In October 2008 there was excitement over the exhumation, in the outskirts of Birmingham, of an eminent Victorian. The remains of Cardinal John Henry Newman were being dug up as part of the process towards declaring him a saint – Pope Benedict XVI will declare him “blessed” (the first stage) during his September visit to the UK – but the move disturbed more than the ground.

The controversy turned on the curious fact that Newman was not alone in his tomb, having asked to be buried in the same plot as another priest he was very close to. “He loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable,” Newman wrote after the death of Father Ambrose St John, 15 years before his own.

The object of the exhumation was to transfer Newman’s remains to a marble sarcophagus in the Birmingham Oratory, giving people who wanted to pay their respects easy access to this revered English Catholic and major Christian thinker. But a well-known gay rights activist objected. “The reburial has only one aim in mind: to cover up Newman’s homosexuality and to disavow his love for another man,” Peter Tatchell noisily alleged.

Asit turned out, there were no remains to transfer. The coffin, not beinglead-lined, had decomposed. But the controversy left two ideas stuck inthe minds of many: that Newman was “gay”, and that the Catholic church wished to suppress the fact.

Now, it is impossible to know what struggles went on in Newman’s heart; but had he been asked, he would have found the question very strange. For him, the idea of “being homosexual” would have been an unfamiliar and even pointless categorisation; what mattered was what people did. And on that question,Newman’s contemporaries and modern biographers all agree: the author ofthe Apologia Pro Vita Sua never broke his vow of celibacy. His friendships may have been intense and emotional – but they were consistently chaste.

Aged 16, Newmanhad a “deep imagination” that “it would be the will of God that I should lead a single life”. As an Anglican he did not disdain marriage, and thought it a good thing for most people: “I think that country parsons ought, as a general rule, to be married – and I am sure the generality of men ought, whether parsons or not.” But he himself was a dedicated celibate, as both an Anglican and (from his mid-40s) a Catholic priest. For Newman this was a state of life that allowed him tolove God with a wholehearted focus – but also to love many others intensely, in the pattern laid down by Jesus.

This kind of celibate love has challenged most ages, but ours seems to have given up the struggle altogether. Such love, if it is directed towards one other of the same gender, is now assumed to be homosexual – conditioned by homoerotic attraction, even if not acted upon – or if it does not have aparticular object will be thought of as disembodied devotion, like the love of an idealist for the human race as a whole (but not necessarily for individual members of it).

Yet there is no evidence that Newman’s attractions were homoerotic, and they were certainly not detached. He had an extraordinary capacity for deep friendship with manypeople, both men and women, as his 20,000 letters collected in 32 volumes attest. He often wrote to his friends as carissimi – “dearest ones” – but his was a more innocent age, far less suspicious of strong expressions of love between persons of the same sex.

And he was not afraid to be very close indeed to a few people. “The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely,” he wrote in a letter, “is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection for those who are immediately about.” Hence his deep friendships with those “immediately about” him: John Bowden as a student, Richard Hurrell Froude and Frederic Rogers while a don at Oxford, and Ambrose St John as a Catholic priest.

St John had beenin Oxford with Newman; they became Catholics together, and were ordained priests in Rome at the same time. When Newman founded the Oratory in 1848, St John was one of the first members. Being 15 years Newman’s junior, when he died suddenly aged 60, Newman was devastated. “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or awife’s,” he wrote, “but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine.” Some 15 centuries earlier, St Augustine in his Confessions wrote in the same way about thedeath not of his mistress, but of his best friend. “My eyes sought him everywhere, but they did not see him; and I hated all places because he was not in them, because they could not say to me, ‘Look, he is coming,’as they did when he was alive and absent.”

Newman’s desire to share a tomb with St John may seem unusual to the modern eye. Yet Alan Bray in his seminal work The Friend (2003) cites many such examples of friends sharing tombs in previous centuries: there is one in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; and another at Merton College, Oxford. Such public commitments to “marriages of the soul” were common in pre-modern times, Bray notes, before they were eroded by the Enlightenment ethic of “universal” and “rational” fraternity. Bray’s conclusion is striking: “Newman’s burial with St John cannot be detached from Newman’s understanding of the place of friendship in Christian belief or its longhistory.”

Reading the final page of Newman’s Apologia – lyricallydedicated to all his Oratorian brothers and especially to “Ambrose St John, whom God gave me, when He took everyone else away; who are the link between my old life and my new; who have now for 21 years been so devoted to me, so patient, so zealous, so tender” – the writer George Eliot was impressed. “Pray mark that beautiful passage in which he thanks his friend Ambrose St John,” she wrote to a friend. “I know hardly anything that delights me more than such evidences of sweet brotherly love being a reality in the world.”

Do we – can we – today applaud such friendship? Do we – can we – make room, now, for such”evidences of sweet brotherly love”? Men and women often have intense friendships with members of their own sex, friendships that have no sexual component; yet we are losing the vocabulary to speak about them, or we are embarrassed to do so. A “friend” is one you add to a social networking profile on the web; or it is a euphemism for a sexual partneroutside marriage. Can a man nowadays own up with pride to having a dearand close friend, another man to whom he is devoted? Can he, without itbeing suspected as repressed homosexuality? I fear the answer to both may be “no”. And it is hard to know which is the sadder.

Jack Valero is the Press Officer for the Beatification of Cardinal Newman.

Jack Valero is the Communications Director of Opus Dei in Britain. He is also Coordinator for Catholic Voices, a group of Catholics trained to speak to the media about Catholic issues...