Dr. Jack Dominian MBE, 25 August 1929-11 August 2014

Martin Pendergast

An overview of Dr. Jack Dominian’s lifetime’s work, showing how experience of people’s real life problems challenged the very foundations of Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage, was published in 1995. Jack Dominian – Lay Prophet? by Jock Dalrymple, traced how Dominian’s radical work on marriage confronted official teaching and illuminated people’s lives. At Jack’s funeral in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, 28 August 2014, it was proposed that any future editions should now have the question-mark removed!

Dr. Jacobus (Jack) Dominian MBE died on 11 August 2014, aged 84. He was born in Athens to an Armenian Catholic father and a Greek Orthodox mother. The somewhat smothering dominance of his mother was at the root of his lifelong probing of human relationships. In 1941, the Dominians fled from Nazi-occupied Greece to India, where Jack learned English. After the war, they joined their extended family in Lincolnshire. Jack went on to study medicine at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, then at Exeter College, Oxford. Meeting through the Young Catholic Students, his marriage in 1955 to Edith Smith was the beginning, he so frequently declared, of all that he learnt about love and marriage. She edited his books and brought order to his sometimes instinctive and untamed genius. He was devastated when she died in 2005.

Jack spoke discreetly, but unashamedly, about having a vision of Christ during a childhood illness which left him with “a private passion for Jesus”. Deeply religious, Jack held conservative views on marriage and sexuality for many years, but as a consultant to the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now Marriage Care) he found that following Catholic sexual teaching was no guarantee to avoid marital breakdown. This moved him away from a legalistic, contractual view of marriage to one which could only be a relationship of loving partners. He was to become critical of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and of “the gap between the community of love established by Jesus and the reality of the institutional Church”. When proclaiming liturgical readings aloud, those of John the Evangelist on ‘God is love’ would be read by Jack, almost by heart.

Since his youth, Dominian had wanted to become a psychiatrist, but Freudian and other psychiatric theories were far from welcomed by the Catholic Church at that time. Told that if he went into psychiatry, he would lose his faith, he asserted, “If I don’t, I’ll lose my soul!” After postgraduate work at the Radcliffe in Oxford, Stoke Mandeville and the Churchill Hospitals, he studied at the Maudsley Hospital, and in 1963 became the Central Middlesex Hospital’s first Consultant Psychiatrist. Jack recognised that pyschiatrists did not hold all truth, and that input from other disciplines was necessary to support work on marriage and human relationships. His Portakabin-based Marriage Research Centre started with £50.00 in 1971, and in 1988 was transformed into One Plus One, now a leading charity in relationships research and support.

A letter-writer to The Tablet noted that his death “marks the passing of a prophet of our time: a man of holiness, vision and courage who dedicated his life to marriage and human relationships.” (The Tablet, 21 August 2014) Those who followed commentaries on the Catholic Bishops’ 2014 Synod on Marriage & Family, if they shut their eyes, could well have heard Dominianesque phrases tripping off the tongues of episcopal and lay delegates alike. Dominian’s influence on the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales was extraordinary, not least when Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop Derek Worlock sought to open up more pastorally sensitive responses to issues of contraception, divorce and remarriage, and Eucharistic hospitality, at a Vatican Synod in 1980. Hume, for one, claimed that his outlook had been changed by listening to Dominian, even if the Vatican’s hadn’t.

In regular articles for The Tablet, as one of its Trustees, he offered a reconstruction of Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. In 1968, having opposed Pope Paul VI’s reaffirmation of the ban on artificial contraception, he argued that the presence of a genuine love between two people – whether they were married or unmarried, gay or straight – validated sex. The ‘domestic church’ was where the gospel of love was lived out; sex was a couple’s recurrent prayer. It was only in later years that he became more articulate about same-sex relationships. He had not wanted his professional discernment on these issues to get in the way of his primary work on marriage and family breakdown. Nevertheless, I found it humbling that he would seek me out to discuss whether what he was writing about lesbian or gay relationships responded to reality, as I saw it.

Dominian recognised marriage as a relationship that reflected God’s love, but also as a forum of love, forgiveness, affirmation and healing as well as the proper place for children to be brought into this world and brought up in the “domestic Church”. His work profoundly influenced the Church’s attitude to marriage but more importantly developed the preparation of couples for marriage which has been adopted in the UK and elsewhere. Jack was a passionate defender of marriage at a time when scepticism about its value, and even hostility towards it, was becoming fashionable. He was prepared to air uncomfortable truths about the havoc and distress caused by marriage breakdown. But while seeming a traditional figure in the world of psychiatry, he was demonised by many fundamentalist Catholics, treating their wild accusations with humour and occasional disdain.

A man of great vision and wisdom, like so many in his profession he had his own moments of depression, identifying his own personality as neurotic, “but then,” he said, “neurotics can be fascinating to live with.” Wounded healer as he was, much time was given to those who had been damaged by the actions of the Church and the ensuing corrosive guilt which could have led many to suicide. He restored a sense of self to clients, helping them realise that they were profoundly loved and accepted by God.

He wrote that “psychologically, the relationship between the hierarchical structure of the Church and laypersons was a continuation of the parent-child relationship”. He called for Catholicism to “come of age”, especially in relation to the expression of human sexuality within marriage. While he was considered by some to be a thorn in the flesh of the hierarchy, he was loved and admired by many senior figures in the Church. He told friends that the then Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Bruno Heim, would sometimes consult him before recommending men for appointment as bishops. Basil Hume and David Konstant were two of the names he whispered in Heim’s ear.

An early book, Marital Breakdown (1968), was reprinted 17 times. More than 30 books followed, including Proposals for a New Sexual Ethic (1977), Marriage, Faith and Love (1984) and One Like Us (1998), a psychological portrait of Jesus in which Dominian suggested that it was Mary’s nurturing in the early years that enabled Jesus to develop the emotional maturity to be fully human and fully divine. There was shock from more sensitive Catholic quarters when he wrote of sexual intercourse as the sign and fulfilment of the Sacrament of Marriage. He questioned church teaching on a range of ethical issues, including sex before marriage, contraception, homosexuality and masturbation.

Jack Dominian was an early member of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality, now CSCS, and his memory is now honoured by inclusion of his words on our Membership Leaflet: “Why does sexuality matter so much? The Christian faith is based on love, and one of the commonest expressions of this is through sexuality. It is up to the people of God, single and married, to carry on pursuing the search for truth.” His final years were marked by some physical frailty, not least the loss of sight, making him dependent on readers. As a result he withdrew from the many organisations he supported, so that not accumulating piles of journals etc, he would not heap intolerable reading burdens on his carers. We rejoice that we have been graced by his gifts and we pray that, with his beloved Edith, he may indeed rest in peace and rise in glory.

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