A Hero of the Church

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The Victorian theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010

On October 2, 2008, a group of clergy, workmen, police officers, and health officials assembled behind steel screens in a small private cemetery in a suburb of Birmingham, England. They had come to exhume the body of the Victorian theologian, preacher, and writer Cardinal John Henry Newman, in preparation for his beatification (the final stage before canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church) by Pope Benedict XVI. Newman’s remains were to be removed for more convenient veneration as relics to the church that he had founded in Birmingham, where a casket of green Italian marble had been prepared to receive them.

The announcement of the proposed exhumation set off weeks of prurient media controversy. At his own insistence, Newman had been buried in the grave of his disciple and lifelong companion, Father Ambrose St John. A member of the gay rights organization OutRage!, Peter Tatchell, provoked a public furor by denouncing the transfer of relics as a sinister homophobic ploy by the Vatican, designed to conceal the true relationship between these two Victorian priests who had chosen to be buried together. Tatchell insisted that their friendship was homosexual, and suggested that Newman’s epitaph, “ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem,” “out of shadows and phantasms into the truth,” was a coded self-outing from beyond the grave. He conceded, however, that given their religious beliefs and the social mores of the time, the friendship had probably never been sexually consummated.

It soon emerged that Newman had settled the matter of relics in his own way. Though an unwavering convert to Catholicism from the Anglican Church, he never warmed to the more extravagantly material manifestations of Catholic piety, and he was dismissive of suggestions of his own sanctity. “I have no tendency to be a saint,” he told one admirer. “Saints are not literary men…. I may be well enough in my own way, but it is not the ‘high line.'”

It now appeared that he had taken practical steps to ensure that there would be no veneration. Though the grave was excavated to a depth of eight feet, no human remains whatever were discovered. The cardinal had been buried in a simple wooden coffin, and on his instructions the grave had been filled with a soft mulch designed to speed decomposition; the wet clay of the Lickey hills had done the rest. The crestfallen relic-hunters had to content themselves with a few pieces of corroded metalwork and the tassels from Newman’s ceremonial cardinal’s hat.

John Cornwell’s lively new life of Newman takes this bizarre episode as its point of departure. The “unquiet grave” of his title alludes of course to the exhumation and the row over Newman’s sexuality that it provoked. Cornwell devotes a good deal of space to scrutiny of Newman’s relationship to the circle of disciples…

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