My resignation

On the 7th of September 1998 I expressed my decision in a letter to the Pope.  Ten days later I made my resignation publicly known through the following press statement.

 “I have resigned from the priestly ministry on account of a conflict of conscience with the supreme authority of the Catholic Church in Rome.”


“Over the past decades I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the official Church’s decrees concerning sexual doctrine and ethics. Married couples are forbidden the use of contraceptives, even if applied with discretion. Obligatory celibacy remains arbitrarily imposed on clergy of the Latin Rite in spite of the spiritual anguish thus inflicted on many priests and their flocks. Homosexual partnerships are discriminated against. And – the last straw as far as I am concerned -, women are barred from ordination to the priesthood in spite of there being no proven objections from either Scripture or Tradition.

The official teaching emanating from Rome in these matters has done and is doing great damage to the Body of the Church. Millions of believers have stopped attending the Eucharist on account of it, turning for spiritual consolation elsewhere. The teaching authority has lost its credibility even among loyal pastors, who often struggle to limit the damage inflicted by offering their faithful a more sensitive pastoral guidance than Rome does. Most alarming of all is the inevitable corruption Rome causes in all levels of responsibility in the Church by forcing on all a complicity of silence.

  • Bishops and Bishops’ Conferences fail by not challenging Rome publicly.
  • Theologians and theological institutes fail by not standing up for what they believe to be the truth.
  • Parish priests fail by not reassuring the faithful from the pulpit.
  • Religious superiors and seminary professors fail their students by leading them into an establishment that will inhibit their autonomy and responsibility.

The question of the ordination of women is the breaking point for me because I have been personally involved in theological research and pastoral ministry concerning this issue for the last 20 years.”

The ordination of women

“When the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith promulgated its reasons for rejecting women from the priesthood in 1976, I published counter arguments in Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?  The booklet, which carried the Imprimatur, was reprinted in a number of languages and countries, the last enlarged UK edition appearing in 1986. It has recently been made available on the Internet. I am  a member of various organisations which promote Catholic Women’s Ordination: CWO (Catholic Women’s Ordination), St. Joan’s International Alliance and the Canon 1024 Mailing List. I have continued writing on the question, in spite of Rome’s attempt to suppress theological research or pastoral discussion (see my recent articles “Thérèse and the Question of the Ordination of Women” in Mount Carmel (November 1997) and The Catholic Citizen (March 1998).”

Conflict of conscience

“I have always considered it my duty, as a theologian and a priest, to sincerely pursue the truth as I perceive it, after careful study and reflection. Vatican II states that ‘all the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, tempered by humility and courage in whatever branch of study they have specialised’ (Gaudium et Spes, no 62). Since I perceive Rome’s ban on women’s ordination as not legitimately founded on Scripture or Tradition, not arrived at after proper consultation in the Church, harmful to ecumenism and highly injurious to the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful, I feel bound in conscience to continue voicing my sincere opposition.

On the other hand, I see that the authorities in Rome, pursue a policy of rigorous enforcement of the ban, silencing all theological reflection and discussion. Through the Motu Proprio of Pope John Paul II Ad Tuendam Fidem of 28 May 1998 and the accompanying commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, defence of the ordination of women is presented as tantamount to heresy. Anyone who holds that women can be ordained priests is “no longer in full communion with the Catholic Church”, we are told (Statement by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 29 June 1998).

In view of this stand of the official Church, whose ultimate pastoral leadership and teaching authority I have to respect in spite of the mistakes it has committed in the past and may still be committing in the present, I know myself in conscience bound to resign from the priestly ministry. I can no longer represent the official Church while disagreeing with it on such a fundamental matter.

Moreover, I want to stand on the side of those men and women who are so casually and unjustly dismissed by the Vatican. It is only by distancing myself now from the institutional Church that I can extract myself from the guilt of taking part in the conspiracy of silence.”

Explaining my position

“By resigning from the priestly ministry I have in no way renounced my right and duty as a theologian to publicly express my opinion. Neither have I stopped being a member of the Church itself. All my life I have been a conscientious and orthodox Catholic and I intend to remain so until I die.

I do not want to betray the trust my family, friends and sponsors have always given me. I hope they will accept my conviction that only by following my conscience can I be truly faithful to my prophetic and missionary calling.

I appreciate the position of Catholic bishops, priests and religious who gallantly continue in their ministry in spite of their disagreement with Rome. I respect their sincerity in acting thus for pastoral reasons. I hope they in turn will respect mine.

I am deeply concerned about the various groups I have ministered to, such as my former students in India, readers of my books and articles, and those who follow my faith formation courses world wide. I reassure them that I have not renounced my Catholic faith, and that I stand by all spiritual and theological matters on which I have written and taught.

Finally, I want to express my appreciation and gratitude to Mill Hill Missionary Society. I salute my Mill Hill comrades and colleagues with whom I have shared so much labour and joy during my forty years of membership. I wish them God’s speed, and I promise them a never ending friendship on my part.”

John Wijngaards

News of my resignation and the reasons for it were widely publicised. It appeared in the Tablet, The London Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Universe, the Catholic Herald, the Herder Correspondenz (Germany), Trouw (the Netherlands) and Time Magazine (USA), to mention just a few.

After publication I received an avalanche of responses. The vast majority were positive. They revealed widespread disquiet in the Catholic community about the dictatorial methods employed by our Vatican leaders.  In this chapter I will print a representative selection of the post I received during the first month after the news of my resignation became known.

A couple sent me this letter: “My husband and I would like you to know how much we applaud your resignation. We appreciate the courage and the agonising that it must have taken and we wish that more priests would stand up and be counted. We always enjoyed your contributions to Mission Today and the Tablet. As Catholics we feel very isolated now with all this repression of freedom of thought. We can only ‘hang on in’, making our voices heard even if we are often viewed as heretical. I’m sure the truth will prevail in the end – how long oh Lord? How long?”

I received this communication from a group:

“While sympathising with you in your enormous loss of the priesthood, we congratulate you on the stand you have taken and are immensely heartened at what may well be the Holy Spirit’s intervention through you. We are a group of about a dozen ‘dissidents’ who have long been unhappy at the Vatican’s overbearing autocratic ways which attempt to stifle individual conscience with statements which appear specious and lack credibility. Amongst our number are those who cling on to church life as to a lifebelt, some who have rejected a church which does not practise what it preaches, and others who have gone to Anglicanism in desperation. The question ‘Should we go or should we stay?’ constantly exercises us. We have longed for someone with some standing in the Church to draw public attention to the disquiet so many of the faithful feel and to challenge those in authority in the courageous, truthful way you have done. We pray that others in authority may be moved to help shatter the conspiracy of silence and dare to raise critical voices.”

Hans Kung

The well-known theologian Hans Küng faxed a message of solidarity: “I understand you. You are right to speak out frankly, intelligently and courageously. The situation of the Catholic Church, because of the present Roman regime, is deplorable. Your resignation may show to the hierarchy how serious the situation is. Keep your trust and courage. Maybe we will see changing times some day.”

And here is the cry from an anguished layman:

“You are so right that the priests ‘on the ground’ are more in-touch with Christ’s compassion than the abstract hierarchy. Thirty years ago, my wife continued to dutifully attend Mass, but could not receive Communion. WHY? Because she was in a state of constant ‘sin’ over contraception after having our three children (we could not afford a bigger house). Finally, a priest allowed her to go to Communion. My wife’s youngest brother is a homosexual who believes in only one lifelong ‘friend’ as far as I know. He is an immensely good-hearted and generous man – and a regular churchgoer, so obviously he also has found a sympathetic priest who understands that God creates Diversity. I joined an oriental cult because I was seeking the Holy Spirit – God – some Spiritual Reality & Love which I did not find in our local priests. The evil in the Vatican is to do with POWER – a power which Christ never exercised. THE CONTROL OF MINDS – Jesus never exercised power-through-fear, as the Church has constantly done: the 13-year-old who masturbates is bound for Hell! Such rules are absurd and have nothing to do with Christ. These are crazy KGB terror-tactics used to enslave spirits!”

 Responses from women

Here is a sample of typical messages I got through the electronic letterboxes of the time:

From Australia. “I have tears in my eyes as I finish reading your press statement on the net. Your pain and sadness come through and I am reminded of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. I admire your integrity and deep faith and commitment to the Catholic Church despite the intransigence of its incumbents. I can only send you a big hug, while   promising many prayers that the Lord will uphold you as you are upholding Him. You may also have heard that one of the supporters of women’s ordination in Canberra here, has been banned by the bishop from receiving communion in her own parish and he also demanded she resign from the parish council, but she has refused as she was duly elected by the parishioners to represent them — unlike the said bishop.”

From Scotland. “I am greatly concerned about the issues that you have raised. I feel that you have done women a great kindness in supporting the cause of female ordination so publicly. Even if it does not move the thoughts of the men in power, such a stand will help to give hope and courage to the men and women who are struggling to bring about change in Church policy. I also have a particular interest in the subject of priestly celibacy and allowing priests to marry. I won’t go into details now, but I see it as an issue of fundamental importance.”

From a missionary sister in Zambia. “I hunger for a renewal in the Church that will involve true spirituality, true preaching of the word, true equality. When I reached middle age I was stunned by the realisation that all institutes and rules are there merely to prevent the human race failing into chaos; but at times they just do the opposite. For all those dismayed by your decision, there are as many who find their frustrations and bruises eased considerably with an in-put of hope. May the Holy Spirit guide you and preserve you in truth along whichever path you take.”

 Support from fellow priests

“I have read your statement of resignation. I wish and pray for God’s grace for you in the years ahead. Interestingly we are at opposite ends of the theological spectrum. I am in fact a papist to the back teeth. However, like yourself I have suffered under the system so I know your anguish and the strange sense of liminality as you change life-situations. I of course totally disagree with your theological viewpoints. However, what I respect is evident in the following. I have always detested ‘liberal’ priests and sisters and brothers who work the system while totally opposed to it in ideology and praxis. I suspect this ‘split’ must affect their minds if not their integrity. Such people for example will sell their expensive books criticising the pope etc. and coast along on royalties free of tax (especially religious exempted from tax because they belong to tax free religious institutes) . . . And what has this to do with you, John? You refuse to live a deeper hypocrisy of self indulgently playing a system you don’t really agree with.”

“As a ‘former’ priest myself, I want to say how much I sympathise with your predicament since I heard that you have retired from the active ministry. I was
for seven years a priest of a major diocese and had felt obliged to leave the active ministry because – among a number of factors – I did not see myself in the role of a celestial policeman telling people whether by following this or that petty Church rule they would reach the Kingdom of God. My subsequent reading of the Scriptures has increased my belief that whereas the Catholic Church has the right basic hierarchical structure as taught by Vatican Il, it has an awful lot to learn about how to use its power as, I believe, its Lord intended.”

“I am more than empathetic to your position. Since I too, as a RC Parish Priest felt obliged to resign in 1987 because of the same authoritarianism that emanated from Rome (and was often ‘celebrated’ in my own diocese). Like you for many years (in my case 17) I fought within the system: teaching, preaching, counselling, trying to redress the balance. I refused both to add to ‘a conspiracy of silence’ or mouth ‘magisterial-dictates’, and so simply offered what I considered the Teaching of Vatican Two that echoed something of the Gospel – as I understood it. But like you I came to the point whereby one just could not continue to conspire in Rome’s corruption of the Church.”

 Movements for church reform

Virginia Finn, President St. Joan’s International Alliance, USA:

“I have just read via my e-mail about your resignation from the priesthood. My mind and heart ache with you, and I share trepidation for the future. Nonetheless, we are called to bear witness to the Truth that lives within us and ‘let the chips fall where they may’. I have observed with apprehension the systematic silencing of teachers within the Church structure, and have wondered when and who would speak. From what I have been able to observe, it appears that many within the priesthood do in fact believe that the exclusion of women from Holy Orders is a false creed. But I do not see many, if any, of them speaking up and out. Upon occasion, on a one-to-one basis, a priest will admit that not only should women be admitted to Holy Orders but that they are already ministering to the faithful as if they were priests. This is the ‘open secret’.”

Josephine Way on behalf of Catholics for a Changing Church, UK:

“I am writing to assure you of our support and sympathy for your decision to leave the active priesthood. When someone at great personal sacrifice speaks out about the dichotomy between what you are called to teach and what the Vatican permits you to say it is an encouragement to those of us who despair of the present-day Church. Someone has described the Church as being in a bad way while the People of God are doing fine; welcome to the People of God!”

Yvonne Nolan, Catholic Women’s Ordination, UK:

“A very brief message to say that you, and people like yourself have helped to give us in the congregation the confidence to follow our reason and instincts and allow us to listen to the Holy Spirit, and ‘grow up’ as Catholics. Communication of attitude is remembered more powerfully than that of content, and you have the gift of combining both to make your point of view credible and less fearful to many people. I am sure that your recent decision has been the right one – I think that the Holy Spirit loves technology. There are now more ways than ever to make theology vibrant and relevant to our young people.”

Elfriede Harth, spokesperson International Movement WE ARE CHURCH, Spain:

Elfriede Harth

“As a woman engaged in the cause of Human Rights in the Church, I want to thank  you very much for your powerful and courageous gesture: resigning to a ministry that makes you a representant of an institution which violates human dignity. In my eyes, by doing what you do, you are accomplishing a prophetic ministry, as you become a sign for the conscience and awareness that is rising in ever larger parts of our Church that the time is overdue to fulfil the uniqueness of us all in Christ (Gal 3:28).

I thank you in the name of all women who feel discriminated, but I thank you
as well in the name of all those who live more or less severe conflicts of conscience considering the obedience of ecclesial authority and what they believe in their own inner voice.

I thank you because your step is a very thought provoking one regarding the importance of Law: the system that is called to protect the widow and the orphan from the arbitrariness of the powerful. It is our responsibility to strive for a redefinition of law so that it really fulfils this its genuine objective. When those who symbolise the power and authority in the Church challenge the actual formulation of Law in its oppressiveness, we are entitled to be hopeful for the future.”

These messages really helped me. They confirmed that my step had achieved its purpose of backing up those millions of Catholics who were confused and oppressed by the system. On the other hand, in the sophisticated West they were predictable. How had my resignation affected the many whom I had served during my ministry in India?