Busted: Timothy Radcliffe, OP

The former Master General of the Dominican Order worldwide discusses freedom, truth, sexuality and healing a polarized Church

As he bounds off the stage in his white friar’s habit into the large audience in an Anaheim Convention Center ballroom, Timothy Radcliffe, OP seems to have the energy of a man half his 63 years. He is away from the stage only momentarily to listen to a question from an audience member before he turns and moves quickly back to reclaim the microphone on the dais and offer his response. In person, Radcliffe gives the impression —at least to American eyes — of a delightfully eccentric and irrepressible British academic who wouldn’t be out of place as a visiting professor at Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts Academy (as one of the “good guys” of course).

That impression is not entirely unfounded. Radcliffe has taught, studied, and continues to live at Blackfriars in Oxford; but his career hasn’t been spent in an ivory tower. This descendant of English wealth and privilege is deeply commited to issues of social justice and peace. For nearly ten years he was the first Englishman to ever hold the position of Master General of the Dominican Order—the Order of Preachers (OP). During those years he lived in Rome but spent most of his time traveling to visit Dominican communities all over the world. As a result, he has a unique, firsthand view of the state of the universal Church that he shares as both a lecturer (where he is in great demand) and an author.

Though some of his views have caused controversy recently especially with regard to homosexuality in the priesthood— Radcliffe’s thoughts on healing our polarized Church through dialogue are an important and persuasive reminder of Catholicism’s universality and dynamism.

BustedHalo: Joy and freedom figure prominently in What is the Point of Being a Christian? Sadly, it might be a revelation to some that joy and freedom are essential components to a Christian’s life. Plenty of religious figures pay lip service to the joy and freedom you speak about, but their claims often ring hollow at best or turn out to be entirely hypocritical at worst. How is the joy and freedom you speak about different? How does one get on the path to finding it?

Timothy Radcliffe OP: A first step is not to take oneself too seriously. If one believes in God, and trusts in His providence, then we can regard ourselves with a certain affectionate amusement. God certainly does! There was a Victorian cartoon showing a wealthy business man, and it said, ‘I used to be an atheist until I realized that I was God.’

Secondly, what is special about Christian joy is that it is not opposed to sorrow. Many people try to live a hearty sort of joy, ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’, which suggests that all is fine. There is a lot of guilt about being sorrowful. It has been established that one of the reasons for so many suicides among the young is a feeling that it is shameful to be sad. But Christianity offers a joy which is large enough for sorrow; it is the joy of Christ which included Good Friday. The opposite of joy for us is not sorrow but hardness of heart, a refusal to be touched by the sorrows and joys of the world.

BH: You were once quoted as saying “Clearly a big challenge for Christianity is how to remain in contact with the millions of people who look for God but do not come to Church.” In many ways that’s our mission here at BustedHalo. How do you propose the Church should do that?

TR: I do think that BustedHalo is a wonderful way of doing that. It really is part of the Church’s mission. We have to be where people are. We have to be where the creative thinkers are—the film writers, poets, novelists, the academics—so that we can engage with them, learning from them as well as sharing our faith with them. The first thing that St. Dominic did was to send his brethren to the great universities, both to study and to teach. We also have to be where the people are who have lost hope. We cannot expect people to come to Church unless we go first to where they are. This is what God did in Jesus, making his home with us so that we could be at home in God.

BH: In a similar vein, you’re quoted as saying that “Christians should accompany people on their pilgrimages. Specifically we should travel with people as they search for the good, the true and the beautiful.” Making that link between the good, true etc and faith is a difficult job, but essential, to my mind, if people will ever recognize God’s presence in their lives. Can you speak a bit about how you’ve made that connection in your own life and do you have any advice for other pilgrims?

TR: One of the greatest people I have ever met was Marie-Dominique Chenu, a Dominican theologian who was a profound influence on the Second Vatican Council. When I lived in Paris, he was 80 years old. Every night he was out at meetings, giving lectures, making friends. He spent time with academics, trade unionists, artists, and he was always learning. Right up to his death he went on seeking. And when we met him in the common room late at night, he would always ask, ‘What have you learned today?’ Every time one meets someone, they always have something to give you, an insight, an experience, a hint of wisdom. And if they see that we are eager to learn from them, then it is likely that they will be open to listen to us. I do believe that the gospel is good news that I want to share with people, but I also know that God is already in their lives, working perhaps invisibly, and so they have something to give to me.

“We also have to be where the people are who have lost hope. We cannot expect people to come to Church unless we go first to where they are. This is what God did in Jesus, making his home with us so that we could be at home in God.”

BH: Can you give us a sense of your own personal background? During my research I found some articles that described you as coming from a “very distinguished” Catholic family in England. Is there a Radcliffe manor somewhere in your history? Or perhaps a few Lords and Ladies (very foreign to us Yanks, but interesting nonetheless!).

TR: My family comes from Yorkshire. The old family home, Rudding Park, was sold twenty years ago and is now a Conference Centre, with a golf course and smart restaurant of the sort that a poor Dominican could not go to! I was sad when we sold since we had been there for almost two hundred years. The head of the family is a Baronet, which is a hereditary Knight, and we have quite a few lords and ladies in the family. But you know, we English are rather shy about talking about all of that! England remains a rather class-divided society. It is one of the things that I love about America, is that you are, to some extent, free of that snobbery, more than we are anyway!

BH: What drew you to the Dominicans?

TR: The Dominicans attracted me because of our motto, Veritas, which means ‘truth.’ When I left school I was deeply Catholic—all my family and friends were Catholicsbut I had never considered becoming a religious. Then I began to meet people who thought that my beliefs were nonsense and so for the first time I asked myself, ‘But is it all true?’ This became an ever more probing question. And then I remembered that there was an Order which had the motto ‘Truth’ and I became intrigued and tracked down the Dominicans, and here I am more than forty years later! I wanted to be a religious more than a priest. I loved the idea of living in community, the shared rhythm of prayer, the brotherhood. Because of my privileged background, I was very attracted to the simple life. I did not initially feel very attracted to the priesthood and partly because I was always uneasy about anything that smacked of clerical superiority. I knew that I was not superior to anyone in anyway, and dreaded being a hypocrite. But I came to love the priesthood when I saw that it was nothing to do with superiority at all. It meant being close to people wherever they were, being beside them and not above them.

BH: Some professors at universities in the United States have commented that there is often open hostility among the faculty toward religion and religious institutions like the Catholic church (even at Catholic schools). Do you get that same sense at Oxford or other European Universities? Any thoughts on why that is?

TR:I would say that the hostility in England is widespread, even if it is usually covered by a façade of English politeness. And it is present in most European countries too. I think that often it is the fruit of ignorance. People think that we Catholics believe all sorts of strange doctrines which are nothing to do with our faith at all. I was at a meeting with England and Italian politicians when Pope Benedict apologized for the some remarks that he had made in a speech which were taken, wrongly, as anti-Muslim. A famous politician asked me whether this meant that Papal Infallibility was over. He really did believe that Catholics thought that every single word any Pope said was infallible, even down to predicting the next day’s weather! So we have to try to let people know what we really believe! Also we have to be less afraid of real discussions within the Church. We must show people that being a Catholic does not mean brain death. The Church always had a wonderful tradition of debate and argument right up until the Reformation. After that time there has been a tendency to think that arguing is disloyal and that we must man the battlements against the enemy. We must relax! The Holy Spirit was poured upon the Church at Pentecost, and so we must be confident that we can face tough questions, risks disagreements, having faith that the Church will not come to pieces. If people outside see more intelligent debate within the Church, then there will be less hostility and suspicion.