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The Vatican wakes up to the wisdom of Oscar Wilde

The Catholic Church has found an unlikely pin-up in the homosexual writer

With his outrageous wit, clear disdain for figures of authority and openly homosexual lifestyle, Oscar Wilde is an unlikely pin-up for the Catholic Church. Persecuted and imprisoned for his sexuality, gay rights campaigners have long idolised the 19th century writer as one of their own.

But the Vatican, it seems, is equally enamoured of Ireland's greatest wit. In a glowing review of a new study of Wilde by the Italian writer Paolo Gulisano, L'Osservatore Romano – the Vatican's official newspaper – praises the Irish playwright for being "an aesthete and a lover of the ephemeral".

Scant attention is paid to Wilde's well-publicised relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and the ensuing sodomy trial which sentenced him to two years' hard labour in Reading prison. Instead the paper's review eulogises Wilde for his "lucid analysis of the modern world" and his eventual conversion to Catholicism as he lay on his death bed.

Labelling Wilde as "one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects", L'Osservatore's writers say a different side of Wilde's life must be taken into account.

"[He was] not just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England," the paper writes, "[he was also] a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false."

The Vatican's image of Wilde-the-aesthetic-moralist is a far cry from the playwright's more usual depiction as a flamboyant and robust homosexual who delighted in outrage and scandalising Victorian society.

Pope Benedict XVI has continued to uphold the Catholic Church's strict teachings on homosexuality, which is still very much viewed as a sin that should not be practised. But part of the Vatican's willingness to gloss over Wilde's more "sinful" proclivities may stem from his little known conversion to Catholicism as he lay dying in a Paris hotel room.

Irish-born and fascinated by the ritualism of the Catholic Church, as a young man travelling through Rome in 1877 Wilde had managed to secure an audience with Pope Pius IX. During his time in prison he was also known to have devoured the writing of St Augustine, Dante, and Cardinal Newman. When he left prison in 1897 in frail health, Wilde exiled himself to Paris and continued to engage in the sort of behaviour that the Vatican would certainly have frowned upon. But just before he died three years later a Catholic priest – Father Cuthbert Dunne – baptised him into the Catholic Church. It was, perhaps, a likely end for a writer who once remarked: "I'm not a Catholic – I am simply a violent Papist".

L'Osservatore Romano described the writer's conversion as a "long and difficult path" to the Promised Land – "a path which led him to convert to Catholicism, a religion which, as he remarked in one of his more acute and paradoxical aphorisms, was 'for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do'".

The Vatican's favourite Wildeisms, printed in an anthology of witticisms for Christians by the Vatican's head of protocol, Father Leonardo Sapienza, include: "I can resist everything except temptation", and: "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."

Wilde's wit

* There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

* It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.

* Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.

* The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else, and this is a feeling that I have always cultivated.

* What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

* A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.

* The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.