Has the concept of friendship died?

In the ongoing conversation about the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman I must admit to being rather confounded with all the ink (or bytes) spilled concerning the question of the cardinal’s sexuality. Father Ian Ker commented in his article published in the May 25 issue of The Times that even raising the question of the cardinal’s sexuality was left to the twentieth century when the concept of friendship died stating that the possibility of any implication of homosexuality in the cardinal’s desire to be buried alongside his friend Ambrose St John with whom he had exchanged many intimate letters could not have even entered the mind of Newman or any of his contemporaries. Newman’s life and ministry coincides almost precisely with the Victorian era, an era noted by Michel Foucault to have included the first time that a society had affirmed, in a constant way, that its future and its fortune were tied…to the manner in which each individual made use of his sex (The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, 26). Emerging power relations, founded on the discovery or creation of new methods for making knowledge, allowed for the construction of a new category—sexuality—which was then subject to investigation and became the most curious, most mysterious object of knowledge itself seen as revealing something of the inner truth of a human being (69ff.). The very notion of each individual possessing a sexuality that was in some sense tied up with the authentic self, constituent of one’s being, was just beginning to emerge within the discourses of Newman’s day. Regardless then of what we may or may not ever know about the details of Newman’s sexuality, a matter perhaps we ought to extend the discretion it is doubtless due or at least reserve to those biographers more familiar with the intricacies of his life, it remains the case that we should take Newman at his word and seek to understand his relationship with Ambrose St John within the discourse of friendship, a discourse wherein intimacy and sexuality were not necessarily conflated. A fellow Britain seven centuries earlier, the Cistercian Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, articulated a vision of friendship in his De spiritali amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship) that sought to Christianize Cicero’s De Amicitia (On Friendship) and saw the connection between true friends as a foretaste of the relations between each of us that awaits in heaven. For the forthrightness with which Aelred wrote of his relationships he, like Cardinal Newman, has been subject to such objectifying methods of knowledge production that continue to supplant an earlier discourse in which martyrdom once made sense with one in which fecundity is central. Will even that status of friendship to which Christ has raised each of us (John 15:13ff.) suffer death? Or can the discourse of friendship be resurrected to a newness of life in which our bodies yearn for consummate union with Christ more than anything else?

2 comments

  1. Resurrecting the power of Christian friendship is probably one of the biggest hurdles of the 21st Century church. In all the debates on sexuality, deep, intimate friendship has been lost. Any deep friendship between two men or two women is automatically suspect; we have conflated marriage and friendship to the detriment of both. Marriage unites two into an amazing depth of intimacy, but other relationships can and should be intimate to help us grow in the knowledge and love of God. God forbid that only one person be close to our hearts!

    Do I care if Cardinal Newman or St Aelred were gay? I’ll admit, yes. I do wonder if their hearts felt the same way as mine does toward other men. Given the immense holiness of St Aelred and the depth of his knowledge of love and friendship, I would love to feel he’s a kindred spirit. Arguing over their sexuality, however, is a way of hiding what they were saying and practicing about intimacy. Hmm… arguing hides intimacy… is it because we still are absolutely petrified and terrified of being honest and intimate with another person, especially one we’re not having “intimate” relations with?

  2. Actually, I have seen a sermon to undergraduates in Newman’s Oxford warning against sensuality in one’s friendships, and as a reader of the classics Newman must have been perfectly aware of such matters. That he was chastely homosexual I have no doubt. He lived in all-male environments in which love between men was positively valorized, so he probably never felt any socially dystonic effects of his gayness. He was very forthright in telling of his feelings for Froude and St-John, which I take as a Romantic faith in the holiness of the heart’s affections. I do not think it is paranoid to suspect that the Church is trying to undo this frankness or parrhesia of Newman by airbrushing all signs of his homosexual feelings: Newman is no longer buried in the same grave as his friend; and the striking Dorian-Gray-ish portrait of the ‘bright and beautiful’ Froude disappeared from the Littlemore residence of Newman when it was taken over as an RC shrine. Ian Ker’s biography falsifies Newman by overstressing that he was a manly man.

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