Blessed memory: The Vatican goes Wilde

He hardly seems the obvious candidate for Catholic approval, but the Irish author who was once a byword for decadent behaviour is quoted in a new book by a Roman priest as an example to 21st-century Christians. Paul Vallely reports

Friday 05 January 2007 01:00

"I can resist everything except temptation," Oscar Wilde once famously said. He was speaking for us all. Even for the Church of Rome, it turns out. For that very remark is quoted, with approbation, by a leading Vatican writer, Fr Leonardo Sapienza - a member of the protocol department of the Pontifical Household of Pope Benedict XVI - in a book out yesterday. It is quite a rehabilitation for a man whom the Church once regarded as the apotheosis of sodomite notoriety.

In the past, Fr Sapienza - his name means wisdom in Italian - has compiled collections of the sayings of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. But his latest offering, Aphorisms for an Anti-Conformist Christianity, includes several of Wilde's most celebrated remarks. The 19th-century homosexual, the Roman luminary concludes, was "endowed with brilliant intelligence, a trenchant author, sarcastic and provocative, who lived dangerously and a little scandalously" but whose words offer great examples to 21st-century Christians.

What is going on? After all, this is the Church that brands as an "intrinsic moral evil" the homosexual acts for which Wilde's catamite, Lord Alfred Douglas, coined the phrase "the love that dare not speak its name". Wilde was, after all, a byword for the decadence upon which the Victorian values of the age showered ignominy.

Yet it is only the latest such rapprochement. Six years ago, on the centenary of Wilde's death, the Vatican-backed Jesuit quarterly La Civilta Cattolica praised the homosexualist author of such cynical aphorisms such as "there is no sin except stupidity", and "a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it".

Wilde's writings, said Fr Antonio Spadaro, in the years that followed his two-year sentence of hard labour in Reading jail for "acts of gross indecency with other male persons", demonstrated spiritual values and an "understanding of God's love" that revealed he had seen into the depths of his own soul after a lifetime of "degradation, vanity and frivolity".

The relationship between Oscar Wilde and the Church of Rome has long been an ambivalent one. Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 to a Protestant Anglo-Irish family, but is believed to have been secretly baptised a Catholic around the age of four, at the behest of his mother, in defiance of her husband's wishes. Wilde's father, an agnostic and a Freemason, disliked his son's interest in the Church at school in Dublin. He sent him off to Oxford, threatening to disinherit the youth if he converted.

But Oxford was not the high church of wan Anglicanism and secularism that his father hoped. Wilde persisted in what his father called his "Romanish leanings" and was duly disinherited. Undeterred, he languished in an Oxford aesthetic of incense, benediction, high mass and mystical Newmanism.

Whether his explorations were spiritual or a symptom of youthful rebellion is not entirely clear. In those days the Roman Church was still the Whore of Babylon to many Englishmen. It had been less than 50 years since the Emancipation Bill allowed Roman Catholics to hold public office in England. Rome, said Wilde, helped "us grasp at the skirts of the Infinite". On many occasions he came close to converting. But, in the end, he told a friend "to go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great gods, Money and Ambition."

He left Oxford a year later in 1878. His entrance into London society was spectacular: his dandified dress, pronouncements on fashion and opinions on art were both polished and outrageous. Literary and financial success followed; throughout the 1880s his plays became hits. Yet, though in this period Wilde gradually lost interest in Catholicism, the language and liturgy of the faith animated his conversations and literary output.

Even at the high point of his personal decadence, the "Apostle of Aestheticism" (as he dubbed himself) drew his themes from the moral universe of the Catholic faith. After he married, and fathered two sons, he published several books of stories for children, including "The Selfish Giant", which are rooted unmistakably in Christian theology in their stories of death, sacrifice and life beyond the grave.

His 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray - condemned at the time as "a poisonous book" full of "moral and spiritual putrefaction," which "constantly hints, not obscurely, at disgusting sins and abominable crimes" - also draws its moral from Catholic tradition. It tells the story of a man who sells his soul for eternally youthful looks. While the protagonist seems never to age, his portrait in the attic gradually reveals in hideous detail the grotesqueries of Gray's self-indulgent callousness towards others. The painting clearly stands for the soul steadily stained by sin regardless of outward claims or the appearance of piety.

Wilde's artistic and social circle was similarly equivocal. Many of the unconventional poets and artists, voluptuaries and aesthetes, with whom he surrounded himself eventually converted to Catholicism, including his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and Aubrey Beardsley, the pre-eminent artist of the English Decadence, who matched Wilde in both scandalous reputation and prodigious talent thanks to the phallic and hermaphroditic drawings with which he illustrated Wilde's Salome. Beardsley asked in his last letter that his drawings be destroyed. John Gray, the poet who was the model for Dorian Gray, even became a Catholic priest in Edinburgh.

But Gray cut himself off from Wilde after the trial. In 1895 Lord Alfred Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensbury (the man who devised the rules for boxing) left a calling card at a London club addressed to "Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic]". Wilde, who at the time had two hit plays running in London, brought an action for libel. But he lost and was subsequently tried for gross indecency, jailed and made bankrupt. His life was ruined.

From prison he sent out a request for books to Robbie Ross, a young Canadian whom Wilde had introduced to homosexuality, and who was to stand by Wilde through the dark years that followed. He asked for a Bible, works by St Augustine, Dante, and Newman and a life of St. Francis of Assisi.

The works he produced on his release, De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, were like nothing he had produced before. Prison brought Wilde once again face to face with Catholic themes - but these were now purged of exoticism and romanticism. They were about sin and suffering, tempered by the cruelties he witnessed in prison: the anonymous shame of the inmates, the faces of children torn from their parents, the isolation of a condemned man awaiting execution.

It was this that led the Vatican theologian in 2000 to speak of the "implicit journey of faith" Wilde had made. He even compared the public humiliation of Wilde at Clapham Junction station, en route to Reading, with the mocking of the arrested Jesus Christ.

There is one other piece in the jigsaw. On his deathbed in Paris in November 1900, Oscar Wilde finally converted to Catholicism. In an age when Wilde has acquired the status of a proto-martyr for the cause of gay rights, this deathbed embrace of the enemy is often portrayed as an anomalous aberration, the act of a very sick man in a moment of grave weakness.

What is intriguing is that the man who finally sent for the priest was Robbie Ross, himself a Catholic but one who had long tried to dissuade the author from converting - certain that Wilde would "relapse" into sinful behaviour. Wilde had often joked with friends that "Catholicism is the only religion to die in". But Ross felt that, in his closing years, Wilde was demonstrating a changed attitude.

There was still the old joshing. A few months before his death Wilde had travelled to Rome. On Holy Saturday he went to tea at the Hotel de l'Europe and there a man he did not know suddenly came up to him and asked if he would like to see Pope Leo XIII the next day. Wilde, ever the joker, bowed his head and, borrowing a phrase from the Mass, said "Non sum dignus [I am not worthy]". But the man produced a ticket. On Easter Day, Wilde appeared in the front row among the pilgrims at the Vatican and received a blessing from the Pope.

For five months the Irishman had been suffering from a terrible rash - perhaps, biographers have speculated, the late effects of syphilis, eating bad mussels, an allergic reaction to his hair dye or vitamin deficiency dermatitis from overuse of alcohol (he was on a litre of brandy a day, plus copious amounts of absinthe). Whatever, the rash vanished.

Wilde later wrote: "When I saw the old white Pontiff, successor of the Apostles and Father of Christendom pass, carried high above the throng, and in passing turn and bless me where I knelt, I felt my sickness of body and soul fall from me like a worn garment, and I was made whole." But still he hesitated. "My position is curious," he epigrammatised, "I am not a Catholic: I am simply a violent Papist."

Three weeks before his death he remained on the brink, telling a reporter from the Daily Chronicle that "I intend to be received before long." It was only as Wilde lay dying that Robbie Ross called in an English Passionist, Fr Cuthbert Dunne. Wilde was delirious, but he at once became lucid, indicated he wanted to be received into the Church and, after several visits from the priest, died a Catholic two days later.

But did he mean it? The Vatican - with its conviction that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to - clearly thinks so. Many prominent gay activists are more sceptical.

Wilde himself has something to say on that. "The world had always loved the Saint as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of God," he wrote in De Profundis. "Christ seems to have always loved the sinner as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of man... The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that. It is the means by which one alters one's past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their gnomic aphorisms: 'Even the Gods cannot alter the past'. Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it."

Wilde always, of course, insisted on having the last word.

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