Caitlin is a first year English student at the University of Cambridge. From a modern Catholic perspective, she analyses the legacy of the queer Irish writer Oscar Wilde in relation to his reception in England.
Oscar Wilde, the famed novelist and playwright of the fin-de-siècle (the late nineteenth century) is one of the most celebrated and enduringly popular writers in the queer canon. Ever since I first read his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and revelled in its simultaneous grotesquerie and aestheticism, I have been a Wilde fanatic: he adorns my laptop in sticker form, my phone as my screensaver, and in secondary school, I wrote my extended project essay on the influence of Catholicism and classical mythology in The Picture of Dorian Gray. His language is rich and sensuous, his epigrams tart and knowingly mannered, his image extravagant, and perhaps most fascinatingly for many fans, his biography tragic. He is a martyr, a hero, and when I got into Wilde and his work, I was fascinated by the society and its traditions which created and celebrated him, but eventually tore him down. For me, one of the most alluring elements of Wilde’s personal life was his Roman Catholic faith. I myself am Catholic, one of many young, modern Catholics who can enjoy the Church’s aesthetics and faith whilst also recognising the tensions, both in Wilde’s time and now, these present for queer people.
Roman Catholicism and the fin-de-siècle in Britain have an important shared history. Despite previous opposition to Roman Catholicism, the 1800s Gothic Revival movement meant the Victorian Anglican Church became invested in the rituals of Rome, which were regarded with a mixture of awe and fear; the belief that continental Catholics were, through their apparently decadent and dramatic religion, somehow sinister was gruesomely fascinating. This made the Catholic Church an important means of aesthetic expression for many artists and writers of this period, whilst its huge array of additional scripture and veneration of angels and saints (notably absent from Protestant Christianity) provided ample literary inspiration. The Catholic Church was characterised by drama, mysterious ritual (aided significantly by the fact that all services and scripture were still in Latin) and an obsession with death and spirits. This aestheticised form of worship proved a rich artistic source for those - like Wilde - seeking a conception of life and death focused on drama, ritual and spirituality rather than the prevailing minimalist religious practice of Protestants.
The Catholic Church was characterised by drama, mysterious ritual (aided significantly by the fact that all services and scripture were still in Latin) and an obsession with death and spirits.
Another significant - yet perhaps unexpected - draw of Catholicism to the fin-de-siècle decadents (a group of late 19th-century poets associated with the Aesthetic Movement) was its queerness. The Catholic Church has always been deeply homophobic (often citing the verse “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” Leviticus 18:22). Its culture of exclusion condemned LGBT+ expressions of sexuality. In Victorian England, however, it was a significant, although subtle, source of homosexual moral panic. Its glamour and extremity, its Europeanness (loyalty to the Pope in Rome was a serious concern) and its pervading sense of personal guilt and shame were, to some, indicative of queer leanings. Though not necessarily corresponding with our modern conception of sexuality in an absolute way, the vague sense of otherness could have overlapped with a nascent idea of queerness. Victorian Protestants viewed the Catholic Church as somehow unwholesome in its defiance of the Protestant reforms which - contributed to its perception as disturbingly queer.
These queer implications of Roman Catholicism have long been discussed, but I feel they are more relevant, and more visible, today than we might realise. The aesthetic grandeur of Catholicism is still popular, even among young people, and the 2018 Met Gala’s adoption of Catholicism as a theme served to prove the style, glamour and camp of Catholic regalia. This was especially noticeable when the following year’s theme of camp played on a lot of the same stylistic tropes as the Catholicism Gala: huge headwear, glitter, bare chests and subversive androgynous clothing (think Joan of Arc, memorably recreated by Zendaya, or the long flowing vestments of priests) were all present at both years’ Galas. This aesthetic embrace of Catholic queerness came from both the public and, more subtly, the Church (with the Vatican approving of the 2018 Gala and even lending the Met around 50 items). Though one may dismiss these connections as purely nominal expressions of tolerance, Pope Francis’ recent call for homosexual civil unions to be recognised in the Church speaks to the reality of changing relationship between gay Catholics and the Church. Neverthless, Gay priests spoke out in a 2019 New York Times article about the pain and suffering the Church’s homophobia has caused as more and more priests felt able to admit their homosexuality, and the Church’s longstanding flirtation with queer and subversive aesthetics and culture means it is sometimes all the more aggressive when confronted with real-life queerness.
This tension remains unresolved, and it is something I personally find very difficult to reconcile, because no matter how important it is, supporting an objectively homophobic institution, however queer it can be read as, is wrong and difficult. However, as most socially conscious modern Christians will know, it’s incredibly difficult to find any church which isn’t to some extent homophobic, or intolerant of homosexual sex. Despite this, it is true that Catholicism is more historically associated with queerness than other Christian movements (especially fundamentalist ones). This is one of the reasons I choose to identify as a Catholic rather than another denominational Christian because I would prefer to belong to a community as a way of practising my faith, and these communities will only change and become more tolerant if we continue to exist within them and agitate for change, as many queer Catholics do. I feel that the spiritualism and mysticism of the Catholic Church speaks strongly to my idea of faith, and is something that on both an aesthetic and spiritual level I would be reluctant to give up. This is not easy, and not something I take lightly, because I know it is wrong for the Church to believe what it does about homosexuality, but its simultaneous queerness is deeply important to me and how I practise my faith.
the Church’s longstanding flirtation with queer and subversive aesthetics and culture means it is sometimes all the more aggressive when confronted with real-life queerness.
How does this relate to Wilde, then? Wilde was European, Catholic and sexually ambivalent: he died in France after converting to Catholicism, and his homosexuality was well known throughout his life. Although he only converted on his deathbed, Wilde had a lifelong flirtation with Catholicism. It is also important to note that Wilde’s conception of homophobia in the Catholic Church would not have been the same as ours: there was no element of society and no social structure in the Victorian era which was not homophobic, and there was no non-homophobic alternative option as there is today. Much of Wilde’s work deals with Catholic themes: the Gothic grandeur and melodrama of The Picture of Dorian Gray uses an intensely Christian redemption arc the climax of which is Dorian’s death by stabbing a self portrait, the object of his sin. His later writings on his time in prison, especially The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the letter De Profundis, focus on the transformative power of Christian love and parallel Wilde’s own suffering to that of Christ’s, although it is unclear whether Wilde intends to present himself as a Christ-like queer martyr figure dying for a greater good or just to invoke a sense of discomfort in his (presumably prudish Victorian) reader to force them to consider the fundamental injustice of Wilde’s position. Whilst this inclusive queer Catholicism has obviously not been mainstreamed, Wilde’s interpretation of Catholicism is perhaps one of the many reasons why queer people gradually felt more able to engage with the Church and, in doing so, start to change it.
These aestheticised queer discussions of Catholicism were one of the major things that brought me to my faith. I was brought up Catholic but had a crisis of faith in my early teens (brought on, in part, by the Church’s homophobia and intolerance) and stopped going to church, but when I started reading Oscar Wilde, my views began to change. Even in my atheist period, I had been entranced by the beauty of churches and Catholic ritual celebrations, and to see them celebrated in literature as something powerfully indicative of queerness and difference suddenly spoke to me. This beauty and aestheticism served a communicative, spiritual and emotional purpose, and given Wilde’s portrayal of it as something beautiful and empowering for queer people, I couldn’t ignore it any more. Gradually, through Wilde’s queer writings, I came back to Catholicism, and the glamour of the faith which had always entranced me is something I came to understand much more fully.
This beauty and aestheticism served a communicative, spiritual and emotional purpose, and given Wilde’s portrayal of it as something beautiful and empowering for queer people, I couldn’t ignore it any more.
Wilde opened up a queer-friendly way of being Catholic to me, going to church and practising as a Catholic soon became an important way of reclaiming who I was. I felt empoweringly connected to a history of queer Catholics, like Wilde, who had found solace in the Church.