History of The Tablet 6

The Tablet flourished in the Fifties. The circulation had already doubled by the time the war came and in 1950 the average weekly sale was over 13,400, its peak during Woodruff's editorship. In 1951 came the first price rise in more than 110 years: from 6d it went up to 9d! Woodruff thought the war had helped boost the Tablet's circulation and reputation. The paper shortage meant there could only be 16 pages and this cut costs and made journalists write more concisely.

Thirty-nine, Paternoster Row was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1940. Books, papers and copies were lost. The offices moved to Reading for the duration, though Woodruff operated from Marble Arch. Immediately after the war the paper moved to 128 Sloane Street where it remained until the building was pulled down in 1960. Woodruff's final office was at 14 Howick Place, near Westminster Cathedral.

On 5 August 1961 The Tablet's assistant editor, Michael Derrick, died. He had joined in 1938 and Woodruff had relied on him heavily. His talents complemented Woodruff, and he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of matters ecclesiastical.

Then came the Second Vatican Council, the great event of his final years as editor. Woodruff had called for greater openness in church affairs, such as when Rome instructed the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Griffin, to resign as one of the four presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews. He wrote "Decision without reasons are far removed from the spirit of government in this country". He welcomed the inauguration, and his survey of the first session, in the issue of 8 December 1962, was very positive in tone. He attended each session of the Council, providing his readers with regular reports. His conservatism showed itself from time to time but for the most part his welcome seemed sincere. Aware of the tensions that would emerge between those with a pre-conciliar and post-conciliar mentality, his final judgement was not an obvious one: "If a man had to try to compress into one sentence what the Second Vatican Council had done, he could say with most confidence that it has further enhanced and reinforced the already great authority and power of the Pope."

Woodruff rejoiced when his old friend Cardinal Montini became Pope Paul VI in June 1963, but he was to be disappointed. He wrote that "the Church's European past is now being rapidly left behind, as the Statue of Liberty comes into view". Despite all his positive reportage, for him Vatican II destroyed the institution which he had loved from his earliest years.

When Vatican II ended in December 1965, Douglas Woodruff, already well over retirement age, was running a paper with a very healthy circulation and which appeared to have a secure basis in a profitable company, Burns & Oates Holdings. But the holding company was not a success. In 1963 B&O Holdings were making a loss except on B&O Retail and The Universe. The Universe's print order was 300,000, making it the largest selling religious weekly in the world. Its income began to support The Tablet. Worryingly, The Tablet had been the only Catholic paper not to increase its circulation as a consequence of Vatican II. A survey in 1966 found that the readers were in the highest socio-economic category, but no less that 72 per cent of them were 55 years old or more. Burns told Woodruff that the paper was dying on its feet. Burns was Woodruff's heir apparent, but the board had first to persuade Woodruff to retire.

Burns saw a coming crisis and wrote a memorandum in August 1966 that The Tablet should "take stock of its position" and among the consequences of the Council, he particularly mentioned ecumenism. The responsibility and potential influence of the paper, he claimed,

"are greater at this time than at any other in its hundred years of history. If Catholicism in England has emerged from the ghetto, this must not suggest a merge with the surrounding word. Ecumenism is not the last refuge of feeble ecclesiastical minds but a gathering of strength from all the sources and resources of Christian values in face of the ultimate challenge of atheism, in all its expressions in personal and political life.
It is in the matter of this emergence and this ecumenism that The Tablet can now play a leading part. Its new impetus must be, indeed, that of the Church herself as a result of Vatican II. The Church has come to a new self-consciousness: a fresh view of her nature, purpose, and appropriate manner of life".

Late in 1966 Tom Burns, not yet editor, received an anonymous parcel of documents. He realised they must have come from friends on the US weekly, National Catholic Reporter. They were the final report of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth, the outcome of which was a proposal to revise the traditional Catholic teaching on the subject. Burns persuaded Woodruff, who was initially dismissive, to publish the text. Many of the experts were lay men and women, one of whom, Dr Colin Clark, was a director of The Tablet. Unfortunately, when Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae was published in the middle of the following year, many thought that the report had been betrayed.

Woodruff's retirement was announced in 4 February 1967 issue: he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St Gregory the following year.


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