The August bulletin at Sacred Heart Church in Coronado contained a photo and announced the appearance of the former master general of the Dominican order on Saturday, Sept. 20 with these words:
“It is our privilege to welcome Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP to Sacred Heart for this very special event prior to leading our Diocesan Priests convocation…. He is the author of several best-selling books that exhibit the subtlety of his thinking, the simplicity and depth of his language….”
On July 9 a story ran in California Catholic about Father Richard Perozich, a San Diego diocese pastor who announced to his parishioners at St. Mary’s in Escondido, “This year at our [San Diego diocese priests] convocation, they’ve invited a man named Timothy Radcliffe. He was the head of the Dominican Order, a Catholic priest. He’s been promoting homosexuality for years. Guess who’s not goin’? And guess who might get in trouble for it? But guess who doesn’t really care….” Father Perozich became pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Old Town (San Diego) this summer.
Besides the appearance in Coronado and the priests’ retreat, Father Radcliffe has been invited to present a Religious of the Sacred Heart Lecture at the University of San Diego on Monday, Sept. 29.
The following comes from an article by James Hitchcock published in Catholic World Report in October, 2006. See Father Radcliffe’s response at the end and Hitchcock’s rejoinder. Hitchcock was professor of history at St. Louis University from 1966 to 2013.
The False Prophet
The annual Los Angeles Religious Education Conference claims to be the largest such gathering in the United States, and year after year it has featured speakers who either openly reject certain Catholic teachings or undermine them indirectly, with only occasional presentations of an unambiguously orthodox position.
But in 2006 the conference featured a keynote speech by Father Timothy Radcliffe, former Master General of the Dominican Order, who offered a way out of what he called unnecessary and destructive divisions in the Church. The talk was hailed by the editor of the National Catholic Reporter as a prophetic landmark. (Radcliffe’s talk, “Overcoming Discord in the Church,” appeared in the May 5th issue of NCR.)
Categories of “left and right, liberal and conservative” are alien to Catholic thinking and come from the Enlightenment, according to Radcliffe, who instead distinguished two kinds of Catholics, both of whom are necessary to the Church. Kingdom Catholics are on the way to the Kingdom and are open to grace outside the Church, seeing the world in hopeful terms. They include the theologians Gustavo Guttierez, Edouard Schillebeeckx, and Karl Rahner, as represented in the publication Concilium. On the other hand, Communion Catholics emphasize the integrity of Catholic identity and often invoke the Cross, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Benedict XVI, and the journal Communio.
Insofar as Radcliffe attempted to deal with specific issues they were relatively superficial ones — disagreements over the Latin liturgy and nuns’ habits. Beyond that he approached Catholic divisions in psychological terms, as manifesting different “needs” that particular people have, especially the desire to live with people like themselves. He resolved these tensions by urging his hearers to “trust our imaginations” in order to understand “why others think and feel as they do,” since each group’s way of thinking offers them peace and “a place to be at home.”
Quoting a therapist named Mindy Thomson Fullilove, Radcliffe described a “root shock” that is detonated by the recognition that one’s community and whole system of values might be at stake, something that leaves people “chronically cranky, barking distinctive croaking complaints that their world was abruptly taken away,” each side blaming the other, a problem that Radcliffe thinks is especially serious in United States.
In arguing that “dialogue” is integral to Catholicism, Radcliffe offered a novel interpretation of the Last Supper — that the sharing of the bread was “centripetal” (“take and eat”) and the offering of the cup was “centrifugal” (“for you and for many”) — a separation of the two elements of the Eucharist that seemed to imply that the host should be given only to Catholics but the chalice offered to everyone or, even more strangely, that Christ shed his blood for everyone but offered his body only for some.
In the title “Roman Catholic,” according to Radcliffe, the word “Roman” represents the narrower identity and the word “Catholic” the wider one, a distinction that has no standing in historic Catholicism and in fact expresses the ecclesiology of the Eastern Orthodox and others who reject the primacy of the bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church regards the Roman primacy not as something merely provincial or territorial but as supporting the Church’s claim to universality.
In approaching the divisions in the Church primarily in terms of psychology, Radcliffe seemed to reduce doctrinal disputes to misunderstandings often arising from ill will. Responding to the Vatican’s document on homosexuals in the priesthood in 2005, he claimed that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith “has often given tendentious interpretations of the writings of theologians,” while “theologians in turn give the most negative possible interpretation of Vatican documents,” a claim that seemed to impugn the integrity of the future Pope Benedict XVI during his years as head of the CDF.
A Stance Alien to the Dominican Tradition
The division between “left and right” that Radcliffe deplored is largely between those who emphasize continuity with the past and those who promote a continuous series of “breakthroughs” to a brighter future, and his own stance seems to make it almost impossible for him to make sense even of his own Dominican tradition. “In the Dominican approach you try to come to a common truth you can both agree on. We don’t aim for victory. We aim for community,” he told an audience at a Dominican high school in Chicago in 1997, a claim that is incomprehensible to anyone familiar with Dominican history.
Elsewhere he cited the Dominican founder, St. Dominic Guzman, to justify respect for the human body, because Dominic established his community in order to oppose the flesh-hating dualism of the Cathar heresy. Radcliffe, however, did not remind his audience of the inconvenient fact that the new order did so both through an aggressive kind of preaching that hardly qualified as “dialogue” and by using the coercive powers of the Inquisition, for which Dominicans continued to have primary responsibility for centuries. (Some Dominicans were also among the leading witch-hunters of late medieval and early modern times.)
An old pun called the Dominicans “the dogs of the Lord” (Domini canes), anticipating the modern liberal jibe at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as a “rottweiler,” and, while popular philosophical relativism insists that “things are never black and white,” the stark black and white contrast of the Dominican habit has often been taken as expressing the rigor of the Dominican mind, a rigor quite foreign to Radcliffe’s own way of thinking.
In Los Angeles he cited St. Thomas Aquinas merely as a theological innovator, adding, “I have to bring him in. I know my duty as a Dominican,” a joke that in fact had serious meaning, since Radcliffe seems uncomfortable with the kind of rigor that the Thomistic tradition represents. On another occasion the former Master General told a joke whose punch line was, “You must be Dominican, because what you say is absolutely true and utterly useless,” a jibe often made with serious intent by those who regard classical dogmatic theology as irrelevant.
In Los Angeles Radcliffe asserted that, “We build a home for God through dialogue,” but Aquinas engaged in “dialogue” only to the extent of expounding positions other than his own in order to refute them and to arrive at precisely the kind of “victory” that Radcliffe eschews. The Thomistic tradition has never held that the purpose of theology is to arrive at “community” in the sense that Radcliffe seems to mean it, and his formula represents at best sloppy thinking — there is common belief or common opinion but no such thing as “common truth,” if by that is meant truth that is arrived at by consensus.
Significantly, in his various speeches, rather than citing Aquinas, Radcliffe is more likely to quote Meister Eckhart of Hochheim, a medieval Dominican whose orthodoxy was in question both in his own time and later, largely because his writings are so opaque that their meaning is often uncertain. (Radcliffe quotes Eckhart’s typically enigmatic pronouncement, “Stand firm and do not waver from your emptiness. We do not pray, we are prayed.”)
Radcliffe claims that, although the idea of dialogue is seen as “liberal,” it is in reality a Catholic idea, growing out of “conversations” among the persons of the Trinity. He notes that the origins of the dialogue lie with Plato and cites a few Christian examples, but it was a form of theology never widely adopted by Christian theologians as an appropriate way of pursuing truth. Jesus nowhere differed more dramatically from Socrates than in the fact that “he taught as one having authority.”
Radcliffe’s formula for overcoming divisions, as he expounded it to his Los Angeles audience, is to “transcend disagreements by going to a level where you get beyond them,” but nowhere in his talk did he even hint at how that might be achieved. While the Dominican intellectual tradition always placed great emphasis on the precision and clarity of its terms, Radcliffe habitually employs a sweeping rhetoric of dramatic phrases whose meaning is seldom clear. Decades-old battles over liturgy, for example, are dismissed with the simple formula that it is possible to regard worship simultaneously as both a gift and as something created by the worshippers, without even one concrete example of how that might work.
A kind of romantic popular existentialism, loosely derived from Eckhart, is Radcliffe’s characteristic mode of discourse, as in “We have no word which can offer meaning to people’s lives, unless we have been touched by their doubts, and glimpsed the abyss . . . We too are torn open and stretched out . . . hollowed out, opened up . . .” Terms like “suffering,” “passion,” “doubt,” and “self-emptying” are strewn throughout Radcliffe’s exhortations, in ways that are both hazy and self-dramatizing.
In a 1997 letter to the Dominican Order, Radcliffe denounced “the fundamentalism of today” (a term liberals now use to discredit orthodox believers) as “perhaps the frightened reaction of those who stood on the edge of that desert, but did not dare to endure it. The desert is a place of terrifying silence, which we may try to drown out by banging out old formulas with a terrible sincerity,” a diagnosis that showed his lack of respect for the “conservatives” with whom he professedly wishes to reconcile.
The Theology of Self-Congratulation
But it is a diagnosis very flattering to liberals, since by implication Radcliffe and those who are not “fundamentalists” have themselves journeyed into this desert and endured it, thereby revealing themselves to be moral and religious heroes. If traditional Catholicism denounced unbelief and personal sin, Radcliffe’s manner of preaching implicitly condemns people in an even deeper and more serious way, telling them in effect that they are not truly human — too timid, selfish, or cowardly to reach the “depths of being” that the Gospel allegedly demands, a condemnation rendered even more vexing because most of his hearers probably do not even understand what is being required of them, much less how they could achieve it.
The liberal religious world that Radcliffe inhabits, far from manifesting doubt and suffering, thrives on self-congratulation, and he is adept at the kind of gesture guaranteed to resonate with that audience. Thus while listening to an anti-male diatribe by the feminist nun Joan Chittester, he kissed her on the cheek and “the crowd went wild,” according to NCR correspondent John Allen Jr., a fervent Radcliffe admirer.
Almost as though he finds the Thomistic devotion to logic itself oppressive, Radcliffe’s utterances are full of inconsistencies, even contradictions, that, as in his vague “resolution” of liturgical disputes, he makes no effort to explain. Thus while identifying the desire to associate with people like oneself as a root cause of division in the Church, in addressing fellow Dominicans he extols the closest possible community life. Allen quotes him as telling his brethren, “If we test what we say against the reality of other people’s lives, then maybe our homilies will be more modest. The temptation of preachers is to make great and vague claims that must make our hearers smile to themselves.” But his own exhortations are grandiose — seemingly addressed to would-be mystics and connoisseurs of spirituality — and have no obvious relevance to most people’s daily lives.
The divisions that Radcliffe deplores in American Catholicism might at least be taken as a sign of a certain vitality, but in a letter to his brethren in 1998 he rationalized the steep decline of religious practice in Europe by speculating that “Perhaps in some countries the churches are empty because the preaching of the Gospel is experienced as an exercise in control rather than the expression of God’s boundless love.”
Since the churches are not empty in the United States, this diagnosis seems logically to imply that such “control” is not present in America, something he surely does not believe. Few accounts of Radcliffe fail to recall that he comes from an old aristocratic English family. But left-leaning ideology has long been compatible with a certain kind of social snobbery, and he seems to share the aristocratic disdain for the United States characteristic of even many conservative Englishmen, as when he pronounced in Chicago that “Americans have a money-driven culture. It can help you flourish or be devoured. American religious must refuse to let themselves get caught up in the culture of greed,” another provocative pronouncement not subjected to analysis. Is greed absent in Europe, in socialist societies, or in the Third World?
The “profundity” of Radcliffe’s rhetoric appeals especially to self-consciously enlightened people who disdain what they consider the dreariness of Western materialism and who romanticize non-Western cultures in ways that also resist critical thinking. Thus he cites a Dominican who became a Catholic after “seeing an elderly brother tenderly pouring a glass of water for a sick brother,” as though only Catholics (or vowed religious) do such things. He offers as profound wisdom the alleged remark of an old Eskimo woman, who, when asked why her people’s songs are short, replied, “because we know so much,” a comment that seems to require the higher levels of Zen enlightenment to make it comprehensible. At the Chicago high school he cited an Asian monk who “discovered Christ in the Buddhist tradition,” without explaining how that might have happened.
Before he offered himself as the prophet of reconciliation in the Church, Radcliffe’s own history for the most part placed him firmly on the “liberal” side of the divide, although he did on one occasion express doubts as to whether women should be ordained to the priesthood. (But in 2002 he told an organization of British priests that arguments for a married priesthood “are extremely strong, perhaps overwhelming.”) As head of the Dominicans he was scarcely a model of the collegial exercise of authority that liberals extol — in 1997, while serving as Master General, he vetoed the election of Father Augustine DiNoia as provincial of the Eastern province of the Order in the United States. (DiNoia, a noted theologian, went on to become secretary of the American Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and is now under-secretary of the CDF.)
Virtually all the evils Radcliffe identifies in the world are the favored causes of enlightened liberals. Thus he has spoken of the “pain” of women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities, stressed “human rights, nuclear disarmament, AIDS, and ‘a deep inward spirituality'” in his speech at the Chicago high school, and at the 1999 Synod of Bishops identified “women, the poor, the divorced, those who have had abortions, prisoners, people with AIDS, homosexuals, and drug addicts” as the groups to whom the Church should extend hospitality. Contrary to empirical evidence, he has predicted that those religious orders will grow that “learn to collaborate with women and be open to other cultures.”
But it is especially on the crucial subject of homosexuality that Radcliffe is not above the partisanship that he deplores. Characteristically, his ultimate wisdom about sexuality is that Catholics must get beyond familiar disputes by coming to understand it in the light of Christ’s words, “this is my body,” without explaining what he means, and he offers the equally vague exhortation “to allow our appetites full rein in a greater appetite for God.” (Does a strong bodily appetite lead to God? If so, how does it do so? Are persons with weak appetites farther from God?)
In a letter to his brethren while serving as Master General, he defined love as “friendship that invites us to see the other without seeking to possess them . . . We delight in them without seeking ownership,” something he contrasted with the “culture of the market,” as though it is possessiveness that is the root of modern sexual disorders rather than an unwillingness to make commitments, a casual attitude that permits only fleeting relationships and recommends an “open” view even of marriage.
In the same letter he recalled that the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton once fell in love with a young woman, and he quoted Merton’s biographer as saying that the experience gave Merton “an inner liberation . . . a new sense of sureness, uncautiousness, defenselessness in his vocation and in the depths of himself,” qualities all of which are important to Radcliffe’s own description of human authenticity. But in typically confusing fashion, he immediately assured his brethren that he was not saying that such an experience was “a necessary step on the road to spiritual development,” even though the biographer explicitly claimed that it had made Merton both a better person and a better monk.
If the Master General was not saying that an experience like Merton’s is necessary, he also did not definitively pronounce it wrong and it was not evident why he was even citing it. Such a thing could do damage, he warned, but it was better to risk an occasional scandal rather than to have “a monastery full of dead men.” (Traditional spirituality taught that monks and nuns were “alive” in proportion to their closeness to God and that sexual relationships impeded this.)
Radcliffe did as much as anyone to “deconstruct” the Vatican’s 2005 document on homosexuals in the priesthood, “interpreting” it publicly even before it was officially released. Homosexuals, he asserted, were among “the most dedicated and impressive priests whom I have met” and should in no way think that the document classified them as defective. Having a permanent homosexual orientation could not be considered a barrier to the priesthood, and asking candidates to be candid about themselves would only force them to be devious. He acknowledged that the Church has an obligation to scrutinize religious vocations but also managed to say the opposite: “It is not for us to tell God whom he may or may not call to religious life.”
Radcliffe was sharply critical of the remarks of Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of the American military vicariate, who said that homosexuals do not belong in the priesthood, and he made the remarkable admission that he was unfamiliar with the concept of “spiritual fatherhood” and did not see how it had any connection with gender or sexual orientation, a claim basic to feminists who refuse to call God “Father.”
Radcliffe endorsed the Vatican’s strictures against priests involved in the homosexual sub-culture, warning his men against frequenting homosexual bars or otherwise participating in public affirmations of sexual identity, because that would be to celebrate as central what ought not to be. But this apparent acknowledgement of the wisdom of the Church’s official position in fact undermined it in a fundamental if rather subtle way, because he immediately added a warning against participation in a “macho” sub-culture of heterosexuals, a warning that placed both “lifestyles” on an equal moral footing and repeating the common homosexual claim that sexual identities are not fixed or stable.
His exhortation to his brethren to lead chaste lives involved a fallacy basic to homosexual ideology, since it avoided the fact that, according to Catholic teaching, vowed religious refrain from marriage as the sacrifice of a good for the sake of Christ, whereas homosexual actions are sinful and can never be legitimate. If religious should be chaste because of their vows, Radcliffe left open the crucial question whether lay homosexuals have a right to engage in such actions but curiously remarked that “Sometimes we receive requests from brethren for dispensations because only late in life have they realized that they are fundamentally heterosexual and so able to marry,” a statement that seemed to imply that a religious would remain in his community so long as he thought himself to be homosexual but would leave once he realized that he was “able to marry.”
Radcliffe also warned his brethren against “sub-groups” based on sexual identity, because they divide religious communities, a warning that seemed to acknowledge that homosexuals are much more than a small minority in religious life and implies that heterosexuality is not to be considered normal but merely representative of another divisive special-interest group.
While Radcliffe’s ideas about the morality of homosexual acts remain cloudy, he has been unambiguous on the political dimensions of the question — “. . . all priests must be prepared to side with gay people if they suffer oppression, and must be seen to be on their side.” Homosexual “marriage,” he admitted, is a complication, since some people see its prohibition as discrimination, whereas in Catholic teaching it is not. His resolution was that “if one becomes involved in any opposition to discrimination, then one is liable to be misunderstood. It is a risk one must sometimes take,” but he did not explain what this means in regard to homosexual marriage — whether priests should oppose it and risk being thought “homophobic” or support it and thereby reject Catholic teaching.
He has had little to say about the scandals of clerical sexual abuse, except to claim that the Dominicans have not been much affected by them, but in Los Angeles he warned that “this environment of accusation, in society and in the Church, contributes to an uncomfortable climate” and identified accused priests as among the people the community needs to welcome.
A Convenient Formula for Unity
After the Los Angeles meeting, Tom Roberts, editor of the NCR, “wanted to stand up and cheer” Radcliffe’s call for the healing of divisions, a reaction that itself confirmed that the Dominican’s proposal did not rise above partisanship. For over forty years the NCR’s very reason for existing has been to promote dissent from the official teachings of the Church and, judging by the long columns of letters from readers, the paper primarily appeals to people who have an almost incandescent hatred of ecclesiastical authority and an animosity towards everything Catholic that dates from before 1960.
Although there is much talk about “pluralism” and “freedom” in the pages of the NCR, in fact it recognizes only one acceptable view on such subjects as birth control, the ordination of women, priestly celibacy, and homosexuality — the “hierarchical Church” is wrong and the dissenters right, and it is wicked not to acknowledge that fact. Thus if the paper were to transform itself according to some formula for reconciliation, it would have to become a radically different kind of publication.
Roberts’ only attempt to deal with this dilemma was, ironically, to claim in effect that liberals have been too conservative, employing a “pre-conciliar ecclesiology” that has left people feeling “steamrollered.” He admitted to no substantive mistakes and signaled that “reconciliation” would mean merely pursuing the same agenda in somewhat more diplomatic ways.
A month before publishing Radcliffe’s call for mutual forbearance, NCR’s editors published an editorial titled “Unity, yes, but not at any cost,” sternly warning Benedict XVI not to reach an agreement with the schismatic followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, because the Lefebvrists claim a “right of dissent” and the pope was to “make it crystal clear that the price of admission is assent to Vatican II, whole and entire.” Since NCR’s very existence is predicated on the right of dissent and it rejects any number of the teachings of Vatican II, the editorial might be thought to have been written with tongue in cheek, but it clearly was not.
Roberts’ grudging admission, a month later, that liberals may have sometimes dealt with conservatives insensitively also revealed what may be the motive for this call for reconciliation. Liberals, he said, can now understand what conservatives have felt since Vatican II, because they themselves now feel aggrieved by a new spirit of retrenchment emanating from the Vatican. For decades those who resisted the liberal agenda were ignored or marginalized as mere obstructionists, but a “counter-reformation” from Rome (if in fact such is occurring) requires that liberals now employ different tactics.
The principal way by which Radcliffe proposed to “transcend” differences is by decreeing that they no longer matter. The Kingdom is coming “and we will reach the home for which we long. Even though every bishop in the world belonged to Opus Dei,” he assured his Los Angeles audience, adding for the comfort of the orthodox that the ancient Church did not collapse even though many bishops were Arians.
However, the Church has always held that souls are lost as a result of false teachings, so that the struggle must go on in every age, and logically Radcliffe would have to see the founding of his own Dominicans as a tragic mistake, based on the erroneous notion that it was necessary to oppose heresy aggressively. By explaining such divisions in terms of psychological insecurities, he implicitly denied that there are any real threats about which people can and ought to feel anxiety.
The role that he proposed for himself in Los Angeles was not something new but one that has been familiar since Vatican II — that of the “moderate” who is really an “enabler” (in the useful term of Alcoholics Anonymous), someone who does not directly espouse heterodox ideas but minimizes the issues to the point where they lose their significance. Radcliffe is correct that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are not properly applicable to religion, but they have come into common use because the appropriate terms — orthodox and heterodox — are no longer permitted. Those who are called liberals indignantly demand the right to define orthodoxy in any way they see fit, while those who attempt to defend orthodoxy are denounced for fomenting division. Radcliffe’s formula for unity is thus merely a restatement of one side of the division.
The various strands in Radcliffe’s way of viewing the Church coalesced in Los Angeles in an exhortation that, perhaps quite consciously, departed radically from Christian orthodoxy and contravened almost everything that the Dominican tradition itself has historically stood for. The way to unity, he explained to those whose vocation is to teach the faith, is to respect “fellow seekers, people who are also searching for God in their own way . . . Since they too are on a journey, even if they seem to be walking in the opposite direction.”
Editor’s note: In the October issue of CWR, “The False Prophet” by James Hitchcock appeared. The article critiqued Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe. Father Radcliffe has sent a reply to CWR. It appears below, along with a response from James Hitchcock.
Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP:
James Hitchcock denounces me in his article “The False Prophet.” I am not sure why he has done this. The sole purpose of the article appears to be to discredit me, an exercise which does not smack of Christian charity.
His wrath was provoked by a lecture that I gave at Los Angeles earlier this year, in which I urged the importance of overcoming polarization within the Church. However unhappy Professor Hitchcock may be with my theological position, I would have hoped that at least he would share this aim, but he only suggests that these divisions “may be taken as a sign of a certain vitality.” Divisions that lead to debate in the shared search for the truth would indeed be signs of vitality, but divisions that provoke mere denunciation, as in his attack on me, are just a sign that the Body of Christ is wounded.
This is central to a Catholic understanding of Christianity. The Church is called to be a visible sign of unity in Christ and thus, according to Lumen Gentium, a sign of the unity of humanity in Christ. Most forms of Protestantism do not stress the fundamental priority of unity in this way, which is why Protestantism, from the beginning, has been so fissiparous. I am therefore surprised that someone who clearly treasures Catholicism seems so little concerned to overcome division. I have no desire to denounce the Professor. I would hope that we could have courteous discussion in which we could learn from each other. I must, though, first defend myself against some of his accusations.
Professor Hitchcock tries to discredit me in a rich variety of ways. First of all he states several times that I use vague language, “filled with inconsistencies and contradictions.” It is true that the principal document to which he refers, the speech at Los Angeles, does not have academic rigor. It was not an academic lecture but the introduction to a workshop and was designed to initiate debate. But even so I must say that he is remarkably vague about my vagueness and inaccurate about my inaccuracies.
He quotes me as saying in Los Angeles that we must “trust our imaginations.” But this phrase does not occur in the speech. In an article in The Tablet on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries he quotes me as first saying that the Church has the duty to scrutinize vocations and argues that I then contradict myself by writing, “It is not for us to tell God whom he may or may not call to religious life.” I have reread the article three times, and I cannot find that phrase there. Anyway, there would be no contradiction between asserting that God is free to call whom he wishes to the priesthood and asserting that the Church must carefully discern who has indeed been called. He accuses me of using the language of “romantic popular existentialism” and gives as examples my use of words like “suffering,” “passion” and “self-emptying.” The first two words are central to the gospels and the last is taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Professor Hitchcock accuses me of being more a follower of Meister Eckhart than of St. Thomas Aquinas. He finds evidence of this in my speech in Los Angeles when I say, concerning St. Thomas: “I have to bring him in. I know my duty as a Dominican.” I did not say that. I actually said, “Think of St. Thomas Aquinas. As a Dominican I often do.” Hitchcock seems incapable of making an accurate quotation. Much as I admire Eckhart, I am far more indebted to St. Thomas.
In my latest book, What is the point of being a Christian?, I quote St. Thomas 37 times, and Eckhart only five times. He mentions that Eckhart’s orthodoxy was questioned “in his own time and later” but the present Holy Father, when he was Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith, reassured the Dominican Order that no doubts were now held as to his orthodoxy. Hitchcock claims that Eckhart is an enigmatic thinker, and tries to show this by referring to a quotation he claims to have found in my writing. In fact it is the amalgamation of two different quotes, taken from different talks. No wonder it appears to be incomprehensible.
Professor Hitchcock attacks me because of my use of psychological terms. In fact I share his concerns about the frequent psychologization of theology. What I am proposing is quite different, which is the hard labor of understanding people who think differently from oneself. This is a moral, intellectual and Christian duty and one that he has failed to exercise in his reading of my writings.
He attacks as contrary to the Dominican tradition my conviction that argument should be about attaining consensus. This has been stressed not just by me but my two predecessors as Master of the Order, Vincent de Couesnongle and Damian Byrne. Searching for consensus has nothing to do with fuzzy compromise, but is part of an exigent search for the truth. The whole point of the medieval disputatio was to try to reach agreement by analyzing one’s opponent’s position and trying to clarify his ideas by distinguishing between the senses in which his propositions are or are not true. This pursuit of consensus is rigorously logical.
Professor Hitchcock believes that despite my rhetoric about overcoming divisions in the Church I am really just a liberal in disguise. He invokes as evidence of this the fact that I did not confirm the election of Father Augustine DiNoia as provincial of the Eastern province of the Order in the United States. This is a terrible accusation. It is strictly forbidden for any election to be disclosed outside the chapter until it has been confirmed by the relevant superior, as to protect the good name of any brother whose election is not confirmed. The release to the press of the news of Father Augustine’s election prior to confirmation was a gross error, even though I am sure that it was an innocent mistake. It was made clear to the brother who was presiding over the election that the failure to confirm the election was in no way a reflection of Father Augustine’s theological views or his moral character, but solely because of a fault in the way that the election was conducted. To present it as a rejection of his views is deeply unfair both to Father Augustine and to myself. This incident should never be publicly discussed again.
Hitchcock also finds evidence of my rejection of conservative Catholicism in my criticism of theological fundamentalism. He says that because fundamentalism “is a term that liberals now use to discredit orthodox believers,” that therefore I am attacking conservative Catholics. This is quite simply, once again, illogical. I make no equation between fundamentalism and conservatism and would never do so. So he has taken other people’s usage of the word and then uses it to assert that I am holding a position that is not mine.
Professor Hitchcock also tries to demonstrate that I am a liberal because of the concerns that I have often voiced, especially for the marginal, women, ethnic minorities, gay people, people with AIDS and so on. I do believe, as Pope John Paul II often asserted, that we should indeed be committed to care for those on the edge of society. And even if it were true that I do share many concerns with so-called liberals, then why does this mean that my desire to heal divisions is false? There are people on both sides of the division in the Church who are deeply committed to the healing of these wounds.
And even if it might be true to say that I am, as far as my social concerns go “liberal,” then it is simply prejudiced therefore to allocate me to a camp within the polarized world of the American Church. If my social concerns might identify me with “liberalism” then my theological position is distinctly conservative. Professor Hitchcock cannot but have noticed how the fundamental doctrines of the Creed — the divinity of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the Trinity and so on — are central to all of my reflections.
He concludes his attack by asserting that I depart radically from orthodoxy, quoting my assertion that the way to unity with people from whom we differ is to see them “as fellow seekers, people who also are searching for God, in their own way. They too are on a journey, even if they seem to be walking in the opposite direction.” This would only be evidence of a departure from orthodoxy if I were proposing a vague wishy-washy pluralism, as if the truth does not matter. But this is not what I was asserting at all. Within orthodoxy there are legitimate differences of opinions, as there were between St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, and frequently between Jesuits and Dominicans, or between Yves Congar and Hans von Balthasar more recently. Orthodox Catholicism does not assert that orthodoxy is a narrow ideology, which demands that we all speak in the same way and use the same theological language. The four gospels differ profoundly in their understanding of the Incarnation, and yet they are all orthodox. No group within the Church can claim sole possession of orthodoxy, which is why dialogue does not imply relativism.
I am saddened by Professor Hitchcock’s article. He seems to have read so much that I have written and yet understood so little. I am sure that we share a fundamental commitment to orthodox Catholicism. If he could come to see that, and begin a conversation with others like me who do genuinely seek to heal the wounds of the Church, then it would be wonderful. I pray that it may happen.
My criticisms of Father Radcliffe indeed show that “the Body of Christ is wounded.” My point is that his proposal for healing those wounds does not succeed and may even make things worse.
As to my alleged misquotations, in his Los Angeles speech Father Radcliffe’s exact words were, “We will only heal our divisions if we stretch our imaginations open to understand why the others think and feel as they do.” The quip about Thomas Aquinas — “I have to bring him in, I know it’s my duty as a Dominican” — is in the second paragraph of that speech, as published in the National Catholic Reporter. The statement, “It is not for us to tell God whom he may or may not call to religious life,” is in Father Radcliffe’s Ash Wednesday sermon for 1998. I do not understand his claim about two sentences taken from different parts of Eckhart’s writings. They are quoted together by Father Radcliffe.
The idea that Catholicism values unity so highly that it is not as “fissiparous” as Protestantism is an instance of Father Radcliffe’s rather eccentric reading of Church history. Theological disputes have been endemic in the Church since the days of St. Paul and are highly characteristic of Catholicism, a history in which his own Dominican Order has played a major role. The Church has never held that ecclesial unity can be maintained without unity of belief. If it did, those fissiparous Protestants would still be Catholics.
Words like “passion” and “self-emptying” obviously do not in themselves constitute a kind of existentialism, but Father Radcliffe’s writings are replete with romantic celebrations of such things in a way made popular by 1950’s existentialism and that have little precedent in classic Christian spirituality. (St. Augustine did not describe his anguish in order to prove his authenticity but to confess his sinfulness. The claim repeated by Father Radcliffe that a monk [Thomas Merton] achieved “inner liberation” by having a love affair would have shocked every Catholic spiritual teacher until very recently.)
Meister Eckhart has always been considered enigmatic. If he was indeed orthodox, he has been badly served by many of his admirers over the centuries, most recently by the former Dominican Matthew Fox. The pronouncement that Father Radcliffe quotes — “We do not pray, we are prayed” — insofar as it means anything, seems to express the heresy of Quietism. (Jesus taught that we do pray, or should.)
To attempt to resolve disagreement by turning away from what people actually say in order to speculate about their hidden motives is the essence of psychologism, and to attribute those beliefs to emotional insecurity, as Father Radcliffe did in Los Angeles, is to reduce psychologism to its lowest common denominator. It seems to me perfectly obvious why contending groups in the Church believe as they do; they have explained it very clearly many times.
Carefully studying one’s opponent’s position in order to discern what may be true in it is not the same as achieving consensus. After discussing positions at variance with his own, Thomas Aquinas always ended by arguing that those positions were erroneous.
I do not claim to know why the election of Father DiNoia was disapproved. It was widely reported at the time, without any explanation. But while Father Radcliffe urges endless dialogue in order to resolve disagreements over matters of faith and morals, in this case he swiftly and decisively exercised his disciplinary authority to quash what was only an alleged violation of procedure.
Father Radcliffe does not define “fundamentalism.” Formerly it was a word not used in Catholicism, but now it is often applied to, among others, the two most recent popes.
I do not fault Father Radcliffe for calling attention to “marginalized” people in the Church but for the selective nature of his list. I do raise my eyebrows at his inclusion of priests accused of pedophilia (not much of a problem for the Dominicans, he reports), with no mention of their victims.
There has always been theological and spiritual variety in the Church, but never to the point of embracing outright contradiction. To take only the most sensitive example, if Father Radcliffe can resolve the differences between those who think homosexual actions are sinful and those who think homosexuality is a gift from God, he should by all means do so.
To view original story, archived by Catholic Culture, click here.