Sunday, September 19, 2010

Simon Caterson, and how Collingwood helps reveal the truth about the saintly Cardinal Newman ...

(Above: Cardinal Newman. In his library or in the closet? Here).

My partner has advised the following irrefutable theological theorems:

if Collingwood wins the grand final, there is no god;

alternatively, if Collingwood wins the grand final, and there is a god, she is definitively the bitch from hell, a lickspittle lackey of Eddie McGuire, a vicious wanton harpie, addicted to cheap commercial television game shows, a spoilsport, a grump, a ne'er do well, a fickle, tearing 'wings from flies' harridan whose sole purpose, apart from creating the universe, is to torment humanity, a damned vile creature intent on creating hell on earth before consigning humanity to hell for an eternity spent watching Collingwood win grand finals.

alternatively, if Collingwood loses, this is clear undeniable proof that stout hearted St Kilda folk have been put on earth to refute the pernicious belief that a god exists, especially a devious god who would back Collingwood to win a grand final; or worse, that if there is such a perverse god, she is satan's spawn, since she devised fiendish and cunning means for Collingwood to get into the grand final by defeating Geelong, before her wiles were defeated by stout hearted St Kilda folk. She is therefore by definition a lesser god in the pantheon, to be denounced each Sunday.

When I suggested the patriarchy and the male god that's been put in charge of things should take the rap, there was a storming and thunder and tears, and a lost soul wandering into the distance muttering that there were only two choices: atheism or devil worship.

At times I fear for the sanity of this coupling, so what relief that Simon Caterson is here to brighten our Monday with a celebration of Cardinal Newman in The Australian, under the header Recognition of John Henry Newman's cardinal virtues ...

Of course you could just read the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on John Henry Newman, and get the same ecstatic effect.

Caterson does spend a few moments contemplating the bizarreness of the Catholic church hunting around for a second miracle, so it can confer sainthood on one of its 'most contentious and complex members.'

He mentions Newman's age of conversion, his hearty public life as controversialist, his belief in the laity being involved in church affairs, and his lack of enthusiasm for the quaint notion of papal infallibility.

Digging around for Newman's saintly virtues occupies Caterson in the same way as the Vatican is currently hunting for that second miracle, and he settles on a couple.

The first is that Newman is a great prose writer, though truth to tell, apart from specialists, the most likely path to his scribbles these days is Elgar's mounting of his The Dream of Gerontius (though that's also a relative rarity in the concert hall, with it last turning up in Sydney in November 2008 - here as a pdf).

The second is his work as an educationist:

Moreover the importance of Newman's thought in the secular world is cemented by his idea of the university as inclusive rather than exclusive, and as a place where the student's intellect is developed rather than simply a degree factory or research facility.

A university, Newman believed, should be more than the sum of its parts. "The educated mind may be said to be in a certain sense religious," he wrote.

Happily, such fanciful notions have been put to rest by today's degree factories.

And if you hunt hard enough through Caterson's text, you'll find another reason and that's the way Newman can act as a kind of churchly Don Quixote, tilting from the grave at the new aggressive militant atheists intent on ruining the world:

In the introduction to God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens asserts that all of the great religious thinkers of the past, including Newman, are redundant. There are, however, few religious thinkers more influential today than Newman, at least in the English-speaking world.

What is most singular and suspect, as Sherlock Holmes was wont to say, is the way that Caterson ignores all the most interesting aspects of Newman. In much the same way as Benedict and the Catholic church is busy forging a new image out of the man, never mind how it distorts the man and his thinking:

In his own view the literary vocation would disqualify him from sainthood:

"I have not tendency to be saint - it is sad a thing to say so. Saints are not literary men..." (here).

But then the church has never been inclined to take seriously the views of the faithful, especially not when a convert to the cause can be resurrected as an example to smite the secularists and protestants of England.

The tendency to vulgarity and shameless primitive superstition recently on view runs counter to Newman's thinking, with his body being exhumed, along with details of his personal life (here).

The grand result of the exhumation - the plan being to put Newman's body into a splendid marble sarcophagus separate from his life partner - was the discovery that his body had disintegrated, and all that was left was a brass plaque and a few pieces of tassel from his hat (here).

Memo to potential future saints. Please use lead-lined coffins so that bones can be worshipped in the proper manner of cannibal ancestor worship.

Fortunately this also thwarted the Vatican's attempt to separate Newman's bones from those of his closest personal friend, Ambrose St. John. No matter that Newman had firm views, repeatedly expressed:

"I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John's grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will," he wrote, later adding: "This I confirm and insist on."

But of course the mingling of the bones also raises questions about the mingling of St. John and Newman when they were alive:

Newman wrote after the death of St John in 1875: "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone's sorrow greater, than mine."

Indeed. While Newman embraced celibacy at the age of 15 - and we can take him at his word, given the ferocity of his sublimation of his desires into writing and professional theological controversies - his deepest relationships throughout his life were with younger men. The first of these intense relationships was Richard Hurrell Froude, the longest was with Ambrose St John.

Newman's wiki details some of the questions:

John Campbell Shairp, who knew Newman at Oxford, described him as "a woman's soul in a man's body"; Lytton Strachey described Newman's "soft spectacled Oxford manner, with its half-effeminate diffidence". According to a later author, the Oxford Movement contained a significant stream of homoeroticism. In a chapter on virginity and friendship, biographer Geoffrey Faber wrote of Newman's relations with Hurrell Froude:

Of all his (Newman's) friends Froude filled the deepest place in his heart, and I'm not the first to point out that his occasional notions of marrying definitely ceased with the beginning of his real intimacy with Froude.

In a September 2010 television documentary, "The Trouble with the Pope", gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell directed criticisms at Pope Benedict XVI's interpretations of Newman's theology[60] and discussed his underlying sexuality, citing his very close friendship with St John and entries in Newman's diaries describing their intense love for each other (here for the footnotes).

Naturally this tendency still creates consternation in the church, such that biographer Ian Ker felt compelled to provide evidence from Newman's secret diaries written by Newman as a fifteen year old Anglican, showing Newman was attracted to girls. And it turns out that, according to Ker, Newman's mingling of bones with his friend was just the end of a long, deep but sexless friendship in the Victorian manner.

Uh huh. So a few letters, in which a fifteen year old observes the ritual, socially preferred interest in girls (along with a desire to escape boarding school for home) trumps Newman's hanging around with men for a lifetime?

Well there are more sensible scribbles - and more aware ones - doing the rounds in the antipodes, and by way of contrast you can read John Cornwell in The ascent of a church dissident, on the shameless way the Church is busy ignoring what Newman said, meant and did so that the recalcitrant sheep can be worked into the fold as a shining example of the peculiar superstition of sainthood.

But perhaps the most perplexing issue is this. Celibacy is a state, but it isn't an orientation, as discussed in Was a Would-Be Saint Gay?

My bet? Well given the usual way of things, what's the odds that Newman occasionally broke that old biblical injunction, delivered up by Matthew 5:28:

But I say unto you, that whosever looketh on a man to lust after him hath committed adultery with him already in his heart.

Oops, I mistranslated it a little, the original seems to be about women, but you catch the drift.

Still I take comfort in the fact that no matter how much the church and its apologists might attempt to erase, re-write or overlook Newman's history, they're actually busy attempting to elevate a liberal Catholic with homosexual tendencies to sainthood.

I can grok that.

In a way sadly too typical of The Australian, not to mention the Catholic church hierarchy, Caterson ignores all that's interesting about Newman and his defiant attitude towards Catholic conservatism and traditionalism:

The contrast between Newman and the official version of his life was illustrated by the Pope's statement on his proposed visit to Britain. Addressing the bishops of England and Wales in Rome in February, he declared that Newman was an example to the world of opposition to ''dissent''. It was like saying that Churchill had been a Trotskyite all along. ''In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises,'' said Benedict, in an extraordinary disavowal of the essence of free speech, ''it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate''.

Loyal Catholics, in other words, keep their mouths shut.

If he had any bones left to roll, Newman would be rolling in his grave.

Benedict's problem is that Newman's emphasis on conscience, and the authority of the faithful, can be extended to a range of contemporary issues, besides contraception: human embryonic stem cell experiments, homosexuality, divorce, same-sex unions, and the ordination of women. Newman's views thus stand in need of major papal revision if they are not to offer comfort to the Catholic liberals and progressives.

Go libruls.

Time for an Orwellian reflection, and a dollar in the Orwellian swear jar:

Thoughts are fleeting glimpses
Of the future or the past
They lock ideas in a bottle
It's time to break the glass
Hiding out in the daytime
Crawling through the night
Keeping out of danger
Just trying to find the light

Thought police
They will put you under
The thought police
They will take you in
The thought police
They will clean your mind out
The thought police
You can never win

(Below: and now a snap of the happy couple. Careful! No touching below the shoulder).

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