Walk on the Wilde side

Wasp_cartoon_on_Oscar_Wilde 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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