The Guardian Newspaper has drawn attention to an article which it claims shows that the Holy See is warming to Oscar Wilde. This is a little over the top – what the newspaper did, was to praise a review of a book about Wilde:
“Despite the Catholic Church’s condemnation of practising homosexuality, the newspaper has now run a glowing review of a new book about the famously doomed lover of Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was “one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects”, wrote author Andrea Monda in a piece about Italian author Paolo Gulisano’s The Portrait of Oscar Wilde.
In an article headlined “When Oscar Wilde met Pius IX”, Monda wrote that Wilde was not “just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England”; rather he was “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false”.
“Wilde was a man of great, intense feelings, who behind the lightness of his writing, behind a mask of frivolity or cynicism, hid a deep knowledge of the mysterious value of life,” he said.”
Nevertheless, it is true that both in the review and in publishing an earier collection of aphorisms, the Vatican has commented a pprovingly on the wisdom behind many of Wilde’s wittty remarks: in particular, that the Catholic Church is a place “for saints and sinners alone” – and not for respectable people or conformists.
“The Holy See started its unlikely love affair with the Irish playwright and author two years ago when it published a collection of his quips in the book Provocations: Aphorisms for an Anti-conformist Christianity. Wilde’s famous comments “I can resist everything except temptation”, and “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it” were included in the book, edited by Father Leonardo Sapienza.
Wilde was baptised into the Catholic Church shortly before he died. L’Osservatore Romano said that the “existential path” which the author trod “can also be seen as a long and difficult path toward that Promised Land which gives us the reason for existence, a path which led him to his conversion 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’.”
This is profoundly true. The heart of the Gospel is precisely that it is about to reaching out to all - saints and sinners alike – and not to the rich and respectable, unless they discard those riches and respectability. Indeed, many of our most revered saints today were at one time or another either clear “sinners”, or viewed with great suspicion or outright hostility by the Vatican establishment.
In a useful comment on the article, Martin Pendergast, well-known in the UK for his outstadning work behind the Soho Masses and the RC Caucus of the LGCM, notes the many reasons why this should not be a surprise, arguing along lines simlar to those used by Mark Jordan in “The Silence of Sodom.”
“Why should anyone be surprised at the Vatican’s official newspaper lauding Oscar Wilde? Its marbled halls are strewn with the finely sculpted, muscular youths of Michelangelo’s erotic fantasies. The erupting sexuality in the Sistine Chapel’s frescos are likewise testament to Wilde’s assertion that the Catholic church is “for saints and sinners alone” and that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.”
What might have attracted Oscar Wilde to Catholicism? At one level it might have been the camp ultramontanism of 18th and 19th century liturgy and music. This attracted so many converts of the era, lingering into the early 20th century, with leading figures of the Oxford Movement and later Anglo-Catholic revivals turning to Rome. Cardinal Newman, his beloved Ambrose St John, the hymn-writing Father Faber, and Robert Hugh Benson, were all aesthetes to varying degrees. Was there something in the harshness of Victorian society that encouraged them to seek out alternative values in the Catholic church of those times?
Wilde’s sexual life, which today might be described as exhibiting patterns of sexual addiction, gave him deep insight into what was good, and beautiful, and true, in himself and those whom he loved, from Constance Lloyd to Alfred Douglas. The Vatican newspaper is not romanticising Wilde but noting his real insights into the human condition, its vulnerability and its immense creativity. Wilde’s De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol are as valuable spiritual and theological classics as Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, or the latter’s passionate letters on the death of Ambrose St John.”
Saint or Sinner: which are you?
For the full Guardian article, read it here;
For Martin’s commentary, read it here.