Friday, January 12, 2007

Wilde On... in Vaticano?

Just when you thought things couldn't get any more strange, the latest release from a prolific Curial official has as its staple the wit and wisdom of none other than the most famous -- and, it could be said, iconic -- out gay man in the history of the universe.

That's Oscar Wilde, of course. And as you'd expect, the release has gotten quite a bit of buzz appropriate for the figure who, a century ago, gave modern global-north Catholicism a worthwhile bit of advice when he said that "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

The Wilde quotations are contained in a volume called Provocations: Aphorisms for an Anti-conformist Christianity, edited by Rogationist Fr Leonardo Sapienza, the workaholic chief of protocol in the Prefecture of the Papal Household. Veteran readers with a knack for absorbing the little things will recall that, early last year, Sapienza's name was floated in the Italian press as a potential candidate for the Curia's longest-vacant senior post, that of secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which has been open since February 2005.

The Brit press has really whipped this one up; "Vatican comes out of the closet and embraces Oscar," saith The Times:
Father Sapienza said that he had devoted the lion’s share of Provocations: Aphorisms for an Anti-conformist Christianity to Wilde because he was a “writer who lived perilously and somewhat scandalously but who has left us some razor-sharp maxims with a moral”. The book also includes contributions from the Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila.

Father Sapienza said that Wilde had been a great writer of powerful force and dazzling intelligence who was now chiefly remembered not for his promiscuity but for plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband as well as moral tales such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a vain young man pays a terrible price for selling his soul to gain eternal youth.

Father Sapienza said that he wanted to “stimulate a reawakening in certain Catholic circles”. Christianity was intended to be a radical cure, not a humdrum remedy for the common cold: “Our role is to be a thorn in the flesh, to move people’s consciences and to tackle what today is the No 1 enemy of religion — indifference.”

“What a surprise!” La Repubblica’s said. “A homosexual icon has been accepted by the Vatican.” Orazio La Rocca, a Vatican watcher, described the book as a bombshell.

Pope Benedict XVI is a stern opponent of gay marriage and has reinforced Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a disorder. On the other hand he has belied his reputation as a hardliner since his election, reserving most of his fire for apathy and relativism in an attempt to revive Christian faith in Europe....

He displayed a long fascination with Catholicism, once remarking: “I am not a Catholic — I am simply a violent Papist.” He was born in Dublin to a Protestant family but fell under the spell of Catholicism at Oxford. He even made a journey for an audience with the Pope, but declared: “To go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great Gods: Money and Ambition.” The way for Wilde’s rehabilitation was paved six years ago by a Jesuit theologian, Father Antonio Spadaro. On the centenary of Wilde’s death, he raised eyebrows by praising the “understanding of God’s love” that had followed Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading.

Father Spadaro said that at the end of his life Wilde had seen into the depths of his own soul and in his last works, such as De Profundis, had made “an implicit journey of faith”. He said that Wilde had come to see that God was capable of “breaking hearts of stone and entering into them with mercy and forgiveness”.
...meanwhile, in a lengthy take on the "art for art's sake" standard-bearer's life and deathbed conversion, The Independent couldn't help but note that the compiler's surname is the Italian word for "wisdom":
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....

he 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.
Wilde as harbinger of Trad Chic, you say? Quel surprise.
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."...

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."