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Newman’s most savage critic was a herald of the sexual revolution

Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley anticipated countless people today who see sex as transcendent

As the Catholic Church proceeds to declare John Henry Newman a saint, some will try to present him as a queer icon. Andrew Sullivan has already done so, writing that Newman’s friendship with Ambrose St John (beside whom Newman was buried) shows “that deep same-sex love was still alive in the highest echelons of the Catholic priesthood, even at the apex of Victorian repression”. Sullivan describes Newman as “part of the reformist and aesthetic Oxford Movement”, a movement “strongly influenced by homosexual men”.

Newman was famous for his singular refinement of expression, keen sense of irony and decision to live celibately. These qualities set him apart at a time when masculinity was coming to be defined (in the words of the Victorianist James Eli Adams) “against subtlety and obliquity of any kind”. “Manly” straightforwardness was seen as ideal, and taken to be a sign of straightness. Thus Charles Kingsley charged Newman first with dishonesty, then with lacking the “brute male force of the world which marries and is given in marriage.”

Like Kingsley, Sullivan finds something queer in Newman’s celibate Catholic life. But Newman did not accept Kingsley’s cramped idea of manhood, and neither should we.

Newman considered celibacy supernatural, not unnatural. Going without marriage was a sacrifice for him, not a relief. After recovering from a nearly fatal fever, he wrote of his desire for a “woman’s interest,” which, “so be it, shall never be taken in me. … Yet, not the less do I feel the need of it.”

As for his supposed aestheticism, Newman distanced himself from movements that promoted high liturgy and declined to adopt their prescriptions. “I never joined the Camden movement, I never committed myself to the Rubric movement,” he wrote, “nor allowed of innovations, though for the better, in St Mary’s – much less gave into such extravagancies as they at present practice in Margaret Street Chapel [a centre of liturgism].”

We live in a sex-obsessed age. If Newman’s life cannot somehow be understood in relation to sex, it seems to a great many people to have no meaning at all. It is not enough that he suffered for Christ – he must also be a martyr for illicit desire. It is not enough that he be a Catholic saint – he must also be a gay icon. Central to this view is the idea that sex is the highest form of union, the closest we come to a touch of the divine.

Newman stood against this elevation of sex. He believed that “man is made for sympathy, for the interchange of love, for self-denial for the sake of another dearer to him than himself”. But in his view the most perfect sympathy, the highest love, the purest self-denial came in union with God. The celibate vocation was the means to this union. It was totally opposed to the “unrequited desolateness” of a single life lived for its own sake.

As the Victorianist Charles Barker has shown, Charles Kingsley elaborated a radically different view, motivated in part by his opposition to Catholicism and suspicion of celibacy. As a younger man Kingsley had felt powerfully attracted to the ideal of celibacy, but in time he came to think that sex was the surest route to the divine. “We touch Heaven when we lay our hand on a human body!” he wrote. When Kingsley met his future wife Fanny, she was preparing to enter an Anglican convent (in part under Newman’s influence). Kingsley polemicised against celibacy in an effort to redirect her longings to the marriage bed. When they were separated during their courtship, Kingsley instructed Fanny to join him in erotically and spiritually charged “festival nights”, during which each would lie naked at the same hour: “At a quarter past eleven lie down, clasp your arms and every limb around me, and with me repeat the Te Deum aloud.”

Kingsley referred to his marriage bed as an “altar” and its use as “communion.” He sketched scenes of crucifixion to elaborate his erotic fantasies. By using sacred images and disciplines to heighten his sexual enjoyment, Kingsley reversed a classical Christian tradition – stretching from the Songs of Songs to John Donne and beyond – of deploying erotic imagery toward devotional ends. This Catholic tradition valorised celibacy over marriage, abstinence over indulgence. It rested on Christ’s teaching that in heaven man will neither marry nor be given in marriage.

Kingsley rejected Christ’s teaching. He believed that heaven was the place where he and Fanny would enjoy “the full-tide of delight” in “some marriage bond, infinitely more perfect than any we can dream of on earth”.

This view was revolutionary. “Kingsley helped pave the way,” Barker writes, “for theories … in which sex is implicitly figured as an overwhelming, grace-like force capable of transfiguring the entire social field.”

Kingsley anticipated the countless people – gay and straight, professedly Christian and frankly pagan – who today regard sex as transcendent. This mistake lay behind several of Kingsley’s personal eccentricities, just as it lies behind several of our public maladies. Newman, standing with the whole of Catholic tradition, shows a better way.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things