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William Oddie: Dynamic, passionate and provocative

The recent death of William Oddie will be sad news for his many friends and former colleagues. A large personality in Catholic journalistic circles, his unmistakeable voice will be widely missed. Whether one agreed or disagreed with him, his articles were always compulsory reading both for their trenchant opinions and their vigour of expression.

From a Nonconformist background, Oddie graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1964 and gained a doctorate from Leicester University in 1970. Despite being a self-styled atheist and secular humanist, he and his wife, Cornelia, married in an Anglican church in 1968. Reflecting on this in 2008 in an interview with Marcus Grodi on EWTN, Oddie said: “There’s something about a building in which people have been praying for 800 years that gets under your skin somehow.”

The couple began to attend occasional Anglican services. Aged 33, Oddie became a Christian. Given his wholehearted approach to life, he immediately felt called to the Anglican priesthood; given his sense of history and his reverence for ritual, this meant Anglo-Catholicism. He was duly ordained in 1978.

Gradually he came to see that the Anglicanism which he had embraced was flawed. Matters came to a head over the decision of the Church of England to ordain women. Oddie left before this happened: “It was a question of authority,” he told Grodi, relating that once, during a celebration of the Eucharist, the question forcibly occurred to him: “What if the Pope is right?” He was received into the Catholic Church in 1991.

Thereafter, Oddie found his true vocation as a journalist, first as a freelance writer for the national press and then, from 1998, as editor of the Catholic Herald. He approached the appointment with his usual gusto, commenting (in his interview with Grodi): “I thought I would have one or two campaigns here.” One of these was to get readers to recognise John Paul II as “the Great”; Oddie admitting that “I sneaked that phrase into editorials whenever I could.”

Labelled as a “right-wing traditionalist” by critics, he made it clear on his appointment that he intended to abandon “the inappropriate language of left and right when writing of Church affairs”. His editorial policy would be “to support and defend papal authority”.

He added that he also hoped to “support and encourage” the English Catholic bishops and that, although he would defend the Herald’s independence, “I do not expect regularly to be confronting them.”

This must have been a relief to the bishops, for Oddie had already presented them with a challenge in the form of his book The Roman Option (1997). In it he had argued forthrightly for Anglo-Catholic parishes – alienated by the General Synod’s vote in favour of ordaining women and now willing to accept the authority of Rome – to be allowed to convert en masse rather than as individuals. As he explained in an article in 1998, headlined “Rejecting the Roman Option”, the bishops, anxious not to offend their Anglican counterparts, swiftly chose not to take up his challenge.

In a tribute to Oddie after he stepped down as editor in January 2004, the present editor described his predecessor as “the best boss I’ve ever worked for”. Defining Oddie’s stance as that of “orthodox realism”, he suggested that Oddie saw “those who … were radically faithful to Catholic tradition” as the “true progressives”. Oddie had demonstrated that “loyalty to the Church does not require sacrifice of the intellect”. A man of “passion and courage”, he was the kind of person who, “if he believed a cause was just, simply leapt on his steed and galloped into battle”.

His colleagues had found him to be “fair, patient, generous and, above all, fun”. Oddie had given the newspaper a new purpose, which he described early on as having to learn how to explain “in the face of considerable hostility, why it is that the Catholic faith truly is a glorious gift of God and not a contrivance of the Devil”. Such an approach, dynamic, passionate and provocative, arrested the Herald’s circulation decline. Praised by his successor as “one of the country’s outstanding comment writers”, Oddie had given the Herald a firm new identity.

Something of Oddie’s approach is contained in his interview with Marcus Grodi: that Catholics should be “subversive” rather than “harmless”. He felt that when Cardinal Basil Hume had been archbishop of Westminster, the Catholic Church in England had become “respectable” and conversion thus became “bad manners”. This was definitely not Oddie’s style. Like St John Henry Newman, whose Apologia Pro Sua Vita had been an important influence on his conversion, he was driven by a search for the truth. As he once put it, “A Church that tells the truth will always be unpopular because the truth is often highly inconvenient.”

Newman was a religious mentor, and Pope John Paul II, as Oddie wrote in his introduction to John Paul the Great: maker of the post-conciliar Church (2003), was “one of the great heroes of the faith … an inspirer in others of the virtues of courage and persistence to the end”. Yet it was GK Chesterton to whom he felt the closest affinity. He was proud to chair the Chesterton Society from 2008 to 2016, and wrote in the Herald in 2005, for a series on Great Catholic Britons, that for GKC “Catholic truth was a glittering sword liberating the captives of rationalism and the servile state.”

In physical size, in polemical energy, in his stances on contemporary affairs and in his sheer exuberance for life, Oddie shared many characteristics of his illustrious forebear in Fleet Street.

After stepping down from the editorship, Oddie took to the Catholic blogosphere with his usual pugnacity and humour. In blogs for the Herald he often championed the ordinariate, which had brought to fruition his hopes for the “Roman Option”. As a disciple of Chesterton he disliked the “quasi-imperialist hegemony” that was the European Union; he was sceptical of climate change crusaders and the Greens; he championed the reform of the liturgy and lamented the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Disarmingly, he also confessed personal weaknesses, such as feeling gloomy at the thought of Lenten self-denial, and his struggle to get rid of books when he and his wife eventually moved to a smaller house.

Perhaps Cornelia, to whom he was happily married for more than 50 years, should have the last word. She describes her husband as “a terrific companion”; they would “regularly fall about laughing” as they shared the cooking. She sees him “as one of the pure in heart. He didn’t have the vices listed in the Catechism, such as envy, lust or avarice. Although he could occasionally be irascible, he was a big-hearted man, someone of great integrity. He understood and had sympathy for the human condition. You couldn’t pigeonhole him. And he would never compromise. He loved Chesterton, good food, reading to our grandchildren, watching television and being at home.”

He leaves her and their three children with “a wonderful legacy of fond family memories”.

Dr William Oddie, editor of the Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004, born on June 1, 1939, died on November 7, 2019

William Oddie In his own words

The Roman Option

“When my book The Roman Option was published last November it was emphatically – indeed, dramatically – rejected by the English Catholic bishops, who within days issued a three-page repudiation … The problem posed for the Church of England by a large dissident minority has not been solved but has grown more intractable. It is a problem to which the English Catholic bishops still have a pastoral responsibility to respond creatively.” Catholic Herald, May 8, 1998

Third World debt

“[Niger] owes a billion dollars it can never hope to repay. It sends this country alone a million a year in interest which means nothing to us but is life and death to many children … if all this is true, why have we not years ago done what the Pope is calling on the world to do by the Millennium: remit all Third World debt?” May 15, 1998

The abuse crisis

“We are going to have to clean up our act in all kinds of ways, and fast; and we have to stop keeping our heads down and learn how to explain, in the face of considerable hostility, why it is that the Catholic faith truly is a glorious gift of God and not a contrivance of the Devil.” October 16, 1998

Pope John Paul II

“In due course, it will be for the Church to declare if this has been the life of one of her saints: but certainly, by any human measure current among his own contemporaries, his qualities have amounted to greatness of the highest order. It is surely hard to believe that that will not be the verdict of history, too.” October 17, 2003

The Latin Mass

“When Mass in the vernacular was first permitted, it was never envisaged that the Church’s international language would be virtually driven out, expunged from the normal liturgical culture of ‘the people of God’. That this has been encompassed deliberately, with malice aforethought, is one of the great scandals of the modern Church.” April 23, 2004

The Green Party

“Let’s do what we reasonably can about the environment: but watch the Greens like a hawk. There is a lot more to them than meets the eye when that attractive and persuasive candidate comes knocking on your door.” catholicherald.co.uk, August 10, 2010

Ordinariates

“They will not be divisive, as some fear; on the contrary, they will be a great blessing for the English Church. But don’t hold your breath: this is all going to take time.” August 13, 2010

The Roman Curia

“The reform of the Roman Curia has to start somewhere. Its communications strategy is probably the place to start. The trouble is that the incompetence of those responsible for the Pope’s public relations can give the strong impression that it is the Pope himself who is out of his depth, even when he very clearly is not.” November 19, 2010

Old age

“’Elf and safety, political correctness, and a whole load of other issues, illegal immigrants on our benefits, the general moral collapse of our society and so on, are (some of them) serious enough: but maybe we need to think a bit more about what’s involved rather than simply relapsing into ‘disgusted, Tunbridge Wells’ mode. I only suggest this because with advancing years I detect this tendency more and more in myself. The danger is that it induces a willingness to believe anything at all which feeds our prejudices.” October 17, 2011