Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the former General Secretary of the Dominicans, has expressed the hope that Pope Francis will allow divorced and re-married Catholics to receive Holy Communion. During the reign of Pope Benedict XVI Fr Timothy Radcliffe was stopped from speaking at the General Assembly of the Catholic development agencies. Fr Radcliffe is well known for his liberal positions on morality, including his public opposition to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
According to The Tablet, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe was set to deliver the keynote opening address Monday and had already prepared his talk. Instead of Fr Radcliffe, Cardianl Bertone, the Secretary of State of the Holy See, gave the key note speech in which he emphasized the importance of Catholic development agencies being true to their Catholic identity and morality in their charitable work.
Fr Radcliffe wrote the following in America, the Catholic weekly:
‘I would conclude with two profound hopes. That a way will be found to welcome divorced and remarried people back to communion. And, most important, that women will be given real authority and voice in the church. The pope expresses his desire that this may happen, but what concrete form can it take? He believes that the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood is not possible, but decision-making in the church has become ever more closely linked to ordination in recent years. Can that bond be loosened? Let us hope that women may be ordained to the diaconate and so have a place in preaching at the Eucharist. What other ways can authority be shared?’
Fr Radcliffe also gave the following contribution to the Church of England ‘s review of homosexuality and gay marriage:
‘ The Anglican Commission on Sexual Ethics
I feel very honoured to have this chance to share some thoughts on sexual ethics from a Catholic perspective. I must confess that I also feel rather unqualified. I can make no claim to being a moral theologian. It is frequently asserted that Christians are obsessed with sex, and with what we are or are not forbidden to do. But for most of the last two thousand years, Christianity has neither been especially fixated on sex, nor has it thought about it in terms of rules. Jesus says little about sexual ethics, except on divorce. Nor was it a central concern in the Middle Ages. Think of the two great classics of
Medieval Christendom, the Summa Theologica of Aquinas and Dante’s Divina Commedia. Thomas had a positive view of our passions, including sexual desire.
They are basically sound and good. They can go a bit astray and need education and the purification of grace. But sexual passion is good, and belongs to our journey towards God, the one whom we most deeply desire. Aquinas hardly ever refers to the commandments. Sexual morality is about becoming virtuous, not about obeying rules.
In Dante’s Inferno the top circles of Hell, where the punishments are lightest, are reserved for people who got carried away by their passions. They desired the good, but desired it wrongly. The really grave sins, for which people get a serious roasting, are telling lies, being violent and, worst of all, the betrayal of friends. And it is only with the Reformation that we see the Ten Commandments placed at the centre of the moral life.
The medieval stress on holiness as sharing the life of God is replaced with a new stress on obedience to rules. We see the rise of what Charles Taylor calls ‘the culture of control.1’ There is the emergence of the centralised state, absolute monarchs, standing armies, a police force, and the exponential growth of law. Human behaviour must be regulated and controlled. Sex must be disciplined! I suspect that it is only with the Enlightenment that one
sees the rise of our modern obsession with the regulation of sex. For example, it was at the beginning of the 18th century, according to Thomas Laquer that people began to worry in a big way about masturbation. There is a new hysteria about solitary sex.2 What are people up to behind closed doors? So my suspicion is that both this obsession with sex and a stress on rules both relatively late and alien to traditional Christianity.
The most nerve wracking lecture that I have ever given was in Mauritius. I had to talk to 600 noisy teenagers about sex, and in French. I tried to move them beyond just thinking about what was allowed towards some understanding of the deep meaning of sexual relationships. It was hopeless. Every single question was about what was permitted or forbidden.
So what then might be a Christian vision of sexual morality? We could go back to Thomas Aquinas and look at how he understands good sexual behaviour in terms of the virtues of temperance and justice. This would be an excellent thing to do, and is becoming increasingly popular, especially in America. We could look at Aquinas’ wonderful understanding of natural law.
But I want to try another approach, because I am not an expert on St Thomas’ virtue ethics. I want to look at the Last Supper. Jesus says to the disciples: ‘This is my body, given for you.’ He gives us his body. This surely helps us to understand what it means for us to give our bodies to another person. Let us try to imagine a sexual ethics which is Eucharistic.
So this is a one way to understand Christian sexual ethics: sexual intercourse is most fundamentally mutual generosity. This is inseparable from every aspect of our lives, in which we accept the gift of another person, delight in their talents, cherish their hopes, their weakness, even when they are old and ill, and sex has probably ceased. Herbert McCabe, my next door neighbour of many years, wrote: ‘Ethics is just the study of human behaviour in so
far as it is a piece of communication, in so far as it says something or fails to say something.4’ The first question is not: ‘I am allowed to do this?’ But ‘What does it mean?’
When you have sexual intercourse with someone, then you say with your body, ‘I give myself to you and I receive you are as a gift.’ But if we get up the early next morning and leave a note by the bed saying ‘Thanks for the pleasurable sex, but I never wish to see you again’ then we have, in a sense, lied with our bodies. It is as if we were to say, ‘I love you eternally’ and then walk away. So sexual ethics has to be embedded in how we communicate with each other.
But not every marriage is fertile in this way. We must avoid having a mechanistic or simplistic understanding of fertility. Jesus speaks a fertile word: This is my body, given for you. He is God’s fertile word. And surely it is in the kind and healing words that we offer each other that
we all share in fertility of that most intimate moment. When Jesus met Peter on the shore after Easter, he offers him a word that renews their relationship. Three times he asks him; ‘Do you love me more than these others?’ He allows him to undo his threefold denial. Sexual fertility cannot be separated from the exchange of words that heal, that recreate and set free.
How does all of this bear on the question of gay sexuality? We cannot begin with the question of whether it is permitted or forbidden! We must ask what it means, and how far it is Eucharistic. Certainly it 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.
We can also see how it can be expressive of mutual fidelity, a covenantal relationship in which two people bind themselves to each other for ever. But the proposed legislation for ‘gay marriage’ imply that it is not understood to be inherently unitive, a becoming one flesh. [...]
And what about fertility? I have suggested that one should not stick to a crude, mechanistic understanding of fertility. Biological fertility is inseparable from the fertility of our mutual tenderness and compassion. And so that might seem to remove one objection to gay marriage. I am not entirely convinced, since it seems to me that our tradition is incarnational, the word becoming bodily flesh. And some heterosexual relationships may be accidentally infertile in this sense, but homosexual ones are intrinsically so.
Sexual ethics is about what our acts say. And I have the impression that we are not very sure of what gay sexual acts signify. Maybe we need to ask gay Christians who have been living in committed relationships for years. I suspect that sex will turn out to be rather unimportant.
Protect the Pope comment: Often in the past Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP has been spoken of in liberal circles as a possible future bishop. In the light of the seismic changes at the Congregation for Bishops, this possibility, that was unlikely under Pope Benedict, seems more than likely. Fr Radcliffe has friends in high places.