Busted: Timothy Radcliffe, OP

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

BH: In your lecture in Los Angeles on polarization within the Church, you characterized the split as a fear of chaos versus a fear of stagnation. The insight that we are a faith that is founded upon conversation/dialogue in the person of Jesus is important, but, unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though some in the Church don’t even want to enter the conversation. How can we transcend this sort of polarization if dialogue itself isn’t possible?

TR: I always reject being characterized myself as either progressive or traditionalist! I think that Catholics must always be both, loving the tradition?Xthe Word of God and the teaching of the Church?Xand also progressive?Xreaching out for the Kingdom of God’s justice and peace. And so one of the first steps, I believe, is just to refuse the labels. They derive from the Enlightenment which was very anti-Catholic. The Enlightenment posited an opposition between tradition, which it believed to transmit the prejudices of the past, and most especially the dogmas of the Church, and progress, which it identified with free rational thought. So you were either for tradition (and dogma) or progress (and rationality). What they failed to see that their own position was also dogmatic! So it is a sort of defeat to accept these labels for ourselves. Secondly, when one meets someone with whom one might have a disagreement, then we must open our hearts and minds to them, get them to talk, and try to learn their language. Yesterday I had a visit from an American seminarian who arrived dressed in full cassock and so on. I was dressed in my usual dirty old trousers, and I wondered how we would manage to talk. My approach is to begin by getting him to talk, to try to enter his way of thinking, his language, his sensibility. And then we can begin a conversation that might make sense to him, and open up a space that is larger enough for what I care about too.

BH: Your extensive travels as the Master of the Dominicans must have given you a sense of what the universal Catholic church looks like. How has that shaped your perception? What do those of us in more developed nations need to know/understand about the rest of the Church? What is their perception of Western Europeans and Americans etc? How can we respond better to both those in developed and undeveloped nations?

TR: It has been a wonderful blessing to have spent most of ten years traveling around Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. We have to ask in every continent what we may learn. Too often we begin by asking what we may give, and it is usually money! Just take Africa. Many countries there are struggling to survive, and are racked by poverty, much of it due to unjust trade barriers imposed by the West, but also with civil war, drought and so on. Often I would make trips to Africa thinking, ‘What can I do to help?’ Usually I came back thanking God for what I had received. Most Africans have a deep faith, a wonderful joy and an extraordinary resilience. I have wonderful memories of sitting in the African night, often in quite dangerous places, and yet my heart filled with joy as I laughed with my Dominican brothers and sisters. Asia is so vast and diverse that it hardly makes any sense to talk of it as a Continent! Pakistan and Japan as different from each other as either are from England or the US! But one thing that is a great gift of the Asian Catholics to us is a certain sort of humility. In every country, except the Philippines, we are a tiny minority, and that teaches us a simplicity and humility that is deeply Christian. I could go on about the other continents too, but given that the Dominicans are in 106 countries, you might get rather bored!

“There is a fear among straight priests of becoming a member of a small minority in what is perceived as a ?gay? vocation. There is a fear among some homosexual priests of being found out, a feeling of guilt and so on. It is not the case that there are just these two groups, homosexuals and heterosexuals. People are complex, and have contrary motions in their hearts.”

BH: You’ve been criticized by some—and praised by others—for comments you’ve made regarding homosexuality, specifically with regard to the priesthood. How do you think this divisive issue could be better approached?

TR: We have to see that behind much of the furor is fear and these fears are comprehensible. There is a fear among straight priests of becoming a member of a small minority in what is perceived as a ‘gay’ vocation. There is a fear among some homosexual priests of being found out, a feeling of guilt and so on. We have to reassure people so that the issue can be faced calmly. If there is a fevered anxiety about all this, then it does not help people mature and face their own complexity. It is not the case that there are just these two groups, homosexuals and heterosexuals. People are complex, and have contrary motions in their hearts. Straight people may be tempted to strangle the little bit of them that responds to people of the same sex and fear gay people. But that is a disguised form of fearing themselves. And gay seminarians may be tempted to deny who they are, adopt an anti-gay rhetoric, and all that is highly unhealthy and deforming. It is important also that someone’s sexual orientation is not the most important thing about them, as if everyone was a sexual maniac, endlessly wanting to get other people into bed. The most important thing about anyone, regardless of whether they are gay or straight, is that they be able to love, and that they are helped to love well, deeply, honestly, transparently.

BH: You’ve mentioned that one of human being’s deepest needs is to be at home. For someone who travels as much as you do, where do you now find that deepest need met?

TR: I travel with a lot of books: my breviary of course, but also novels, poetry, and so on. When I travel, these are sometimes my home. When I go to bed, then I may always be in a different bed, but I am with the same prayers, the same people in my novel, the same poems. Also, of course, I go back home to Blackfriars, Oxford, where I have a lovely community, young and vibrant and that is a great home for me between trips.

BH: You’ve said that “thinking that morality is all about commandments is a relatively new way of thinking, since the Reformation.” What has that thinking evolved from? Is the post-Reformation way of thinking too limiting? What would be a better way to think of morality?

TR: This is a really complex question! A lot of people put the blame on Dun Scotus. Whether that is fair or not, I do not know. He believed that morality is about doing God’s will, however arbitrary that may appear to be, and so we look for laws that tell us what is God’s will, and we obey. If God tells us that we must plant cabbages upside down, then so be it! The Middle Ages had what I think is a healthier approach, which was a morality of the virtues. Let us take the example of murder. The newer morality which came to dominate after the Reformation, based on commandments, would maintain that that we must not murder people because it is forbidden by God. The virtue ethics would form us as people who are in touch with our deepest desires, and these are not to murder people. Of course we need the Ten Commandments, because these help us to be in touch with the deep desires of our God-given nature.

There are a lot of books written recently which have given virtue ethics a new prominence. The most famous North American to write about them is Alasdair MacIntyre in his wonderful book, After Virtue. Morality is about becoming a certain sort of person who finds delight in God and who freely seeks God. It is less about what you do than who you are. Throughout the world there is a return to virtue ethics, especially in the United States, but it has yet to make its way through to popular consciousness.

BH: You’ve commented that “today there is little respect for Christianity as source of moral teaching about goodness.” Why do you think that is? What can be done about it?

TR: Few people will accept to do something just because their local priest or bishop tells them to, especially if he has not gained their respect because of his own honesty or goodness. Authority is not given automatically. It must be won. And this will only happen if people see that we are honest, and that we face the complex issues that our people have to live instead of just proclaiming things from the pulpit as if everything was simple. Secondly, they will only recognize us as having any authority if we recognize them too, and accept the authority which lay people have because of their baptism and experience. Jesus recognized the people whom he met on the road. He recognized Nathaniel under the fig tree, and Mary Magdalene in the garden after the Resurrection. He saw them, and understood them, and so they recognized him. He said to her ‘Mary’ and so she could reply ‘Rabonni.’ If we grant to others what Pope Benedict calls, ‘the look of love for which they crave’, then they will recognize us.