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John Wilkins obituary

By Stephen Bates
John Wilkins was determined that the Tablet should not be the unquestioning voice of Rome.
John Wilkins was determined that the Tablet should not be the unquestioning voice of Rome. Photograph: Brendan Walsh

John Wilkins, who has died aged 85, was the leading secular British Roman Catholic commentator of the last 40 years.

As editor of the weekly Catholic magazine the Tablet, one of the oldest periodicals in the country, for nearly 22 years between 1982 and 2003, he was quite capable of infuriating the Vatican and the church’s more strident conservative polemicists with criticism of its reactionary stances on issues such as birth control, the place of women in the church, and ecumenism. Cardinal Basil Hume, the former leader of the church in England and Wales, once accused him of promoting a rival magisterium (church teaching).

But his critics, reputedly from the pope down, all found they had to read what the Tablet said for informed and influential thought, always courteously and usually incisively expressed, on church and secular politics, international events and the arts. He tripled the circulation of a previously ailing publication, which during his editorship was read in more than 100 countries and even found nearly a fifth of its readership outside the Catholic Church.

As the former Tory chairman Chris Patten, an occasional contributor, noted in a 1997 interview, the Tablet contained “a disproportionate number of articles which have made me feel better informed, highly entertained and even cross”.

The magazine’s trustees contained some of the most eminent Catholics in British public life, including at various times Hugo Young, a former Guardian columnist; the former cabinet secretary Lord Hunt; William Rees-Mogg; and Graham Greene. Writers from across the religious and political spectrum, including myself, wrote for the Tablet, charmed by Wilkins into contributing despite the minuscule fees and the sometimes remorseless editing of their copy. His obsessiveness turned the magazine into a smart-looking and incisive product.

He was a small, almost gnome-like 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 on Wilkins’s retirement, Young wrote that he had turned the Tablet into arguably the most influential Catholic weekly in the world, not by flailing against all authority but by retaining its independence.

Contrary to the view of some in the hierarchy, Wilkins was determined that it should not be the unquestioning voice of Rome. Young wrote that Wilkins was “a friend of the church but not its slave, an ally but not one subornable into believing that criticism amounted to disloyalty”.

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

He did not start out a Catholic. Born in Bristol, he was the eldest of three children of Anglican parents, Ena (nee Francis) and Edward Wilkins, who ran a small factory making knitting needles.

He won a scholarship to Clifton college, 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 at the ecumenical journal Frontier in 1964.

It was there that Wilkins converted to Catholicism, inspired by the reforms initiated by the 1960s second Vatican Council to open the church to the wider world rather than remaining a theocratic gerontocracy hostile to modernity and demanding unquestioning obedience. The council remained his inspiration even as the theocrats, most notably Pope John Paul II, reasserted control.

Wilkins first joined the Tablet in 1967, becoming assistant editor before moving to the BBC external services five years later and working as a producer for Radio 4. He returned to the magazine as editor in 1982, making clear in his first editorial that the Tablet would address itself to the full range of Catholic opinion. “Our concern is with the world as much as the church, with everything that is human. We shall seek to inform and interpret as well as to comment,” he wrote.

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

Wilkins was appointed MBE in 1998. He retired as editor in December 2003, succeeded by Catherine Pepinster, but retained close links with the magazine.

An editorial in the Tablet following his death said Wilkins had wanted to keep the church’s debates open so that the influence of a less rigid kind of 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 a red one.”

Wilkins is survived by his younger sister, Angela.

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

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