So here I am in Cape May, New Jersey, at a Jesuit vacation house, ready to go to the beach (yes, even Jesuits need occasional breaks, Gentle Reader) when I duck into a small computer room, check my email and then log onto "Google News," type in the word "Vatican," and find the above headline, which I would place under the general rubric of "You're kidding, right?" Oscar Wilde, the openly gay playwright and aesthete, is about the last person that one might expect the Vatican to praise, particularly given the church's teaching on homosexuality, and especially of late its vociferous opposition to same-sex marriages.
But the London Times spotlights a "glowing" review in L'Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, of a new book on Oscar Wilde, whose scandalous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas would ultimately lead to two years hard labor in Reading Gaol, which weakened his health and led to Wilde's death in 1900. (The story is told more or less accurately in the movie "Wilde" with Stephen Fry and Jude Law.)
Of course headlines like the Guardian's "Vatican Embraces Oscar Wilde" may be overdone. One review, no matter how favorable, does not a rehabilitation make. Beatification is, shall we say, far off. But the story is still noteworthy.
Here's the Times on Wilde: "In life, he was about as likely a Catholic hero as Pontius Pilate. Now, more than a century after his death, Oscar Wilde has been claimed by The Vatican as one of its own. Wilde, who died in 1900 after finding God and converting to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, has long been regarded by the Vatican as a dissolute homosexual who was sentenced and imprisoned for acts of gross indecency over his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. However in a review of a new study, The Portrait of Oscar Wilde by the Italian writer Paolo Gulisano,L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said that Wilde was much more than 'an aesthete and a lover of the ephemeral.' He had been 'one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects,' the review said." The full story is here.
But the best part of the Times piece is the marvelously puckish title, "You will, Benedict, you will," a sly nod to an incident in which the famous wit did not get the last word. To the artist James McNeill Whistler, who had uttered some amusing sally, Wilde said, "I wish I had said that." Whistler replied, "You will, Oscar, you will!" Running a distant second in the Wildean headline sweepstakes was Il Giornale's "The Importance of Being Catholic."
Overall, I would suspect that Wilde would have been pleased about the buzz surrounding the new book. After all, as he said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."
James Martin, SJ