Friday 10 February 2017

“I am very orthodox. Orthodoxy is not against adventure”

This is a full transcript of my interview with Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, in which he talks about the importance of the body for Christians, his position on homosexuality and says that the Cardinals who have been critical of the Pope ought to be engaged with.

The Portuguese news stories can be found here and here, the piece for The Tablet can be read here (paywall).

You are here for two conferences. Let’s start with the one about the body…
Is our understanding of the body in crisis? And by us, I mean society in general, rather than Catholics.
I think in the Western World we have an ambiguous relationship with the body. On the one hand we try to be beautiful, so people are very conscious of their bodies. At the same time we are often dualistic, so we hear about how people think that they are really their minds. Since Descartes, there is a lot of dualism in our culture.

So, what I am trying to suggest is how we recover a sense of the unity of the Human person. That we really are body and soul.

Recently an article in First Things spoke of the West’s current relation with body as “Gnostic Liberalism”. Is this a good description?
It’s not a description I've heard. I think there is something in it.

I suppose what they mean is that the gnostics often had a very dualistic approach, so you did not identify with your body. St. Dominic founded the order to preach against the Cathars, who thought that the body was bad. Catharism was a late version, really, of gnosticism. So from the beginning, the mission of the order was to say that the body was good. And that we are, in a real sense, bodily people.

You say in your book that child abuse is a corruption of the sense of touch… In the wake of the scandal, is there a risk we might go too far? There is now in some quarters a fear of touching children at all, of being alone with children… Is that a risk for society as well?
I think on the one hand we cannot go too far to make sure that our children are safe.
On the other hand, it seems to me that to grow up as a happy child you need to be relaxed in the presence of grown up friends, the friends of your parents, and touch is a very human thing, for Thomas Aquinas it is the most human of the senses, and Jesus touched children, he touched the sick, he touched the ill. And so touch is a very important part of any good human relationship.

So we find ourselves in a genuine difficulty. We have to safeguard our children, absolutely. But on the other hand, to deprive them of affectionate relationships with adults would be very damaging for the children and for everybody.

So if we become so suspicious that no adult can be trusted, we will do damage to children in another way.

You have been accused of “pushing the boundaries of orthodoxy” with some of your positions on homosexuality for example. What is your position on homosexual relationships?
First of all, orthodoxy pushes us to the boundaries, always. Orthodoxy is not about tying up the faith in a few narrow little sentences. Orthodoxy is pushing you towards the mystery of God. So a really orthodox person – and I am very orthodox – is somebody who is always trying to understand a little bit more deeply what is the nature of God's love, and how we live it.

Orthodoxy is not against adventure. It pushes us towards the mystery.

On the question of homosexual relationships, I think the most important thing is to help people to love well. That means you have to be close to them, you have to listen to them, and you have to share with them the Gospel, so that we help gay people to love in a way that is more profound and more respectful of the other.

A lot of people in England now assume that respect for homosexual relationships means that you must approve of gay marriage. I have written two articles about this, and I think myself that it is a mistake. I don't think it is possible, actually, for two people of the same sex to be married to each other. But that is a long question, I would have to talk for half an hour to explain why.

But I think my views on homosexuality are perfectly normal, they are no distanced from Cardinal Hume, the Church in England or, indeed, Pope Francis. My first position is rather than come in with judgement, I feel we have to listen to gay people and accompany them as they seek to learn how to love well.

Is the concept of gay marriage a result not only of the normalisation in society of the idea of homosexuality, but also of a crisis in the concept of marriage?
I would say it reflects what we think about sexual difference.

I think sexual difference is a profound part, not only of human nature, but of all nature. The whole of evolution depends upon the functioning of sexual difference, beginning with the simplest animal. Sexual difference is a great motor of creativity in our world. And marriage is the consecration of something of profound significance, not just for human beings, but for all life.

Now, to imagine that we can simply forget this in a relationship and have a marriage of two people of the same sex is to ignore something fundamental about how life is, from its very beginnings.

All the sacraments take fundamental things about being alive: Eating, drinking and sexual difference. And they consecrate them in the name of the Lord of Life. So, much as I respect gay people, much as I hope that they can have relationships of love and commitment, I do not think it is possible for them to marry.

The Church has been a sometimes lonely voice in the current debate, underlining the sacredness and the personality of the body. You write movingly about using the body for prayer. Some cultures seem to do that more easily than others. What can we do to involve our body more in prayer and spiritual life?
That is a very deep question, and I don't really know the answer.

The first thing is to recognise that when we pray our bodily position is of great importance. In the Middle Ages, and going back to the Desert Fathers, they always understood that prayer involves how you sit, how you breathe, how you move. So, deep in the Western tradition is already recognition of the importance of the body in prayer. You find this in St. Dominic, in his “Nine Ways of Prayer”, they are all nine ways of physically, how you are in your body. In genuflection, in prostration, in elevating your hands, and in everything.

The second point, is that if you look at the Old Testament you see that dance is an important part of prayer. And you can see still in Africa that people dance during the liturgy.

Now, how could we recover that tradition? I am not sure, to be honest.

Most attempts at liturgical dance in the West have been a little bit ridiculous, usually executed by people who don't know how to dance. So, what I have seen has not been very encouraging.

But I think it’s a challenge we have to look at. One of my brothers, an English Dominican, has composed a dance of praise for God, a young friar, which has received enormous recognition in Britain. So we are at the beginning of trying to discover this.

King David dances before the Ark
Moving on to the other topic you are here to speak about: Conscience.
Austen Ivereigh recently wrote that the discussion about Amoris Laetitia is not about doctrine at all, but a continuation of the discussion on the primacy of conscience. Do you agree?
Absolutely, yes. And I think the primacy of conscience, the whole debate, goes back a lot further, it goes particularly back to the XIX Century, to Cardinal Newman, who Pope Benedict XVI called the Doctor Conscientiae, the Doctor of Conscience, the great teacher of conscience.

So beginning certainly in England, with Newman, you see the evolution of a much more profound understanding of conscience, and in many ways the Second Vatican Council has been called the Council of Newman. It was trying to catch up with a lot of his theology, the theologian who Pope Benedict called his own favourite theologian.

So there is no doctrinal change in AL?
No, I think the question is not to change doctrine. It is not to dispense people from doctrine, it is not really about doctrine at all. It is about trying to understand more deeply how people travel towards God. It is a very profound meditation on what it means to be a moral being. Ever since Thomas Aquinas we have seen how morality should not be seen primarily in terms of obedience to rules, but in growing in virtue. But this is a time in Western Society where we are recovering a lot of Aquinas' understanding of Virtue. Going back to Aristotle. Where you grow in maturity and you grow in freedom.

And I think that a lot of what Pope Francis is saying is not challenging the teaching of the Church. What it is, is trying to go to a lower level, to understand the moral life, as a growth in maturity, joy and freedom. 

I am 36 years old, and I don’t recall seeing such sharp divisions in the church between so-called progressives and so-called conservatives… Do you?
I think that in the 60s and 70s we saw very profound divisions, a collapse of communication. What is new today is that the divisions focus around the Pope himself. That is new. And the Pope now is seen to be a figure who is being opposed by many people who have senior positions in the Church. So the fact of division is not so much new, what is new is where the divisions are taking place.

In the now famous case of the Dubia, the Pope seems determined not to answer. Do you think he should?
I think that it would be good to engage more closely with the four cardinals. I think it is important to recognise that they speak honestly. I disagree with them, I agree with the Pope's position. But I think we have to understand that they are expressing genuine doubts, and they are doubts which are felt by many young people.

I myself think it is important to engage with them, if they wish to be engaged with.

Bishop Jean-Paul Vesco
Again, in your book you mention a time when you were going to speak in Dublin and were interrupted by traditionalists, reciting the rosary. You criticize both traditionalists and progressives for not being able to listen to each other… Does that mean you do not like being labelled as a progressive?

I would reject any such label, either as progressive or as conservative. The motto of the Dominican order is Veritas - Truth. And what I hope is that together we seek what is true.

And to seek what is true you have to listen to the Word of God, you have to listen to the magisterium, you have to listen to the Tradition, you have to listen to your conscience, and I think that to impose simplistic labels is to stop the conversation in which we can all take part.

I live in a community in Oxford, most of the friars are young. The average age of our community of about 24 friars would be about 35. And many people would say that I am one of the old fashioned liberals, and they are the modern conservatives... It’s not true! I can live with, talk with and discuss anything with my younger brethren. And for me that is a joy.

I hope that we help each other to discover what the truth is.

You mention this case in Dublin, where there was an attempt by a group of people to stop me talking. Afterwards some of them waited near the hotel and grabbed me. And we sat down and we were able to have a conversation. And when we talked, they found they had misunderstood what I had been saying. And they apologised.

I think that if you engage in a real conversation, you nearly always are able to overcome these misunderstandings. We are all seekers.

Specifically about the crux of the matter in AL, communion for divorced and remarried, the Maltese bishops recently published guidelines for these situations and they seem to conclude that there may be cases where people in those situations, through accompaniment, and so on, can come to the conclusion that they are at peace with God and that they can go to communion. In your opinion, are there cases in which people can be in a state of sin, but not objectively sinful, as it says in the text?
Yes, I think so. What I would say is that we are finding our way towards clarity, and it is difficult quite to understand at the moment.

There was a very good book written by a Dominican bishop in Algeria, Jean-Paul Vesco, where he argues in favour of the indissolubility of marriage, very clearly, he does not doubt the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. But he recognises that there are some times when, actually, a relationship has died.

If your husband or your wife physically dies, then the church recognises that you are free to marry again, and what the bishop seems to argue, if I have understood him, is that there can be cases where relationships die, effectively. And then, perhaps, it is time to move on. I think that this may be implicitly the case in AL, but I don't think it is explicitly the case.

You see, when you get new movements of the development of doctrine, you do pass through moments of unclarity. And those moments can be frightening, because you wonder what is going on, and that is why many people are afraid at the moment. Is the essence of our faith being challenged? There are moments where there are shifts of understanding – not of doctrine, but of understanding – where we pass through some clouds, some fog, in the search to understand. And that is where we are at the moment.

In a way, is this a repetition of the debates we had at the II Vatican Council about religious freedom, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue?

It is very interesting, if you go back to the XIX Century, you can see Pious IX affirming all sorts of things that were contradicted by the Second Vatican Council. Now some people would find that very alarming. But when you enter more deeply into the fundamental doctrines of the Church, they have not changed. It is rather a question that we have come to understand more deeply the implications of our doctrines.

This happened after the Second Vatican Council, and it is happening now.

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