The recent appointment of Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe as a consultor to the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace has been welcomed by his supporters, who say he is ideally suited to such a role.
But critics are deeply concerned about the appointment, given the English priest’s previous doctrinal statements, especially on sexual ethics and holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, which they say go against Church teaching.
Father Radcliffe, 69, who was master of the Dominican Order from 1992 to 2001, was appointed on May 16 to advise the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace on issues due to his expertise in that area. He currently serves as a director of the social justice-focused Las Casas Institute of Blackfriars at Oxford University.
Vatican consultors, appointed to five-year terms, are generally called upon to share their expertise with various dicasteries, but they do not have any final say in determining Vatican policy.
In comments to the Register May 19, Father Radcliffe said he is “very happy” to do anything he could to “support Pope Francis,” adding that justice and peace are “at the heart” of the Holy Father’s ministry, and so it is “an honor to have a small part in promoting this.”
He said he did not yet know what his duties would be, but hoped he could bring “a fairly wide experience of the Church, especially of places where there is or has been suffering and crisis.”
During the past year, Father Radcliffe said he had spent “much time” in Iraq and Algeria and noted that the “political and humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is dramatic and a major priority for the Pope.”
Until last year, Father Radcliffe served as a trustee for CAFOD, the official Catholic aid agency of England and Wales. CAFOD’s director, Chris Bain, told the Register that “pretty much all of Father Timothy’s recent writing incorporates justice issues, as he sees this as a core part of the Church’s mission.”
Bishop William Kenney also knows Father Radcliffe well and said he has wide experience, a “truly worldwide view,” and a “deep knowledge of the Church’s social teaching and of the situation on the ground.” Bishop Kenney, who is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England, said he was “delighted with the news” of the appointment and felt the English Dominican is in many ways “ideally suited” to his new appointment.
Bain said Father Radcliffe — who is thought to know Pope Francis well — believes that to be truly catholic, in the sense of “universal,” the faithful need to “engage all people of goodwill and embrace all people in need” as “equally loved by God.”
Comments on Homosexuality
But critics say Father Radcliffe’s perspective on universal love goes too far — and that in particular his comments on homosexuality run contrary to Church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are “of grave depravity,” “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law,” as they “close the sexual act to the gift of life.” For this reason, the Church has strongly opposed any promotion of such lifestyles.
In 2005, as the Vatican debated whether men with same-sex attraction should be admitted to seminaries, following the clerical sex-abuse scandals, Father Radcliffe said the inclination should not bar men from the priesthood, but that those who oppose their candidacy should be.
In a talk in Los Angeles in 2006, Father Radcliffe called for the Church to “accompany [homosexuals] as they discern what this means, letting our images be stretched open. This means watching Brokeback Mountain [a movie about a homosexual relationship], reading gay novels, living with our gay friends and listening with them as they listen to the Lord.”
In 2012, in support of same-sex civil unions, he wrote in The Tablet that homosexual relationships should be “cherished and supported” and that the “God of love can be present in every true love.” And Father Radcliffe has often celebrated Masses for homosexual Catholics — the so-called “Soho Masses” — in London.
And, writing in an Anglican journal in 2013, he said when considering same-sex relationships, “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 nonviolent. So in many ways, I think it can be expressive of Christ’s self-gift.”
He said homosexual relationships can be “expressive of mutual fidelity, a covenantal relationship in which two people bind themselves to each other forever.” But he also went on to say that “gay marriage” is not equivalent to marriage, as it is not “inherently unitive.”
The English Dominican has also voiced his support for relaxing restrictions on holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, writing in America magazine in 2013 that he had two “profound hopes”: that a “way will be found to welcome divorced-and-remarried people back to Communion” and that women will be allowed to preach at Mass.
John Smeaton, executive director of Britain’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said he was “surprised” by the news of Father Radcliffe’s appointment, which he considered “particularly inappropriate,” given his views relating to human sexuality.
He referred to a televised talk on July 10, 2009, at a Catholic parish in Mashpee, Mass., in which Father Radcliffe said: “It’s not that sexual ethics are particularly important. I don’t think they are.”
“Father Radcliffe’s frank admission is completely opposed to the position set out in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity and Truth),” Smeaton told the Register. “Pope Benedict taught us that the Church’s teaching on the unitive and procreative meaning of human sexuality placed the married couple at the foundation of society.”
Quoting St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), Smeaton added, “The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that ‘a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.’”
Father Radcliffe Responds
Defending his remarks, Father Radcliffe told the Register that he has “always strongly opposed ‘gay marriage,’ and so there cannot be any cause for alarm there.” He said Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the former archbishop of Westminster, began the Soho Masses, and Father Radcliffe presided at them from “time to time, with the blessing of the cardinal.”
Added Father Radcliffe, “It is important to welcome gay people, but this is not to reject the Church’s teaching in any way.”
Regarding reception of Communion, Father Radcliffe said, “Like many cardinals and bishops, I believe that the Church needs to think again about her discipline on the admission of the divorced and remarried to Communion. This is in no way to reject the indissolubility of marriage, but it is to welcome people whose marriages have fallen apart.”
“Anyone who actually reads what I have written on any of these issues will discover that nothing that I say contradicts the teaching of the Church, and all is fully in accordance with the teaching of Pope Francis,” he said.
Bishop Kenney said he was not sure where the criticisms of Father Radcliffe were coming from and also urged reading his lectures and writings. He said that, as far as he was concerned, he had “seen nothing which Father Timothy has written which has been unorthodox” and that, “like many of us, he is trying to do what Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have asked us to do: namely, to show mercy and welcome to all people.”
Asked about Pope Francis’ view of mercy and whether he would like to see more emphasis on justice and repentance, Father Radcliffe said: “Mercy and justice are inseparable. ‘Mercy and truth have met each other: Justice and peace have kissed’ (Psalm 85:10).
“Mercy without justice would lead to chaos; justice without mercy would lead to harsh condemnation. Jesus is full of ‘grace and truth,’ according to the prologue to St. John’s Gospel. Grace without truth would be vacuous, and truth without grace would be terrible.”
Father Radcliffe has also spoken up in support of the German bishops’ desire to admit the divorced and remarried to Communion, a contentious suggestion that has been opposed by the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, as it was by Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.
Last year, EWTN chose not to televise Ireland’s Divine Mercy Conference, as it customarily does, because Father Radcliffe had been chosen as a keynote speaker at the event. And in 2011, Father Radcliffe was scheduled to speak at the general assembly of Caritas International, a confederation of worldwide Catholic charities. The Vatican intervened to prohibit his address, and he was replaced by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the pontifical household.
In light of Father Radcliffe’s appointment, it is worth noting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 letter to bishops on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, which warned that, in the face of “enormous pressure” on the Church to “accept the homosexual condition as though it were not disordered and to condone homosexual activity,” the Church’s ministers “must ensure that homosexual persons in their care will not be misled by this point of view, so profoundly opposed to the teaching of the Church.”
“The risk is great,” the letter added, and there are “many who seek to create confusion regarding the Church’s position and then to use that confusion to their own advantage.”
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.