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Obituary: John Wilkins

13 May 2022

Brendan McCarthy

Paul Vallely writes:

JOHN WILKINS, in his 21 years as editor of The Tablet, rescued the weekly paper from the brink of collapse, almost trebled its circulation, and turned it into perhaps the most influential Roman Catholic publication in the English-speaking world. Under him, it circulated in more than 100 countries and became essential reading even inside the Vatican, where its views were not always approved.

Born on 20 December 1936 to parents with a Congregationalist background, John attended his Anglican parish church before winning scholarships to Clifton College and then to Cambridge, to read Classics. At university, after one inspiring evensong, he fully embraced the Anglicanism in which he had been baptised, and abandoned Classics for a degree in theology and philosophy.

At Cambridge, however, he began to feel increasingly at home in the company of the Catholics whom he met; he was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1965, though he refused to accede to the instruction that he should be rebaptised, insisting upon the validity of his Anglican baptism. Throughout his life, he retained a deep affection for the Anglican tradition, and disliked being described as a “Catholic convert”.

The reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when Rome opened its windows to the Holy Spirit and decided to enter into dialogue with the secular world, enflamed Wilkins and ignited his vocation. Joining the ecumenical magazine Frontier in 1964, he spent three years getting to grips with the Council debates that were opening the Church to a new style of Catholicism. In 1967, he joined The Tablet to continue the work.

After a decade at the BBC World Service, he returned to The Tablet as editor in 1982, at a time when the Church was dominated by a Pope, John Paul II, determined to row back on the openness of Vatican II and close down discussion on contraception, abortion, celibacy, the ordination of women, and gay relationships. John Paul silenced theologians and chastised the world for embracing a “culture of death”.

Wilkins saw it as his duty to keep open the debates that the Pope wanted shut down. At one point, Cardinal Basil Hume affectionately chided him for turning The Tablet into an “alternative magisterium”. Wilkins riposted that it was, rather, a “loyal opposition”, and loyalty did not require servility or obedience. He once said, peering impishly over the top of his spectacles: “The present Pope [John Paul II] thinks that the Western world has been on the wrong track since Descartes.”  When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005, it compounded Wilkins’s disquiet.

“The idea that the Church is an exclusive club of people who have the truth is one we have to resist,” he told me when I was a Tablet columnist in the 1990s. “It is more difficult with a Pope who leads from the right. It raises questions about loyalty and truth. A real dialogue is needed. I hope that goes on in the Tablet’s pages.”

Every week, he would agonise over the contents of those pages. He commissioned articles from internationally distinguished churchmen, theologians, politicians, academics, and critics, and then was fearless in his demands that they should rework their articles. Sometimes he rewrote their prose for them.

But the result was an authoritative, confident voice that offered Catholic insights to the secular world and, simultaneously, a salutary corrective to the institutional Church. His Tablet had a strong international perspective, a readership on average 14 years younger than when he became editor and, under Wilkins, one fifth of its readers were Anglicans.

Throughout his editorship, Wilkins tussled with those questions about loyalty and truth. He was never happy, the Tablet’s chief leader-writer Clifford Longley recalls, with the description “Catholic journalist”; for it could be taken to imply that the search for journalistic truth might be compromised on the altar of institutional loyalty.

“The concept of a paper that is both truly Catholic and truly independent is literally beyond the comprehension of cardinals steeped in the culture of their own institutional power,” the political commentator Hugo Young wrote in 2003, in a tribute to mark Wilkins’s retirement.

His Tablet was consistently critical of Thatcherism throughout its dominant era. “When the eucharist is your model of community,” he told me, “it is difficult to have truck with ideas based on isolated individualism. We weren’t doctrinaire. It was just that everyone else went so hard to the right that our position looked left.”

Wilkins unsparingly applied the notion that “the truth will set you free” to both the world and the institutional Church. He was fearless in handling the issue of clerical sex abuse. But his truth-seeking went far wider. Wilkins gave praise where it was due, but did not flinch from offering apposite criticism. “The Church’s problem is how to be modern and yet how to be above the flux of human history. We need to be in the middle of that discussion.”

John Wilkins died on 26 April, aged 85.

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