John Wilkins obituary | Catholicism


John Wilkins, who died aged 85, was Britain’s leading lay Catholic commentator for the past 40 years.

As editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, one of the oldest periodicals in the country, for almost 22 years between 1982 and 2003, he was well able to infuriate the Vatican and the conservative polemicists more vocal critics of the Church, criticizing its reactionary positions on issues such as birth control, the place of women in the church and ecumenism. Cardinal Basil Hume, the former head of the church in England and Wales, once accused him of promoting a rival magisterium (church teaching).

But its detractors, reputable since the pope, all found they had to read what the Tablet said for informed and influential thought, always courteously and usually incisively expressed, on ecclesiastical and secular politics, international events and Arts. It tripled the circulation of a previously ailing publication, which during its editorship was read in more than 100 countries and even found almost a fifth of its readership outside the Catholic Church.

As former Conservative President Chris Patten, an occasional contributor, noted in a 1997 interview, the tablet contained “a disproportionate number of articles that made me feel more informed, very entertained and even upset”.

The magazine’s trustees included some of the most prominent Catholics in British public life, including at various times Hugo Young, a former Guardian columnist; former Cabinet Secretary Lord Hunt; William Rees-Mogg; and Graham Greene. Writers from across the religious and political spectrum, myself included, have written for the Tablet, charmed by Wilkins to contribute despite the tiny expense and sometimes ruthless editing of their copy. His obsession transformed the magazine into an elegant and incisive product.

He was a small, almost gnomish figure with the manner and seriousness of an academic, but also the journalistic irreverence that would probably be essential to the editor of a magazine covering such an authoritarian institution. In an article written about Wilkins’ retirement, Young wrote that he had made the Tablet the most influential Catholic weekly in the world, not by fighting against all authority, but by maintaining its independence.

Contrary to the opinion of some in the hierarchy, Wilkins was determined not to be the unconditional voice of Rome. Young wrote that Wilkins was “a friend to the church but not its slave, an ally but not subservient to believe that criticism amounted to disloyalty”.

Wilkins bristled when Hume – at a mass to celebrate the tablet’s 150th anniversary in 1990 – chastised the magazine for not always being helpful to the church. Wilkins forcefully retorted that it was not the job of journalism to be useful to the institution.

He didn’t start out Catholic. Born in Bristol, he was the eldest of three children of Anglican parents, Ena (née Francis) and Edward Wilkins, who ran a small factory manufacturing knitting needles.

He gained a scholarship to Clifton College and then, after national service in the Gloucestershire Regiment, studied classics and theology at Clare College, Cambridge. After a brief period working for Esso in the planning division, he became a journalist for the ecumenical journal Frontier in 1964.

It was there that Wilkins converted to Catholicism, inspired by the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s to open the Church to the rest of the world rather than remain a theocratic gerontocracy hostile to modernity and demanding obedience. unconditional. The council remained its inspiration even as theocrats, notably Pope John Paul II, regained control.

Wilkins first joined the tablet in 1967, becoming deputy editor before joining BBC External Services five years later and working as a producer for Radio 4. He returned to the magazine as editor in 1982, stating in its first editorial that the tablet would address the whole of Catholic opinion. “Our concern concerns the world as much as the Church, with all that is human. We will seek to inform and interpret as well as comment,” he wrote.

This editorial stance meant that the magazine often found itself at odds with the Vatican, as John Paul shut down the possibility of debate on issues such as the ordination of women, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and birth control. admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion, even making questioning the official position a test of orthodoxy. The Tablet’s criticism of the hierarchy’s complacency over clerical sexual abuse was also misplaced.

Wilkins was appointed MBE in 1998. He retired as editor in December 2003, replaced by Catherine Pepinster, but retained close ties to the magazine.

An editorial in the Tablet after his death said that Wilkins had wanted to keep Church debates open so that the influence of a less rigid Catholicism would not be lost to future generations: “His technique was to accept the inevitability of an occasional yellow card. but to avoid being shown in red.

Wilkins is survived by his younger sister, Angela.

John Anthony Francis Wilkins, journalist, born December 20, 1936; died on April 25, 2022


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