Today is the anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s birthday. He would have been 156. A Stephen Fry throwback – his dry, almost laconic one-liners have been a source of dinner party interjections for as long as I can remember. When I first read the tortured, narcissistic self-loathing of “Dorian Gray”, it seemed clear that Wilde was attempting confession by proxy, a catharsis of soul that found expression in the gargoyle into which the picture had metamorphosed.
“I am not a Catholic,” he said. “I am simply a violent Papist.” Like so many of Wilde’s outrageous paradoxes, this conceals a sober truth. Reviewing his life more than a hundred years later, it’s tempting to see irony in such a statement, for Wilde was fascinated with Catholicism, its mysteries and rituals. I, on the other hand, am both fascinated and appalled in almost equal measure.
Wilde was homosexual, promiscuously so, and his downfall was precipitated by his passion for a younger man. It was this young man, Lord Alfred Douglas, who in one of his poems called their desire “the love that dare not speak its name.” The tale of their romance has classic, even operatic, features — objections by the beloved’s family, separation and exile, brief reunion before the lover’s death. He was prosecuted for “acts of gross indecency with other male persons,” found guilty, and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labour in Reading gaol where, it seems, he read Augustine, Dante, and Newman. On his release, his health broken, he fled across the channel to France to reunite with his lover. But his first act on his release had been to write to the Jesuits begging to make a six-month retreat at one of their London houses. Not surprisingly, the Jesuits refused.
Wilde is celebrated as the hub of a circle of unconventional poets and artists – decadents and aesthetes. But looking past the labels, many of these became converts to Catholicism — Wilde being among the last of them, entering the Church only in his final moments of life. I am not surprised. Catholicism has more than a touch of operatic drama about it and was to poetic souls a sort of dangerous aesthetic temptation, while to many ‘proper Englishmen’ the Roman Church was still the Whore of Babylon. Less than fifty years earlier the Emancipation Bill was passed that allowed Roman Catholics to hold public office in England, only thirty years since the defection to Rome of John Henry Newman and other prominent Anglicans, and just a few years since the First Vatican Council under Pius IX had debated and defined the dogma of papal infallibility — a dogma that must have seemed to many an outbreak of mediaevalism at the very birth of the Age of Darwin.
All this came about because of a lunchtime discussion I had with friends the other day. I wondered whether those who are hormonally and emotionally inclined towards – yes, let’s use the old Victorian word – sodomy, and more importantly are so inclined to practise it have a different place in the kingdom of Heaven than those whose sexuality is more central on the bell-curve. Gafcon’s argument with the C of E has nothing to do with liturgy or doctrine, but the ordination as bishop of an openly gay man, a practising homosexual.
Women and gay priests are often pastorally more adept than their straight male counterparts – at least in my experience – frequently having more highly developed empathic skills. Should their sexuality disbar them from high office? Perhaps it really doesn’t matter to God. On the other hand…I rather wish I had clarity myself, since I cannot currently either attack or defend either position with any conviction.