Walk on the Wilde side


Now and then story goes viral that isn’t breaking or world-changing news, but is so deliciously silly that you have to give into temptation and post about it.

Here are the facts: recently the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a review of a book by an Italian writer on the 19th-century Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. Well known for his aphorisms, the witty and somewhat notorious Wilde almost as renowned for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Jailed for acts of “gross indecency” Wilde was sent to jail for two years.

Apparently, on his deathbed, the Protestant playwright became a Roman Catholic.

A deathbed conversion. A fresh look at the playwright’s philosophical and theological roots in the official Vatican newspaper. A few favorite Wilde sayings printed in an anthology edited by the Vatican Head of Protocol, Father Sapienza (I kid you not).

Put all of these factors together, plus the Vatican’s recent four star review of the most recent Harry Potter movie and you have material for a veritable feast of speculation. Is the Vatican getting (gasp) trendy?

Jerome Taylor, religious affairs correspondent for The Independent pulls off the interesting feat (maybe a first-timer) of making a book review in L’Osservatore Romano seem torrid:

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”.

A Vatican “pin-up”?

If you like Victorian romance novels, you’ll love this article.

Take a look at Richard Owen’s article on the same topic on the Times website, and you’ll see that, in this case, Owen (or his sources) does a better job of making sense of the review. The Vatican reviewer probably praised Wilde for being more than “an aesthete and lover of the ephemeral” — if they wanted more of that sort, the Curia could tack up a whole wall of nineteenth century “pin-ups” from Byron to Baudelaire. As our commenters have pointed out before, relying on others to translate for you, apparently common practice among a few (not all) Vatican reporters, can be treacherous.

Oh, and by, the way, you can be both an “aesthete-moralist” and a “flamboyant and robust homosexual.”

For some reason, the writer saves Wilde’s deathbed conversion and relationship with the Catholic church until almost the end of the story — isn’t that the most important part?

For a relatively sedate version of the Vatican-Wilde tale, read Nick Pisa’s article in the Daily Mail. Pisa’s lede plays it straight (no pun intended):

Long condemned by the Vatican as an immoral homosexual, Oscar Wilde appears to have earnt a reprieve by the church to which he turned on his deathbed.

A review in the paper L’Osservatore Romano – seen as the official mouthpiece of Pope Benedict XVI – describes the playwright and poet as a man who was ‘always looking for the beautiful and the good, but also for a God’.

What seems to be missing from these accounts is any quote from a theologian to put the Wilde book review in context. In this year of Darwin and Galileo, it seems pretty evident that the Vatican is willing to take a fresh look at advances in the sciences that changed the world. Why not the arts? Why go wild making a big deal out of a book review?

If you want to see some guesswork on the subject from this side of the ocean, read this summary of a report from Minnesota Public Radio. You get the sense that there is real outrage over the idea that the Vatican might be taking a second look at the playwright, reportedly a gay icon. I have a feeling that this might be a case of journalists making more of a few comments than actually exists, but it’s at least conceivable that there is more to the flap.

Harry Potter. Oscar Wilde. Who’s going to be next on the Vatican greatest hits list — Bob Dylan? Wouldn’t you love to be a curial fly on the wall?

Possibly the Vatican in general and Pope Benedict in particular are just striving to engage the culture in a way that sparks meaningful conversation.

Why is no one asking Vatican sources, like the press office, if is any reason for the recent decision to highlight that movie and this writer?

Could it be because in this case, writers are having too much fun taking what little information they do have, and stretching it for all it’s worth?

Cartoon of Oscar Wilde on an American tour from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Jerry N

    The role of L’Osservatore Romano as a papal mouthpiece is exaggerated. See for instance this: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2009/06/30/ouch/

    The assessment is unusually harsh, but you get the idea. Many people like to entertain that every official in the Vatican only speak after careful consultation with the Pope, but I don’t think that impression will last very long if you look at how the Vatican actually works for any amount of time.

  • Julia

    Guess what! Bob Dylan was invited to play for John Paul and he did. John Paul used a line from Blowing in the Wind in his talk.


    Why is it assumed that “the Vatican” is taking a second look at Oscar Wilde and that “the Vatican” previously condemned him? Where is the evidence for that? It has been well known in Catholic circles that Wilde converted at the end of his life. That’s a classic Catholic story. And he was well on his way to conversion – it didn’t just happen on his deathbed.

    Here’s an article about his long conversion from 2003.

    By the way, why is it also assumed that “the Vatican” had a problem with Darwin?

    Here’s an article on what’s going on at Osservatore Romano in The Guardian.

    It’s The Times that is having too much fun to report what it knows is going on at the paper. The Guardian, to its credit, asked the questions you posed.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      Julia: I hope I didn’t communicate that the Vatican formerly rejected and is now acccepting Wilde or Darwin.

      Sometimes taking another or “second look” just means reassessing someone’s scientific, or historical importance/contributions to and in modern life — which is what seems to be going on with Darwin. The Catholic Church (as opposed to some evangelicals) seems to take a much more open attitude towards secular culture as embodying elements of God’s truth (very Pauline).

      Another sidebar to the Wilde story is how many Protestants became Catholics for aesthetic as well as doctrinal reasons in the nineteenth century. Aesthetics and the way they were evoked in liturgy were a big deal – causing yet another split in the 19th century Anglican church.

      And, of course, there were gay converts (active or not) as well as straight ones.

      Thanks for the information about Pope John Paul II and Bob Dylan.

  • Julia

    I googled this subject and was astounded at the immense attention it is getting – primarily with the meme that the Vatican previously condemned Wilde as a degenerate.

    Doh! It’s the Catholic Church.

    1) We believe in redemption.

    2) The article in L’Osservatore Romano was positive about his writing – not his lifestyle before conversion.

    I could find nothing from “the Vatican” condemning Wilde. If anybody does find such, please provide a link.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Those interested in this topic may want to check out, “The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde” by the Catholic writer Joseph Pierce.


    I also like his book “Literary Converts.”


  • Martha

    *rolls eyes*

    It’s “L’Osservatore Romano”, folks. Contrary to what the reporters might think, the Pope is not the editor, nor does he pen every article himself.

    In fact, there’s been a tiny bit of feather-ruffling in certain sections of the Catholic blogosphere over how “L’Osservatore” (or the guy in charge) seems to be getting very full of itself, what with the favourable articles on President Obama and all the rest of it.

    Colour pictures in the paper! Then nice things about Obama! And now this! It’ll just be grist to the mill :-)

  • Jerry

    the official Vatican newspaper

    .I read some stories that called it “semi-official”, whatever that means. I’d be interested in knowing what the relationship really is between the paper and the Pope.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Remember, “the Vatican” is a hive mind, just like “the media” and “Washington”.

    So, if some monsignor orders spaghetti carbonara for lunch, this means we run the story “Vatican endorses carbonara”.

    This enables us to report both “Vatican endorses Harry Potter” and “Vatican condemns Harry Potter”.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “Deathbed” conversion stories have always been popular among Catholics. I think some very conservative Catholics (and others) are a bit disconcerted that someone whose sins apparently fell into the area of homosexual behaviour was given forgiveness such as those who have sought it on “death row” in prison (and on a cross beside Christ on Golgotha). The media seems to have primed many people to believe that if the Church (based on the Bible and the Church’s constant Tradition) emphatically considers certain behaviours sinful, then the Church wants only to condemn that person to Hell instead of seeking his conversion and the saving of his soul.

  • Dale

    When I visited Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a Benedictine abbey near Siena, I saw a series of frescoes illustrating the life of St. Benedict. The nickname of the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, was “Il Sodoma“– Italian for “the sodomite”.

    I’m sure the Benedictine monks would not have invited Senor Bazzi to teach a class on chastity– but he came to paint.

  • Julia

    EE Evans:

    As a lawyer, re-assessing or taking a 2nd look at something generally means looking at something differently to maybe reverse or modify a decision. MOre like re-considering your first assessment.

    You must have meant what I would call “re-visiting” something to clarify or add depth – not to change your original opinion.

    Sometimes it’s a curse to have gone to law school. I parse everything I read.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      Dale: Wow, what an illlustration.

      Julia: (smile) My sister is a lawyer. We’re working with another lawyer (paid) to sell my dad’s house. Every word…every phrase…every possible exposure…under the microscope.

      Thanks for the link to the story on L’Osservatore Romano. That was a fascinating glimpse into the Eternal City, and the way it was written was wonderfully drama-free.