Preamble to my resignation from the ministry
As I approach this phase in my story I must confess my inability to do justice to everything that took place in the months and years surrounding my decision. How will I be able to describe the complex processes going on in my mind and my heart? How can I relate the never-ending discussions with friends, family, colleagues and authorities? How can I summarise the hundreds upon hundreds of letters I wrote and received, many of which still fill voluminous files on my shelves? An extensive and intricate network of relationships was shaken to its core . . . I also need to protect elements of the event that I am bound to keep confidential. So I will try to sketch what was happening, but do not blame me if the picture is incomplete.
In previous chapters of my life story I have recorded my growing unease with the way Roman authorities were ruling the Church. Time and again they had shown a lack of pastoral empathy with ordinary people’s lives. They had consistently rejected calls from bishops, priests and the laity to reconsider outdated rules and regulations. They were determined, it seemed to me, to quell the legitimate voice of criticism by loyal and competent theologians. Under Paul VI and especially John Paul II the Vatican had turned into a conservative dictatorship that was determined to suppress any attempt to reform.
Things came to a head on the 22th of May 1994 with the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In that encyclical the Pope stated:
“Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
Pope John Paul II, therefore, more or less declared that the exclusion of women from holy orders was part of revealed doctrine. He stated that he, as head of the Church, ‘definitively’ (did he imply ‘infallibly’?) proclaimed the issue resolved. No further discussion should be tolerated, he said.
Rome’s utter rejection of women’s ordination shocked me. In one fell swoop millions of faithful Catholics, mainly women, who fervently hoped the Church would change its stance on the issue were pushed aside. They were virtually pushed out of the Church because the companion document Responsum ad Dubium stated that rejection of the Pope’s declaration amounted to placing oneself outside the communion of the Church.
Moreover, the Pope was so obviously mistaken. Though no one has a strict right to ordination since it is a call and gift from God, excluding a whole class of human beings from ordination is a clear form of discrimination. The Church cannot, for instance, accept the exclusion of all Africans or Australian Aboriginals from the priesthood. The exclusion of women, which has no valid basis in either Scripture or Tradition, amounts to an intolerable act of discrimination.
My mother’s anger surged up in me. She had never had the opportunity to study theology, something she would have loved to do. But from her young years she felt in her a profound dissatisfaction with the way women were treated in the Church. She refused to be “churched” (a revolt unheard of in those days). She would protest at all statements from the pulpit that seemed to put women down, insisting on the priest to come to our home for further discussion. On one occasion she argued strongly with Professor Lucas Brinkhoff OFM, who was a member of the International Liturgical Commission after Vatican II, telling him that the new vernacular translation “pray brethren” (Bidt Broeders in Dutch), excluded all women in the congregation. Brinkhoff disagreed, but when my mother went to Mass next morning (at which Brinkhoff happened to be the celebrant), his face turned red when he saw my mother sitting in the first pew. He could not bring himself to say: “Pray Brethren”. Interestingly enough, a directive from Rome followed after a few months urging pastors to use inclusive expressions, such as “brothers and sisters”.
I have always seen in my mother the perfect example of the sensus fidelium, the spontaneous knowledge of what is right or wrong in the consciousness of the faithful. Although I had come to my conclusions about the ordination of women independently from what my mother thought, I knew that I carried in me traces of her deep exasperation!
And it was not the only issue that enraged me.
In the matter of obligatory celibacy for priests, I found Rome’s harshness distinctly un-Christian. The core of our Christian belief is that God is love. It is through love that we experience God (1 John 4,7-8). Tenderness, mercy and love – the way Jesus himself loved – is our greatest commandment and should be the distinguishing feature of the Christian community (John 14,11-16; 13,34-35). The authorities in Rome had created a climate of legal discipline and fear in the Church.
For that reason I could not agree with the way Rome treated married couples by imposing obligations which few could observe without carrying an intolerable burden. Homosexuals, who are, after all, born that way, were not allowed to be true to the way they were created by God to use theological parlance. People were made to feel guilty, confused about themselves and lacking in self respect. They were deprived of the joy of inner Christian freedom.
The area in which I felt this most was with regard to Rome’s treatment of priests. A great part of my ministry had been devoted to teaching and forming seminarians. Throughout my 39 years of service I had observed how the insistence on mandatory celibacy ravaged the Church’s priesthood. Rome simply did not want to understand that a better appreciation of married love had undermined the motivation for many priests regarding celibacy. Many committed priests I had known, abandoned the priesthood in order to marry and so were lost to the ministry.
Rome was also totally insensitive to the inner agony of so many good priests and the women with whom they had fallen in love. I have witnessed this in many cases from close by.
And I felt all this on a personal level because I knew that in my own case too I had been unjustly ensnared into compulsory celibacy by the Church, which we were told was an implicit vow made to God when we accepted the sub-diaconate. Remember that I was only eleven (!) years old when I had entered the minor seminary. Then, in subsequent years I had been deprived of the opportunity to get to know girls or young women. To close the trap, I had been confronted constantly with the stark choice of giving up my priestly vocation uf I did not give up marriage. Since I have always been serious about my vocation, I had no other option than yielding to the Church’s pressure. Moreover, as I said earlier, I could not realistically judge the benefits of the other option, of being married, because I had been deprived of getting to know women on a personal level. Moral theology teaches that one is not bound to keep a promise if one has been deceived about the full implications of the promise. Already, while working in India, I worked out with my spiritual director that the ‘implicit vow’ had been totally invalid in my case.
So I fully empathised with the agony of priests dedicated to their mission who fell in love and who knew, in their minds and their hearts, that the requirement of celibacy had been imposed by the Church, so to say, under false pretences.
All this was forcefully brought home to me by a very sad case which demonstrated Rome’s intransigence. One desperate priest, Father Sean Seddon, hounded by church authorities finally committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train in November 1993. Jan Currie, the woman he loved, had provided a full background account. Christian understanding on the part of the Church could have saved his life and their togetherness in love.
Dictatorial Vatican ukase
In March 1998 I was delegated to represent England at the European Bishops’ Conference Commission meeting on ‘Sects and Fringe Religious Movements’ at Vienna. I was asked to present a position paper, sketching the general situation of the Church in Europe. Rather than just outlining the challenge of the New Age movements, I focused on the need of the Church to recognise that Catholics have changed. They have grown up.
“We live in a new world in which we have become much more sensitive to important human and social values”, I said. “These include democratic rights, personal freedom and autonomy, and individual responsibility in matters of sex and relationships”. I decried the clash between the Vatican’s rigid traditionalism and the spiritual search of the majority of people in the West. I pleaded for church authorities to listen to people. My talk was published as ‘God and our new selves’. http://www.johnwijngaards.com/god-new-selves/
Two months later the bomb shell . . . the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Ad Tuendam Fidem.
This ‘Motu Proprio’ added demands of total submission to Church Law, total submission that is to statements made by a Pope or his henchmen. Canon 750 § 2 now read: “everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.” Canon 1371 imposed a penalty on anyone who disagreed.
The official Commentary to Ad Tuendam Fidem (29 June 1998) by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict XIV, linked this explicitly to the ‘doctrine’ that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men. “The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.”
The Cardinal also stated: “Whoever denies such truths is in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and is therefore no longer in full communion with the Catholic Church.”
How should I respond?
Remembering the millions of faithful Catholics who firmly believed women should be ordained, I felt the time for action had come. But what could I do? Two months of prayer, deliberation, consultation and reflection followed. I had before my eyes the example of a family member who quit his government job when the department for which he worked adopted a policy that went totally against his conscience. I came to the conclusion that I should do the same. In protest against the official Church’s rejection of women priests I should resign from exercising my priestly ministry.
Note the wording: resigning from exercising the ministry, not resigning from the priesthood. ‘Once a priest, always a priest’. I knew my priestly vocation was valid. I did not want to abandon my mission as a priest. And, as Vatican II had clarified, the priestly mission goes deeper than fulfilling sacramental functions in church. Every priest is a prophet, called upon to proclaim the Kingdom of God. I could continue being a priest even while resigning from ministering within the ranks of Vatican approved clerics.
At the same time I was very conscious of the negative effects my resignation might have on vulnerable groups of people. I thought of the priests, religious and lay people I had taught in India. I thought of my colleagues in Mill Hill Society. I thought of the persons I had touched through my writings, the video courses, the workshops and seminars organised by Housetop. I realised it was crucial that I explain my action clearly to each of these groups.
I had meetings with the Society leaders in Mill Hill. I visited family members and sponsors in the UK and the Netherlands. I wrote explanatory letters to key persons such as bishops and pastoral leaders in England I had dealings with. I sent a personal message and an information pack to all the bishops in Andhra Pradesh, asking them to pass on the information to their priests.
When I consulted key persons about my decision I encountered a wide range of responses. Some urged me to reconsider. Among those was Cardinal Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, a pastoral leader whom I highly respected. I had written him a five-page long letter setting out in detail the reasons why I was contemplating withdrawing from exercising my priestly ministry.
I am publishing his reply because is representative of the advice I received from church leaders. It also provides me with another opportunity to clearly elucidate why I was taking the step I felt I had to take.
The Cardinal was obviously well-intentioned. He was voicing the objections I had heard from many others too. However, the three reasons he gave me for reconsidering my decision were wholly inadequate.
Stay loyal to the authorities?
“It is not easy to exercise authority in an institution where sacred and holy things have been entrusted into such frail hands as ours. I do think there is much in the Church which many of us find difficult but then I think of our Lord’s words: do you also wish to go away?”
It is clear that the Cardinal implies that Christ is on the side of the authorities who – poor things! – are doing a difficult job. By ‘going away’ from them we are abandoning Christ. But is that so?
I felt strongly that this was a misjudgement. Christ was much more on the side of the underdogs. To mention just a few:
- Christ was on the side of the tens of millions of Catholics who were suffering by the erroneous total rejection of artificial contraceptives in family planning: poor parents producing more children than they could afford to look after; wives infected with AIDS because they could not protect themselves against husbands carrying the disease; educated Catholics who followed their own consciences while using contraception but who were yet burdened with a simmering sense of guilt.
- Christ was on the side of the millions of women who rightly felt reduced to being second-class citizens in the Church because the priestly dignity they had received in baptism was denied to them in sacramental ministries.
- Christ was on the side of the tens of thousands of married priests and their wives who were treated as pariahs. As the Austrian bishop Reinhold Stecher wrote in May 1998: “The most disturbing example, for me, of neglecting divine commands is our treatment of priests who have married. In my own experience requests for laicisation forwarded with the bishop’s urgent endorsement, for pastoral and human reasons, lie in Rome unread for ten years and even more. Consider that what is being requested is simply reconciliation with God and the Church, the possibility of having a Christian marriage and, in some case, being admitted to non-priestly ministries. Here too all we hear is a merciless “No” from the Vatican. What did Jesus say? Did he not make the duty of forgiveness and reconciliation the highest duty in all his words, parables, and deeds right up to his final prayers on the cross?” It was a harshness I myself had encountered in many examples when I was Vicar General of Mill Hill.
And as to quoting the Gospel, why not think of Christ lambasting religious leaders who are ‘blind guides, that tie up intolerable burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders’?
“When we as priests walk away from the institutional Church we are being, to some extent, self indulgent.” Self-indulgence is defined as the lack of self restraint or as the pursuit of one’s own comfort and pleasure.
Now it is true that loosening oneself from the control of religious authorities does bring relief from some stifling rules and regulations. On the other hand, giving up the official support of the institution inflicts other losses, such as status, a cosy job and a steady income to mention but a few. In fact, I was wondering whether those within the institutional Church who toe the line were not more self-indulgent than I was?
What about the self-indulgence of all those leaders who knew that Rome’s views were wrong and yet gave in to its claims so as to preserve their privileges?
- The bishops in their palaces and parish priests in their rectories who played along with Rome because they did not want ‘to rock the boat’?
- The theologians teaching in seminaries and colleges because they would lose their jobs if they would say publicly what they knew to be true?
Many of those, I am sure, would not call it self-indulgence, but self-preservation in a ruthless Church bent on suppressing all dissent. But who cared about the self-preservation of those who dared to voice their criticism?
“Who am I to think I can do better? Who am I to sit in judgement on others? Do be careful of thinking that you are wiser than the rest of us in the institutional Church. It is always important, I find, to say to oneself, ‘… but I may be wrong’.”
This part of the Cardinal’s letter really upset me. Of course, modesty makes sense. Yes, we can make mistakes in our assessments. On the other hand, this appeal to modesty amounted, in fact, to my giving up my own power of reason. If I surrendered to this kind of thinking, I would always be forced to yield to the official point of view.
I have already recounted how, during my college studies, I had come to a recognition of my own responsibility as a thinking person. I had decided then never to accept any ‘party’ doctrine without having tested it with my own intelligence. After all, like any other human being I had been created in God’s image. God had given me an intellect. God expected me to base my judgements, after careful scrutiny and respecting the guidance of experts, on my own intellectual assessment. Modesty yes, but not at the expense of rejecting my own critical evaluation.
Moreover, I had been professionally trained in the study of sacred scripture and theology. I had, so to say, become an expert myself. As the Second Vatican Council had laid down, it was not only my right but also my duty to express my findings even if they contradicted what was official presented as ‘doctrine’. I knew then – as I still know today – that the claims made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and by the Pope were simply wrong. They go counter to sacred scripture, the true understanding of tradition and the principles of sound Catholic theology. Telling me to ‘shut up’ because I might be wrong — without even discussing my documented reasons or my conflict of conscience struck me as odd indeed.
And what saddened me in all this was the realization that even Cardinal Hume, well intentioned though he was, did not grasp the importance of listening to what individual Catholics, even experts like myself, were saying. Our view was discounted from the beginning as ‘just a private view, which may be wrong’. People at the top of the hierarchy were convinced that they possessed the full truth. There was no need to pay attention to the growing mismatch between the ‘Catholic sense’ of ordinary faithful and the officially imposed belief. There was complete unwillingness to hear what competent pastors and theologians were saying. In fact, a regime of repression had been put in place. Dissenting voices were silenced. Papal commissions were filled with ‘yes-men’ willing to prove the party right. Bishops were only chosen from among men prepared to pledge unwavering support to a pre-determined order.
In short, advice such as given by Cardinal Hume was not the answer. I had to act, to take responsibility. I had to openly express my disagreement with Rome’s erroneous views. My voice would only be heard if I publicly withdrew from taking part in the priestly ministry. And that is what I decided to do after writing a polite short reply to Cardinal Hume and others like him.