Fr Timothy Radcliffe on the conversations Catholics need to have
What does it take to grow in conversation, even in and perhaps especially difficult conversation? Can contemporary Christianity get past the moralism and step into areas of pain?
Fr Timothy Radcliffe talks to ‘Australian Catholics’ magazine editor, Michael McVeigh. They discuss questions about Catholic identity, education and democracy.
Timothy Radcliffe is a Dominican friar and theologian. He is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He was director of Las Casas Institute for Social Justice at Oxford, where he is now on the advisory board.
Fr Timothy is known for his views on things like homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and the authority of women in the Catholic Church – areas in which he has pushed for open conversation and an embrace of difference – something which has earned him the description of being controversial.
He talks to the Editor of Australian Catholics Magazine, Michael McVeigh. They discuss questions about Catholic identity and teaching, including what it means to grow in conversation, even in perhaps especially difficult complex conversation. How can contemporary Christianity get past moralism and step into areas of pain?
Michael McVeigh (MMV): our Catholic education system here in Australia is very different to a lot of places. We have quite a vast system and that means that there’s sort of different challenges within that. What are some of the things that you’ve been talking with teachers here in Australia about?
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP (TR): One of the topics that often reoccurs is that of Catholic identity. What is a Catholic identity of a school? I look at the whole combination of unity; unity of humanity; and also the whole question of diversity, tension, disagreement, as being an essential part of Catholicism.
Another popular subject has been teaching as an act of friendship. How do you teach? Is it not more warmly imparting of information? How do you teach people to delight in God’s creation? How do you live in friendship with your people? Because that’s an essential part of our tradition. Jesus says, you call me teacher. I call you friend. So, in the whole western tradition, there is the idea of friendship and teaching going together.
MMV: One of the big challenges for schools I think is that idea of Catholic identity. It’s interesting obviously that a few have brought up the situation where you have a school where the majority of students would not be going to church on Sunday. In fact the majority of teachers would not be going to church on Sunday. Even Religion teachers often aren’t people who go to church on Sundays. What are the ten words you would use to describe the identity of these people, even those teaching Religion? Catholic wouldn’t be one of those 10 words. How do we engage people in the church, in a church space, when so many are on the margins or even on the outer in that in that sort of space?
TR: It’s an interesting way of putting it, Michael, and I don’t think that any of the groups that I have met did like that that. But if you look at Jesus, what you find that it’s precisely the people on the margins is interested. So, seeing that there are people on the margins of that church, suspicious of it, maybe afraid of it, finding ways to engage them doesn’t dilute our Christian identity. It’s actually what you find in that foundation of the church in the first place. It’s the old people; it’s the prostitutes, the Pharisees; it’s the critical ones, it’s the questioners and the doubters. I think one of the first things you have to say is, bring us your doubts. Let’s have conversation about them.
I always think the important thing for the church is we will only have authority as a Church If we give authority to people who disagree with us. The great temptation of Western Christianity is being introverted, all obsessed by internal questions, instead of getting excited, as they do in the rest of the world of how you get out there.
I think it’s a great opportunity. We have to overcome some prejudices. One prejudice is that doctrine closes your mind. People like spirituality, not doctrine. This is a complete misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine. It expands the mind. It expands the heart. it challenges you see to think. The point about doctrine is not to stop you from thinking, it is to provoke into thought. That’s always been the case through the whole of history.
Though I’ve seen this as a challenge. The other thing is we have to get beyond the idea that Christianity is basically moralism. I talked to a wonderful young teacher, I said, you teach Religious Education, but what do you do? and she said I tell them they ought to be good. And I said, yes, there was a religion like that, called Pharisees. And it was precisely that moralistic approach that Jesus came into conflict with. for what he talked about was gift, after gift, transformation. He didn’t say you ought to be good. But he did say.Be holy as myfather is holy, But he also welcomed people unconditionally, regardless of whether they were good or not.
MMV: We had a young teacher was working for us he just finished his masters and was talking to some of the other students in his education Masters Course and one of them and they were talking about some issue around sexuality or marriage equality issue. And one of them sort of said well we can’t you know stay away from that in terms of a religious education. We can really go there in the classroom and he is kind of he had a quite of angry response to that. He was saying, well actually this is where the students want to want to be this is where they’re asking the questions. I suppose the challenge is how do we find teachers who aren’t confident in that space themselves, but how do we find confidence in being able to open those kind of discussions up in our classrooms, and not be afraid of all of the different opinions that come through.
TR: If you look at morality, moral issues, ethical issues. We live in a very litigious society, and we think everything is about law. Everything is about what you’re commanded to do, or forbidden to do. Usually you are commanded to do as you don’t want, and forbidden to do what you do. But actually the Christian moral tradition is not about that at all. It’s about is growing in friendship with God. it’s a formation of friendship. The first thing that we have to share I think with our teachers is that Christianity is about growing, Aquinas. Aquinas said, ‘morality is about growing in freedom and happiness’. The freedom and happiness of the children of God. that’s what, training in virtue is about, becoming strong.
It’s is not primarily about obeying rules, anymore than playing football is primarily, you don’t play football in order to obey the rules; you need rules, of course. You couldn’t have a game of football if there weren’t any rules. The point of it is if you obey the rules. It’s the joy of the sport. And so, our moral vision is about growing in joy and freedom. And I think unless we can get that then ever understand what Catholic moral teaching is about.
MMV: I had a conversation last year during the marriage equality debate with a Jesuit philosopher because we work for a Jesuit organisation. and I put to him the question of why is it that the church’s voice just isn’t heard in the marriage equality debate. Why is it that the church’s voice just isn’t heard in the marriage equality debate. As far as the secular world is concerned, the church has absolutely no right to have a say on these issues. His response was, Well in order to have a conversation you have to be willing to listen and to be changed by what you heard. And the perception is that the church isn’t willing to listen and to be changed by what they hear. So how do we become more open to that listening and to being changed and moved in in these kind of public conversations on these issues?
TR: Very interesting. I think you’ve got to listen. If I want to understand the whole issues around homosexuality, let’s listen to some Catholic gay people. Let’s listen to what’s their experience. We’ll never will be listened to unless we listen. And that means when I do theology, I hang around with friends who aren’t Christian. I listen to them and I hope they listen to me. I read novels, and I go to films, not necessarily those written by Christians. Anybody who explores the complexities of human experience; anybody who can help me to understand what it means to fall in love, to fail, to suffer, face death. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian or not. If they are loyal to the complexity of being human, and loving, as a human being, they will help me to understand God, who is love. They will help me to understand Jesus, who is a human being, who is divine. So you just have to get in there, and listen. If we listen, people will listen.I think the biggest challenge we have is to have grown-up conversations.
Francis wants the church to become a community in which there is conversation, at every level. The Bible isn’t God’s voice booming out saying here are all the answers. As Pope Benedict said, Revelation is God’s unending dialogue with his people. This becomes flesh and blood in Jesus, who is a man of conversation. I love the gospel of John. It’s one conversation after another.
So, are we grown up enough to have adult conversations? That means we state our convictions, with courage, but we listen. It means that you never dismiss people who disagree with you as ridiculous, or absurd, or nonsensical. And that you recognise we all have different forms of authority. Blessed John Henry Newman recognised at least three authorities in the church. The authority of tradition, hence the hierarchy; the authority of reason, in the universities, in his case that’s how he saw it; the authority of experience, which is in the whole people of God. So, to have a really good conversation we have to not only talk, not only listen, but realise that different people speak with different sorts of authority.
If we want to talk about Australian cricket, I’ll accept that you have an authority, which I don’t have. Somebody else will talk with authority about how to make cricket bats. A doctor will say, well this is how I would look after the health of my people. And a really good conversation is mutually respectful of the different sorts of involved that people have when they engage in a conversation.
MMV: One of the challenges for this 2020 process, and it’ linked a little bit to that, is that there’s a lot of people who are who haven’t felt heard and haven’t felt that their experience hasn’t been by the church. and I suppose they’re coming from places of long being ignored in that. So there’s a lot of cynicism around. You know when I talk to different people and I kind of have to embrace it encouraging people just you got to be part of it, otherwise you can’t can’t then be unhappy in the outcomes, if you haven’t at least tried. But I do think there’s a need for it. How do we overcome that sort of cynicism or that burden of history particularly on the areas of pain and you know certainly there’s lay people who felt. But there’s also plenty of other people who really been hurt by the church. How do we overcome those kind of those sorts of different areas of pain?
TR: It’s a very slow business. Any healing, if you’ve ever had an operation you know it’s a long time to heal. And the first thing obviously is you have to face it. And be patient, and not defensive. When the church listens to somebody’s pain, the temptation, often from the hierarchy or the priests is to be defensive. But that has to come much later. So first of all, first of all we listen, and this is always the case of the sexual abuse scandal. We have to do a long process. A few apologies are not enough. And a few meetings with survivors are not enough. You really have to be touched by the depth of the pain. The other thing is to speak out can be frightening, as you can feel very alone. So we have to create institutions that help people to do this. One of the great gifts to the church has been institutional creativity.
We’ve created bags of institutions in every century; new congregations, new orders, new forms of teaching, new forms of Mission. We never just sat there saying, well, the hierarchy is the institutional church. We’ve gone out and created new ones. women have created lots of new institutions in the history of the church. People like Teresa of Avila reforms, St Catherine of Siena, and I think what we need to do is to create institutions, which sustain and support people who have something else to say.
I think the church before Vatican Council strangely was more complex. We simplified it. That religious life weakened, and everything became more and more, the hierarchy. The other church is much more complex, with institutions hospitals, universities, religious orders, which had their own freedom. Though we have to create spaces, and places, where people can be sustained and supported in their speaking.
MMV: You’re probably a little bit aware at least of the indigenous people of Australia. They released a what is called the Uluru restatement last year, which was kind of a statement around you know what are their desires, for a desire for representation, a desire for a treaty which doesn’t exist here in Australia. One of the lines that always just haunts me out of that is the torment of our powerlessness. And so it comes from this place of incredible vulnerability, of incredible openness If you like. And yet it was completely and utterly ignored by our government officials.
And so, coming back to that sort of mission of the church and that mission towards the margins or towards the vulnerable, how do we help provide a voice? How do we help build a more compassionate society so that when groups speak out of such openness and vulnerability and who lay themselves out there that they’re listened to and they’re heard in that broader society?
TR: I think is part of a bigger problem. Which is that we are a very centralised society. Power is more and more in the centre. and even in many countries, it is moving towards dictatorship. You know Turkey, China, and Russia, I think it’s partly because in this global world, the forces of international capitalism are such that people try and stand up to them by having powerful states. And I understand that. but the result is that very often there’s a loss of power in a local community of all sort. Indigenous people, but ordinary people. When I think of Oxford. I don’t even know who the mayor of Oxford is, because we’re all focused on the Prime Minister.
So, I think there’s an enormous challenge of democracy we’re facing in which the indigenous people are a very startling and challenging example, but only the most extreme example of a general problem, which is that basically people don’t have much of a voice. Democracy is weakening, and we need to find more at a local level of actually listening to each other. Imagine Melbourne here, how many million of people. What voice does most people think that they have?
Wikipedia – Career of Fr Timothy:
During the mid 1970s Timothy was based at the West London Catholic Chaplaincy at More House, Cromwell Road, London SW7. Timothy Radcliffe taught Holy Scripture at Oxford University at Blackfriars, and was elected provincial of England in 1988. In 1992 he was elected Master of the Dominican Order and held that office until 2001. During his tenure as Master, he was ex officio Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum in Rome.
In 2001, after the expiration of his nine-year mandate as Master of the Dominican order, Timothy Radcliffe took a sabbatical year. Starting in 2002, he became again a simple member of the Dominican community of Oxford and does public speaking.
Timothy Radcliffe occasionally presided at the Mass for gay people at Our Lady of the Assumption, Warwick Street, which Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, recognised as part of the Archdiocese’s mission to gay people.
In 2015 Radliffe was named a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This caused controversy due to statements he had made about the “eucharistic” dimension of homosexual sexual activity. The American television network EWTN dropped plans to cover an event in Ireland at which he was scheduled to speak because of Radcliffe’s participation. A host at the station called Radcliffe’s views “at sharp variance to Catholic teaching.”  Radcliffe had written, “Certainly [homosexual activity] can be generous, vulnerable, tender, mutual, and non-violent. So in many ways, I would think that it can be expressive of Christ’s self-gift.”