Review of John Wijngaards’ book, Ten Commandments for Church Reform.

Book Review: 

Ten Commandments for Church Reform; Memoirs of a Catholic Priest, by John Wijngaards

The sub-title of John Wijngaards latest book, Memoirs of a Catholic Priest, sums up the contents of this book more accurately than the main title. In it, John tells the story of his life, from his childhood through to the present time, when his is now, in his eighties, actively involved with the Wijngaards Institute, and married to Jackie. It is a fascinating story about a long life lived to the full, a life characterised by an open mind and spirit, all the time learning and changing, leaving behind old ways and attitudes, and taking on new challenges with extraordinary energy.

Though Dutch, he lived most of his early years in Indonesia, and spent from age six to ten in various Japanese run camps during the Second World War. It was a harrowing, but enormously formative, experience. Back in Holland, he joined the Mill Hill Missionaries, with whom he spent the largest part of his life, rising to become Vicar General of the Congregation. He had the lucky chance of doing theology studies in Rome during the early part of the Second Vatican Council, and being friendly with some of the Dutch bishops, he learned about the inner working, the conflicts and divisions, that were going on behind the scene. This experience helped to free him from a traditional Catholic upbringing, and taught him to look in a more critical way at a lot of Church structures, and gradually also Church doctrines. Similar to many of us of that generation, the papal document on birth control, Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul Vl in 1968, was a critical moment. He was convinced from his first reading of it that it was wrong, and it had the effect of bringing to the fore for him the widespread discrimination against women in the Church, a belief that was to play a major part in the future shape of his life. It also helped him to look again at the very rigid notions of sexuality that he got from his parents, and the book has very interesting things to say on that subject.

Many years as a missionary in India gave him new perspectives and new insights, and reinforced his views on the failure of the Church to allow full access to ministry for women, to such an extent that it gradually became an obstacle to his own commitment to ministry as a priest. This came to a head in 1994, when Pope John Paul II published the document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, declaring that women could never be ordained as priests. John decided that he could no longer continue active ministry in such an institution. He applied to the Vatican for release from the exercise of ministry. His book contains some of the correspondence that went on between them, which was of particular interest to me, showing up clearly the sorts of attitudes I met with in my personal dealings with Vatican officials. He eventually got his release, and a few years later he married a woman he had worked with for a good few years, Jackie Clackson, and they are still happily together in their advanced years.

The Wijngaards Institute, which was founded mainly to promote the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, is distinguished for me in its ability to take up an issue of Church teaching, for instance its recent work on the teaching on homosexuality, and to do a thorough scholarly investigation of the topic. This, in a sense, is taking on the Vatican authorities at its own level, and showing up the fallacy of what it is teaching. It is an invaluable service to the future of the Church.

I really enjoyed this book. John is a few years older than myself, but we largely lived through the same era in the Church, and went through the same struggles and questions, ending up in somewhat similar situations. I can highly recommend it.

Finally John, in telling his story, comes up with what he regards as ten essential reforms needed in the Church, which he calls commandments for Church reform.

  1. Allow theologians and other scholars unrestricted freedom of research.
  2. Recognise that a pastoral leader’s first priority is caring for people, not upholding ecclesiastical institutions.
  3. Select perceptive administrators in the Roman Curia, not narrow-minded bureaucrats intent on blocking Church reform.
  4. Appoint open-minded, pastoral bishops, not hard-line traditionalists.
  5. Abandon the misguided repression of sex advocated by St. Augustine.
  6. Grant parents total freedom to plan their families responsibly.
  7. Give women full access to Holy Orders.
  8. Allow priests to benefit from the support of a loving spouse.
  9. Respect and promote the adult dignity of every member of the community.
  10. Update Church doctrine and practice after listening to the advice of independent, competent scholars, pastoral councils, and experienced pastors. 

Ten Commandments for Church Reform: Memoirs of a Catholic Priest, by John Wijngaards. Published by Acadian House Publishing, Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.