Blessed John Henry and Ambrose: Newman’s Last Sermon

The media caravanserai has moved on, but Cardinal John Henry Newman is now and will remain known as Blessed John Henry. He remains also a significant, if complex, figure for gay and lesbian Catholics in his relationship with his beloved Ambrose St John, and in his theology for progressive Catholics more generally. The theology is subtle, and has been too easily misappropriated by people on both sides of the Church ideological divide. I do not (yet) want to enter that territory. About the relationship with Ambrose, I feel more secure.


Inscription for a grave in which both John Henry and Ambrose were buried.

Alan Bray (“The Friend “) has written extensively about this relationship, showing how it fits into an ancient tradition of close, even passionate friendship between male couples in the Church: Read the rest of this entry »

GLBT History Month (in Church): Cardinal Borghese (1576 – 1633), Homoerotic Art Lover

October has been declared GLBT history month. Yes, I know I’m a little slow here, but as I noted yesterday, domestic and family issues the last couple of weeks have  left me distracted, and severely short of time.  No, I don’t know who has decided this, but no matter. Queer history is important, and October is as good a time as any to look at it seriously. I will be paying particular attention to general queer history at my dedicated satellite site, but I will also be posting here on some notable figures in the history of the Church. By marvellous serendipity, October 7th is the feast day of the Roman saints and martyrs, the lovers Sergius & Bacchus, who are by far the best known of the queer saints. Thanks to the attention lavished on them by John Boswell in both his books, they can be viewed informally as the patron saints of same sex lovers – but also of queer history.There are many other notable gay and lesbian figures in Church history. There are the obvious examples of the many other gay, lesbian and cross-dressing saints, there are the many less than saintly bishops and cardinals who are known to have had sex with men; there are others who may have remained technically chaste and celibate but disclosed their nature by the lavish patronage they bestowed on homosexual artists and the frankly homoerotic artworks they purchased – and the prominent churchmen who achieved fame or notoriety for the hatred and popular homophobia they whipped up against men who loved men. I hope to cover a selection of all these during this month of GLBT History (in Church).

The name “Borghese” will be familiar to many art lovers and tourists in Italy from the name “Villa Borghese”, the palace which was designed by the architect Flaminio Ponzo from sketches by Cardinal Borghese himself, and which housed his impressive art collection.
The mere existence of this collection and its magnificence poses important questions about the institutional Catholic Church. What does this vast wealth that this collection represented, have to do with pastoral care, outreach to the poor, or preaching the Gospels? The questions become even murkier in the light of its manner of acquisition:

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St Patrick, Gay Role Model.

So why should we see St Paddy as a gay icon?

saint-patrickIn a notable book on Irish gay history (“Terrible Queer Creatures”) Brian Lacey presents some evidence that Patrick may have had a long term intimate relationship with a man:

“St. Patrick himself may have had a relationship tinged with homoeroticism. Tirechan, a late seventh century cleric who wrote about St. Patrick, tells the story of a man Patrick visited and converted to Christianity, who had a son to whom Patrick took a strong liking. Tirechan wrote that “he gave him the name Benignus, because he took Patrick’s feet between his hands and would not sleep with his father and mother, but wept unless he would be allowed to sleep with Patrick.” Patrick baptized the boy and made him his close lifelong companion, so much so that Benignus succeeded Patrick as bishop of Armagh.”

Going backwards in his life, I have seen elsewhere a report* that after his escape from slavery and return to Britain, he supported himself by working for a time as a prostitute  – yes, good old Patrick sold sexual favours.

Does this sound far fetched? Not if you consider the historical realities of the time.  Patrick’s home was in Roman Britain. throughout the Empire, prostitution was an entirely acceptable way for men or women in desperate circumstances to make a living. Consider also his likely experience as a slave.  In both Roman and Greek society, as well as elsewhere, it was assumed that one of the duties of a slave, particularly if young or attractive, was to provide sexual services on demand.  Ireland was not under Roman rule, but there is no reason to suppose that the conditions of slavery were notably different.  (Lacy shows in his book that in pre-christian Ireland same sex relationships were accepted and respected.)

There is another reason, though why we as queer Catholics should look to Patrick as a role model, regardless of his own sexual history, a reason which goes to the heart of his mission.

In “Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay“,  theologian James Alison observes that in the Gospel story of the healing of the man possessed by demons, Jesus instruction to the man after healing was to “Go home,” that is, back to the community which had tormented and rejected him, back to his persecutors.

This is what Patrick did.  Having escaped from slavery and returned to his original home, he responded to what he saw as a call to return to the country of his captivity, to go back to the land of his tormentors – and convert them.

So he did, and so, I think, must we.  Tormented and persecuted we have sometimes (but not always) been by the Catholic Church. Somehow, though, we must find a way to move beyond the anger that provokes, to set aside the resentment, and to “go home to” the church. Thereby we will contribute to its own conversion.

*  In a comment to an earlier posting of this piece, theologian John McNeill has said that he thinks the book with this story was “How The Irish Saved Civilization“, by Thomas Cahill. “He claims that Patrick paid for his passage back to Ireland by servicing the sailors on the boat.”

Gay Popes: Julius III

When I wrote about Paul II earlier, I referred to Julius III – then realised I have never given you more than a snippet on this flagrant lover of boys including one in particular, a street urchin whom Julius appointed as Cardinal at the grand old age of 17

In his early career in the Church Julius established a reputation as an effective and trustworthy diplomat, and was elected to the Papacy as a compromise candidate when the Papal Conclave found itself deadlocked between the rival French and German factions. As Pope he lost, or failed to show, any of the qualities which had distinguished his previous career, devoting himself instead to a life of personal pleasure and indolence. His lasting fame, or notoriety, rests rather on his relationship with the 17 year old boy whom he raised to the position of Cardinal-Nephew, and, it was said at the time, with whom he shared his bed.

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Decriminalization, Recriminalization and the Vatican Record.*

This post has moved to my new domain at

Homoerotic Christianity: The Medieval Flowering*

This post has moved to my new domain at

Sergius & Bacchus – and me.

Sergius Bacchus

While away the last few days, I missed the opportunity to write about the feast of SS Sergius and Bacchus, and sadly lacked the foresight to post in advance.  Now, both Jayden Cameron and Michael Bayley have on any case done the job for me, with excellent posts on the topic.  Read them at Gay Mystic and The Wild Reed.  So instead of writing about their lives or importance, I will just share an anecdote about my personal involvement with them.

I first heard about these legendary gay saints over 5 years ago, shortly before I started attending the Soho LGBT Masses.  I was astonished that there might have been such people as gay saints, and took careful note.  Some time later, I was in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral, and thought it might be an opportunity to do some simple research.  I went into the  Catholic bookshop outside the cathedral, and sought out a couple of comprehensive books of saints.  One listed the two men and their story (without reference to their relationship) and their feast date.   The other gave the dates, but included a disclaimer to the effect “Their cult was suppressed in 1969”.  Read the rest of this entry »

Selective Magisterium: Reflections on Brooten

BernadetteBrootenI have just finished reading (for the first time –  I will re-read) Bernadette Brooten’s “Love Between Women”, which has been a stimulating, enriching experience. Now, I totally lack the academic credentials to offer a formal review. 6000 miles from home, I am also without some of my standard books that I would normally consult to check the contents of my memory, further limiting any scope for accurate statements of fact.. However, in a former life I worked professionally as a market research analyst, presenting and interpreting research data for marketing managers at leading grocery manufacturers.  I regularly told my clients that I didn’t claim to have all the right answers, but I hoped to find the right questions. Brooten’s book certainly raised a lot of good questions for me, and it is in a similar vein that I now share with you some thoughts.

First, the key purpose, methods and findings of the book. The purpose, of course, is clear from the subtitle: “Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism” – with a clear emphasis on “female”.  In this, it is the first such investigation, and represents an important complement to John Boswell, who in practice focuses heavily on male history. Like Boswell, she precedes her discussion of specifically Christian responses with a general survey of attitudes and practices in the wider Mediterranean world. Her methods are innovative, as she goes beyond the standard classical texts, adding to them records from magic, astrology and medicine.  These are useful, because the standards texts, by an educated male elite, tend to focus on a male elite, with far fewer references to women.  But magical binding spells to attract demonstrate the existence and public visibility among non-elites of female homoerotic desire, astrological writings show that the astrologers at least believed that sexual orientations of all kinds were determined at birth, and medical treatises showed a belief that some orientations were seen as diseased.

The two most important conclusions, though, which apply to both Christian and pagan perspectives were that the important distinctions in sexual partners were not on gender itself, but on the appropriate gender roles (that is, as the insertive or receptive partner in sexual penetration), and that there was a marked asymmetry in attitudes to male and female homoeroticism. Read the rest of this entry »

The Homoerotic Catholic Church

That’s right:  not homophobic, but homoerotic.  Sure, there is homophobia, especially in the official teaching, but if you peer beneath the surface, scratch the veneer, lift the skirts of the priestly vestments at what lies beneath and within, you find a very different picture. It is a common observation that the most virulent homophobia often masks a closeted gay interior. This may well be the case with the institutional Catholic church: there is much in the Church’s history, institutional character, liturgical style, church decoration, and mystical tradition that is way more than just gay-friendly:  much of it is at least camp, or even frankly homoerotic.

Let us begin with the fun stuff.

In his wonderfully funny but also pointed and touching bit of memoir, “Since My Last Confession“, Scott Pomfret adopts a delightfully camp tone to describe the personnel, priestly vestments and equipment of the Mass. (In an extended metaphor, the Mass becomes a white linen restaurant, the priest is the chef, Eucharistic ministers are waiters, the chalice is the wine glass.) Read the rest of this entry »

Cardinal Newman

Not yet a saint, but on the way:  Newman is due to be beatified in 2010, with canonization to follow after confirmation of the required “Third Miracle”. He does not yet have a feast day in the usual sense.  However, his “die natalis“, or “day of (new) birth” (i.e. the anniversary of his death) is remembered today, Aug 11th.

Newman is not classed as “gay” on the basis of sexual practice:  it is generally acknowledged that he practiced  sexual abstinence.  Still, he had a clear homosexual sensibility, and was renowned for a remarkable devotion to his friend Ambrose St John, with whom he insisted on being buried:

Ambrose St John, left, and Cardinal Newman (picture taken from "Nihil Obstat")

Ambrose St John, left, and Cardinal Newman (picture taken from "Nihil Obstat")

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