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The Conversion of Oscar Wilde by Fr John Hogan

The year 2004 marks the 150th anniversary of Oscar Wilde's birth. Living a controversial life, and leaving behind a controversial memory, he is an icon for the gay rights movement whose condemnation they consider to be the epitome of society's homophobia. But Oscar's life was not so simple and the truth is quite different from the myth: instead of dying a martyr for gay rights, Oscar took another road in converting to Catholicism, a decision taken after a long, tortuous struggle.

Oscar always said he had a faint memory of being baptized a Catholic when a child. Many years later, a Fr Laurence Fox, would confirm this in his recollections, recounting a visit from Lady Wilde in which she asked him to baptize her sons, Willie and Oscar. After a few weeks preparation the young priest obliged. Lady Wilde was having a flirtation with Catholicism at the time and soon moved on to something else, but Oscar did not forget. Curiosity remained and it would emerge most forcefully when he began his studies at university. Entering Trinity College Dublin, he soon found himself in Catholic circles befriending a number of priests. When news of this reached his father Oscar was dispatched to Oxford to continue his studies. But if Dublin had too many priests for his father's liking, Oxford had even more and soon enough Oscar was socializing in Catholic circles again and now attending Mass.

In 1878 he made a serious attempt to convert, meeting Fr Sebastian Bowden at Brompton Oratory for what was a very candid interview. Another meeting was arranged, but Oscar got cold feet and with a threat of disinheritance hanging over him, cancelled it, postponing his conversion. Social and literary success over the next two decades allowed him to put his struggle with faith on the backburner. Delving into the works of the Decadent Movement, enjoying the lifestyle of an aesthete and succumbing to the weaker side of his nature, life had enough distractions for him. He cultivated a public face: that of a decadent artist who rejected Christianity and conventional morality while exalting the aesthetic. But all was not as it seemed: Oscar was in turmoil.

Oscar often said that his life was his art: to understand him do not look at the public image - look at his art. When we do two faces emerge. The first is seen most potently in his critical essay 'The Critic as Artist'. Here Oscar presents a dialogue in which the prevailing view is that art should be completely separated from ethics: "When they are confused", he says, "Chaos has come again". Sin is to be exalted and there is far more to be learned from the sinner than the saint. Indeed, it is those who are evil in the world who will, in the end, be the ones who rejoice, not the good. Oscar offers no real critique of these opinions and this strange essay appears to confirm the decadent thinking which seemed to be at the heart of his lifestyle. His artistic works, however, reveal a very different face.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, presents a tale in which the degenerate lifestyle of the protagonist finally claims not only his life, but his soul. It is a moral parable in which the wages of sin are clearly seen and what appears to be beautiful is in fact hideous and morally distorted. His play The Duchess of Padua dramatizes a situation in which a good woman, the Duchess, succumbs to sin by killing her Machiavellian husband partly for his degeneracy and partly for love of another man and in doing so poisons love. Even his most risqué play Salomé is moral as he plots the inevitable destruction of the lustful dancer. His stories are famous for their moral pedagogy: 'The Happy Prince', for example, is a story about charity and self-sacrifice as 'The Selfish Giant' is about the importance of selfless love. In his art Oscar contradicts everything in 'The Critic as Artist'.

Meanwhile it was his conviction and imprisonment that rekindled his faith. His prison letter, De Profundis, is an angry and remorseful account of how he had been ruined by Lord Alfred Douglas and their lifestyle and at its heart is an extraordinary discussion on Christ. De Profundis marks his spiritual re-awakening; one he acknowledged could only have come through suffering. Following his release and in miserable exile in Paris, Oscar again dallied, even as he saw many of his friends converting. Remarking to a journalist he said: "Much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic. The artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teachings would have cured my degeneracies. I intend to be received before long."

On 29th November 1900 as he was dying, Oscar finally gave in. His friend Robbie Ross, who was caring for him and was Catholic himself, realizing Oscar was dying went to look for a priest. Oscar had often spoken to him about conversion and of dying in the Catholic Church: now was his last chance. Returning with an Irish priest, Fr Cuthbert Dunne, Robbie asked Oscar if he wanted to see him, he indicated that he did. Fr Cuthbert asked him if he wished to be received into the Church, Oscar again indicated that he did. He was conditionally baptized, absolved and given Last Rites; he was physically unable to receive Communion. The following afternoon, Oscar died. Years later a monument was constructed over his grave in Père Lachaise cemetery bearing the inscription that he had died "fortified by the sacraments of the Catholic Church". Rather than being the "greatest queer martyr", as recent biographies have declared, Oscar is one who needs to be reclaimed by those he longed to be identified with: the Catholic Church.