Ten Commandments for Church Reform: Memoir of a Catholic Priest
John Wijngaards, Acadian House, September 2021
Dr John Wijngaards, an 86 year Catholic priest and renowned theologian, is launching his memoir and “Ten Commandments” for church reform just as the Catholic Church starts its most significant review process since Vatican II.
This new book documents defects in the Church’s practices that need to be reformed and reveals an insider’s view of the distorted thinking behind many controversial Vatican teachings. It comes at a critical juncture after Pope Francis initiated a synodal process to update the Catholic Church starting in October 2021. This book is a testimony and guide no member of a diocesan synod can afford to ignore.
Throughout the book, Wijngaards highlights what he believes the Church needs to do in order to throw off its medieval cloak: “Hopefully, you will see how these changes for the better will breathe new life into a Church that has been stuck in the Middle Ages for far too long,” he writes in the preface.
If these “ten commandments” prove to be real eye-openers even to reform-minded Catholics, so should the author’s life story be of interest to the reader who simply enjoys an intriguing memoir punctuated with unpredictable twists and turns.
Wijngaards was born to Dutch Catholic parents in Indonesia in 1935. He movingly recounts being interred at a POW camp in Indonesia for four years, beginning at age 6. Then he entered a seminary aged 11, was ordained a priest at age 23, and was studying in Rome when Vatican II was getting under way in the early 1960s. It was then that he observed first-hand how some of the hard-line traditionalists in the Church’s hierarchy would go to great lengths to smother any and all attempts at reform.
He served as a Mill Hill Missionary in India as resident professor at St John’s College in Hyderabad for fourteen years, then for many years on lecture tours throughout India and Pakistan. After being elected Vicar General of the Mill Hill Missionaries in 1976, he helped build up missionary projects across five continents. In 1983, he founded a centre in London which evolved into the world-renowned Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research which coordinates leading academics to publish research projects on issues facing the international Catholic community.
His travels, coupled with his earlier life experiences as a scholar and missionary, helped him to see much of the good the Catholic Church is doing around the world. And while appreciating the good, he also recognized a number of Church teachings and practices that clearly are in need of reform. It is to this cause that he has devoted much of his adult life, as this memoir demonstrates. On the 10th of September this year he received a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the Christians for Biblical Equality for his efforts to have women included in all ordained ministries.
“These ‘commandments’ flow not only from my intimate dealings with the Church as a priest, but from my love and concern for the Church and the people it is intended to serve,” Wijngaards writes in the preface. “I have always had the Church’s best interests at heart.”
As Wijngaards tells his life story, he exposes from first-hand experience the damage caused by presumed ‘doctrines’ and practices imposed by Church leadership. In doing so he gradually unveils suggestions for change: the ten commandments of Church reform. Three issues stand out:
Wijngaards laments the Church’s repression of a healthy appreciation of sex. He details the wounds in his own life and of people in his care: “The insidious Catholic obsession with sex and hostility to sex is like an octopus. Hiding under clever guises of pious camouflage, the octopus of sexual repression wreaks havoc with its many strangling arms.” He makes a strong appeal for the Church “to abandon the misguided repression of human sexuality advocated by St. Augustine in the fifth century.”
Another major issue, Wijngaards demonstrates, is the fact that church leaders still treat the laity as children. But in today’s world people have become autonomous. They are used to thinking for themselves” “It is easy to be authoritarian, to tend a herd of submissive and passive sheep. It is far more demanding to guide people towards true spiritual self-reliance and allow them full co-responsibility in the way parishes and dioceses are run.”
Last not least, he denounces the attempt to stifle all critical voices. Only arch-conservative yes-men are chosen to be bishops. Theologians who express doubts about the official line proclaimed by the Vatican are threatened with dismissal from their teaching posts at Catholic seminaries and colleges. Disagreement with the ‘teaching authority’ is labelled as dissent or even heresy.
Acadian House, a US publisher in the general trade, also specialises in books that promote spiritual well-being. It is managed by third order Franciscan Trent Angers, an award winning journalist and editor. The book can be ordered through Amazon and is available in bookshops in the USA and the UK.
The accounts in the book are illustrated with many black-and-white photographs. Wijngaards has left us with a prophetic testimony which clearly outlines key requirements to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world.
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