Reactions from Mill Hill Missionaries
My resignation from the priestly ministry would affect my membership in Mill Hill Society. I had seen in other cases how Religious who protested against Rome, had embroiled their congregations in the dispute. Usually the Vatican had put pressure on the Superiors of those congregations to restrain their members by ‘order of obedience’. I had witnessed conservative Superiors siding with the Vatican and imposing sanctions on the religious persons involved. I was determined to avoid such turmoil. So I decided that it was best for all concerned if my resignation from the priestly ministry would also terminate my membership of the Society.
But there was a problem. During my six years as Vicar General of the Mill Hill Missionaries practically all its 1200+ members had come to know me personally. Here too I realised I needed to minimise any damage done by giving the members a good explanation of why I was taking my step. And I needed to make clear that it did not in any way devaluate the missionary work of our Society or my respect for it.
So well before I issued my press statement, I met Fr Maurice McGill, the Superior General, and members of his General Council. At first, they tried to dissuade me, but when they understood my reasons they acquiesced. Also, at my request, Maurice sent a letter to all the members setting out what I intended to do well before publicity about it reached the media.
The Superior General’s letter ended with this paragraph:
“Hans – I was known to my colleagues as ‘Hans’ – has gone through quite a conflict of conscience … He has been on retreat and has spoken to quite a few people. He wishes to cause as little spiritual damage as possible to the various groups he has ministered to: he stands by what he has written and taught and remains a member of the Catholic Church. He leaves the Society with great regret. He has been a member for 40 years. In 1976, Hans wrote a book entitled ‘Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?’; he came to the conclusion that the answer was ‘No’. He has written on the subject in several periodicals in recent times and is a member of many groups who promote the cause of women’s ordination. As you know, Hans as a Mill Hill Missionary has given excellent service to the mission outreach of the Church; his leaving the Society and the priesthood is a great loss.”
I received a lot of responses from Mill Hill members about my resignation. Many were positive, as I will narrate later. Some condemned me for it, others rejected the validity of my reasons. I will here print excerpts from a representative sample. I replied with a personal letter to all responses I received.
From one of our missionaries in Serawak, Malaysia:
“So you have allowed yourself to be hijacked by the Politically Correct Establishment – a faction that in their own way can be as inflexibly dogmatic and as sure of the infallibility of their views as any Vatican Curia. Beware of the ‘feel good’ factor – the white knight in shining armour galloping to the defence of the beleaguered legions (??) of ladies who want to become priests. Then you get nasty letters like this one which do not seem to respect the anguish of your decision, which of course
makes you feel like a martyr, which adds to the ‘feel good’ factor. It should be remembered however, that your decision causes a good deal of distress to many of us who continue to soldier on. Moreover, you have to accept that if you think it is OK to snipe away at the papal teaching plus accepting the role of a media personality, then you also have to be prepared to accept some flak in your direction.”
Objection from a Mill Hill member teaching at one of our colleges in the UK:
“I agree with what you say about the ‘complicity of silence’, and the failure of those in authority to speak openly about objections they make privately against certain decisions. But what is at stake here is not just a complicity of silence, but an injunction of silence being imposed on all who can claim to speak with any authority in the Church. It seems to me that the more appropriate response to that is not to resign a position from which you can speak, but to maintain a challenge by continuing to exercise the right to speak in conscience. How is the complicity of silence going to be broken if the right to speak openly in criticism is not asserted, but conceded by resignation? I can understand your frustration. You have been more outspoken and conscientious in your writing and teaching than any of us, and you now seem to feel that you can’t continue: ‘I can, in conscience, no longer be part of the deafening silence’. But were you ever part of ‘the deafening silence’? The injunction to be silent is surely better opposed by continuing to speak out than by withdrawing your voice as a priest.”
The person in question did not understand that my public resignation was an act of speaking up, and that I would continue to speak up as a theologian and ‘prophetic priest’ – which in fact I have consistently done ever since.
Mgr Colin Davies, Bishop of Ngong in Kenya, simply appealed to his belief in the Pope always being right.
“Although I can understand why you and also others are surprised and disturbed by the line taken by the Magisterium especially since Humanae Vitae, I think that the challenge should be at the level of Faith. Whoever we are and no matter how learned or intelligent we are, our motive for accepting the teaching of the Church and the successor of Peter united to the successors of the Apostles is the Word of God, the prayer and promise of Christ. As human beings we realise that we cannot understand fully the Wisdom of God. The Wisdom of God with its apparent foolishness comes to us through Christ. He wants all his followers to receive the fullness of his truth and He has taken the necessary measures to ensure that his teaching will remain unadulterated.”
He repeated his observations in a second letter:
“Having considered all your replies, I think it is right to say that what you are really finding difficult to accept is the teaching of the Pope, the Church on Humanae Vitae. If the Pope has gone wrong on HV then you have a very strong case. It is not a mistake which you can blame on the theological Roman advisors. This in view of the clear consistent and repeated teaching of the Pope, exercising his ordinary magisterium in circumstances where he is accepting responsibility for making an authoritative declaration as supreme pastor. But then, if you as you write firmly believe in the teaching authority of the Holy Father, then you must accept his teaching on H.V. The Pope has accepted the need for advice, he has taken time, prayed and he has also accepted that the promise of Christ was personal or perhaps better, belonged to the One person who succeeded Peter. If the power of Christ was limited by all the human weaknesses of JP II I or any other Pope, then Christ‘s power is limited. The need to continue the purity of Christ’s teaching in all important points was so critical that it demanded that the Divine power be exercised. Are you not saying Christ has failed because Paul VI & JP II did not listen to a certain body of theologians, yourself incIuded?”
Such letters were not the only indication that some Millhillers condemned my resignation. My worst experience in this area was the fact that two of my classmates with whom I had been ordained in 1959 did not reply to correspondence I sent them, one of them even refusing to meet me when I visited the college in which he stayed. But they were the exception.
The issue of women’s ordination
Some members of the Society questioned whether I might have overlooked some hidden dimension in the reservation of ordination to men only. Could the Church be right in ruling that women are excluded from presiding at the Eucharist?
Jaap Borst, a missionary in India, one of my one-time colleagues, wrote as follows:
“Regarding your leaving the priesthood, I respect your integrity. I have always admired, not only your competence, but also your zeal for evangelization, and your love for Jesus. Yet, I may perhaps also express my reasons for not following you in this kind of decision. It goes back to the early ‘70’s when you emphasised ‘witness to the Spirit’ as a modern must for evangelization – and I felt that this witness must include the ‘charismatic’ dimension (in the charismatic renewal sense). Specifically I understood – through our sharing – that you believe that devils (Satan, ‘angels’) do not exist. Your conviction was no doubt based on philosophical, exegetical, historical grounds. But my personal experience of the deliverance (exorcism) ministry convinces me that the ‘demonic reality’ exists – and also Satan, the power of darkness. From this I surmise that the secular quality of modern thinking has diminished your perception of spiritual realities, reducing it too much to the psychological. I know I could never ever follow you on this point. On the subject of feminism and women’s ordination in particular, I was very open to women’s ordination after Vatican II – I couldn’t see any objections to its validity. As ‘Roman’ thinking gradually crystalised against it, and this presently so forcefully, I began to ask myself: ‘Have I missed out or overlooked something, some dimension? I ask myself: is there some deeper meaning and design in sex, gender, gender roles, which in the current upsurge of feminism are not in focus?”
A Mill Hill Brother working in Uganda sent this message:
“I feel we need to have great respect for anyone who acts according to his conscience even if one does not agree with them. One thing I can agree with you on is your objection to the attempt by the authorities in Rome to stop discussion on certain religious topics. For a long time I was in favour of women priests as I could not find any reason against. Last week I was thinking of you and looking at the crucifix. The thought came to me: ‘It’s not a woman hanging there’. Looking at history one gets the impression that men are more guilty of evil deeds than women. It were men who had Christ crucified. Most of the killings of human beings have been done by men. It were men whom Christ was most critical of. Therefore, does it not seem that men are more in need of redemption than women? If things had been the other way about, would Christ have come on earth as a woman? When the priest is at the altar offering the sacrifice of the Mass he is standing in for Christ. I question if it is possible for a woman to do the same?”
But many others agreed with me. A classmate of mine who was on fundraising in the USA at the time, wrote as follows:
“I suppose all of us who do think a bit have problems with what has been going on in the Church for a good number of years. I’ve never seen you as a rebel or revolutionary, but a visionary who has helped many people to see Christ as a friend, a lover, the Good Shepherd; never as someone who threatens us with the Codex in his hands. Honestly, I cannot understand the mentality of the Pope, a Ratzinger etc. who are highly intellectual and spiritual I imagine and yet act like this due to some spiritual pride, power, triumphant Church ideas or whatever, but definitely not inspired by the Spirit. I had a talk recently here in California with a woman theologian who told me that indeed they were studying very much sharing with Christ as Priest, Prophet and King as is stated in Baptism, and this opens up terrific possibilities for vocations. But they keep very quiet about all this for fear of being booted out of their jobs! Having lived a shortage of the traditional priest-figure in all the places I’ve worked in and yet hearing all the time that the Eucharist should be the centre of our lives, is a living contradiction in the Church and I believe that the Eucharist should not depend on the traditional priest-figure.”
I obtained the backing both from groups of members and individuals. The missionaries retired in Oosterbeek near Arnhem sent a combined message of support. And an official gathering of our members in the Netherlands expressed their solidarity.
Other messages of support came in from individual Mill Hill Missionaries working in different parts of the world, from the Philippines to Brasil, from New Zealand to Zaire.
A young member wrote to me from Ireland:
“I have always enjoyed reading your articles in the Tablet. Your books and
videos were just excellent. I remember your talks to us when I was a student. However, my greatest appreciation of your ministry concerns your writings on women’s ordination. The issue of women’s priests, like that of clerical celibacy, remains very close to my own heart. The fact that it seems to be an offence to debate these issues in the context of Scripture, Vatican II and social equality adds injury to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. I think many will be sad to hear of your decision to leave Mill Hill. Many will be upset. Deep down I admire your decision because I recognise ‘honesty’. I am involved in vocation ministry at the moment and I sense the challenge to be open and honest with young people.”
And this was a voice speaking to me from the Sudan:
“Your step is ‘big’. In two ways. Emotionally painful, even radical, because the gap is so large. Prophetically vibrant, also encouraging, because you give heart to a lot of people. You say and do what I myself would have liked to say and do. This means, you made your step also on my behalf. I thank you for finding the daring and the faith to take such a sweeping decision. The lid of ‘faith’ fits every pot, every container, and yet we see at times that the ‘reality’ does not square. That is the raw, even absurd side of faith. At times frustrating, often incomprehensible, beyond our grasp. May I make a prediction? Or is that too presumptuous? Long after John Paull II with this generation will be dead and buried, future humanity, especially women as ordained priests, will no doubt read and study this dramatic episode involving you. They will find it tragic you had to leave your priestly ministry. Just as we now look on the transport of slaves from Africa as a past tragedy.”