell and Bray disagree on the significance: Boswell presents evidence that these rites included many elements exactly comparable to the rites for opposite-sex marriage of the day. Bray argues that they should not be seen as a form of marriage, but merely as a sign of deep friendship – some of the men undergoing sworn brotherhood were also married to wives. Most of these predated Newman and St John by many centuries – by the nineteenth century the practice had all but died out, and there is no evidence that the men had ever formalized the relationship in any form of written contract or liturgical rite, Still, the symbolism of the shared grave remains powerful, given its historical context.
Now, consider Newman’s celibacy. Recall that he started life as an Anglican, for whom clerical celibacy was not a requirement. He quite specifically approved of marriage as a general rule, and believed that “country parsons” too should marry. Yet, even at the tender age of 16, he knew that he personally would not, believing that a single life was the “will of God” for him. If this deliberate celibacy in a priest should mean that he cannot be considered “homosexual”, does this mean that he is necessarily to be thought of as “heterosexual”? Surely not. Celibacy in itself is no indicator of sexual orientation. The common words simply are not of any help. Personally, I no longer think in terms of any category of “gay” saints: the modern word does not work outside of the modern period, and so I use the term “queer” instead, to denote anybody whose behaviour or choices stand clearly outside the standard, gendered role models for “heterosexual” men and women. On this basis, I have no hesitation in describing as “queer” a man who early on praised marriage in principle, but eschewed it for himself without any religious obligation to do so, and whose major emotional investment was a passionate (if sexless) relationship with a man, with whom he desired to share eternity.
Now, I return to the implications behind the opening statement in the Guardian: “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” The argument here, that celibacy denies “homosexuality”, can be turned on its head: there is an assumption behind it that “homosexual” implies sexual activity. This is a dangerous assumption, which leads to some of the more shameful aspects of pastoral practice in the institutional church. Vatican theory is quite different: the significant modern documents draw a clear distinction between the homosexual person, the “inclination” (or orientation), and actions. It is made clear that the “inclination” is not sinful, and that homosexual persons are to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. Only homosexual “actions” are considered to be sinful. Yet Vatican teaching argues against protecting the persons from discrimination in housing or employment, even though such discrimination is clearly targeted at people for who they are, not for what they may have done. In defending this position, they claim that the “person” can remain free of discrimination by the simple expedient of keeping his “inclination” secret. “DADT”, in other words, in the Church.
This week, the English courts ruled on the validity of this argument as it applies to gay asylum seekers, looking for refuge here from serious homophobic persecution, even the risk of death, in their home countries. The British Border Agency, fearing that a sympathetic ruling would open the flood-gates to unwanted hordes of opportunistic refugees, had argued that gay Iranians, Sudanese and the like could escape persecution by the simple expedient of remaining closeted. The court sensible disagreed, stating that this was an entirely unreasonable and unjust expectation. It is even more unreasonable and unjust on the part of a Church which reminds us (in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, para 18) of the Scripture injunction to “Speak the truth in love”, and “the truth shall set you free”.
The problem is that the Vatican promise of “dignity, compassion and respect” does not apply to persons who are “homosexual”, but only to those who hide their sexuality. Why? Because if their “condition” is known, they are assumed to be not celibate – even when they give assurances to the contrary, as was the case of the Canadian altar server. This is not just a problem for the Vatican – it applies equally to the Anglican Church, and was the unstated problem that derailed the proposed selection of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Southwark. John declares that he is celibate. However, he is known to be in a Civil Partnership. British law on these partnerships is clear that they are in many respects virtually identical to conventional marriage, but there are a handful of key differences. One of these is that unlike traditional marriage, there is no requirement of sexual consummation for the partnership to be legally valid. In terms of law, it is entirely possible for two men to be in a legal Civil Partnership, and celibate, just as John says he is. His opponents, however, simply refuse to believe this. To them, the simple fact that two homosexually identified men are living together is taken as “proof” that they are not celibate. In the commentary around John’s nomination, it was asked whether there was any “proof” (such as video footage) that their relationship was “chaste”. Why?

Now, let us return once more to Cardinal Newman. He never disclosed physical sexual activity, or its absence with St John, but in the absence of evidence, it is assumed that his close emotional relationship was suitable celibate. In the case of both the (Catholic) Canadian altar server, and the (Anglican) Jeffrey John, we have clear statements of both that their relationships with their partners are celibate, and so (presumably) exactly comparable to that of Newman and St John. Yet the popular assumption around these men is precisely the reverse of that applied to Newman. Whereas he is assumed to be celibate, they are assumed not to be. If modern standards had been applied to Newman, he should have been barred from the priesthood altogether, let alone raised to high office and a path to sainthood.

Books:

Boswell, John : Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Alan Bray, The Friend

Queer Saints & Martyrs: Synopsis

Prequel: Before Christianity

Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity  has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.

The Rape of Ganymede

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Gay Bishops: How Many?

 Bishop Mary Glasspool has now been consecrated as a bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles, making her the second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church. Some sources are describing her as the second gay bishop  in history” – but that would be pushing it, and is breathtaking in its cultural myopia.

Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)
Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)

So, for context and a refresher once again of how deeply homoerotic relationships have been embedded in the Christian church, I offer some reminders. Mary Glasspool is the first openly lesbian bishop in the Episcopal church, but not the first lesbian bishop globally: That would be Bishop  Eva Brunne, consecrated by the Swedish Lutherans last year (2009).

Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm
Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm 

Popular reports name Bishop Gene Robinson as the first gay bishop, but that’s oversimplifying. He was the first modern bishop in the Anglican communion to be consecrated while openly gay, but there have been others before him who came out openly after being named bishop – for example, Otis Charles, also of Utah, Derek Rawcliffe of Glasgow and Galloway in the Scottish Episcopalian church, and Mervyn Castle of False Bay (part of the Archdiocese of Cape Town in the Anglican, “Church of the Province of South Africa”).

In the days of the early church, Bishop Paulinus of Nola not only had a boyfriend, he commemorated his love in some frankly erotic love poetry. Bishop Venantius Fortunatus was another. Both of these men are canonized saints. Bishop Arno of Salzburg may not have written erotic verse, but he received some, from Saint Alcuin of Tours. (He also had a relationship with Paulinus, as did Alcuin, in some kind of clerical threesome).  Bishop Marbod of Rennes (11th century) also wrote erotic verse to a boyfriend, but was not canonized. Other early bishops also had male lovers,  but because they are not remembered as saints, and have not left memorable erotic verse, we do not know their details.

We do know about the ordination of one openly gay bishop, John of Orleans,  in the eleventh century, at the instigation of his lover Ralph, the  Archbishop of Tours, because of the scandal it caused. This scandal was not because John was both gay and famously promiscuous, but because of his youth and Ralph’s obvious nepotism. How many other openly gay bishops were consecrated at that time without the same scandal, we just don’t know.

Clouding the issue of “gay” bishops is one of terminology, especially against a background of monastic celibacy. There are strong grounds for describing another recognised saint, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, as “gay”, even if celibate, on the basis of his writing and passionate love letters to his monastic “friends”.  He  should definitely be remembered as a protector of gays, for rejecting a decision by the London synod to impose harsh penalties for homosexual actions.

Then are the succession of gay popes: Julius II, Julius IIIPaul II, and possibly John XII (r. 955-964), Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (r. 1316-34), Paul II (r. 1464-1471), Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and Leo X (r. 1513-1521) (See Jesse’s Journal at Gay Today).

In the modern Catholic Church , there have been no openly gay bishops or popes, but there have certainly been many in the closet. There are credible claims that that Paul VI may have had his share of boyfriends, at least before becoming pope, and similar suggestions that the “Smiling Pope“, John Paul I, may have been gay. And on Wiki Answers, there is a claim that Pope Benedict himself is gay.

Then there are certainly hundreds of closeted gay bishops in the Catholic Church. The late Cardinal Spellman of New York was notorious in his day. Allegations have been made against Cardinal Wuerl of Washington and others who surround themselves with obviously gay fan clubs – while publicly attacking LGBT equality.

I accept that hard as it is to be openly gay as a Catholic priest, it will be obviously that much harder as a bishop. But I do wish journalists,  who undoubtedly have the required evidence, would be less reticent about outing those gay bishops who are publicly hostile. If it is too much to hope that we in the Catholic Church can expect any time soon to see bishops coming out publicly to join their Episcopal and Lutheran counterparts, perhaps the threat of involuntary outing could at least dampen their public hostility to civil rights advances.

See also:

Outing the Church: Gay Popes, Gay Bishops

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Trans Saints? Cross-Dressing Monks

The “LGBT Catholic Handbook lists an intriguing group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing in order to live as monks. The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, but the Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia however, dismisses the tales as ‘hagiographic fiction.’ The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. Still, whatever the full historic truth, it seems to me these are useful stories to hold on to as reminders of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered, in our midst. Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting our sexual identities, consider how much more challenging must be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.
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“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an “abomination”), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them “transvestites” is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being “forced” to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex – it is fair to see them as “transgendered”. There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women’s clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have “male souls”, a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women’s lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) March 10th ORC/ORTH
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
  • St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
  • St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
  • St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
  • St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
  • St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
  • St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC – as St. Margaret)
  • St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
  • St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
  • St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
  • St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
  • St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
  • St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
  • St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.

Gay Saints: Do They Exist? Do They Matter?

Lovers & Martyrs?

“Sergius & Bacchus: Lovers & Martyrs?”

The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.

Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints. For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous ‘worship’ of the saints; for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints: remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regions of Europe. There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people – creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships. (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with ‘sin’.) Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness. We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe. There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate. But we in the LGBT community remain excluded – or think we are. “How great it would be”, we think, if we too could have saints of our own. It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised ‘gay saints’ in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these. Is it realistic to think of these as ‘gay saints’? Is it helpful? I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably “No”, at least not as narrowly defined. But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, “Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly.” The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic. For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem. Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as ‘gay’. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there. So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined? I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria: agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay. Nevertheless, I don’t think this is important. It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised. The “communion of saints” includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese ‘gay’. (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered ‘heterosexual’). By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many ‘gay saints’ that have gone before us, and many who still live among us. This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation – but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history. It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed ‘gay saints’.

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