15 October 2014

In defence of Timothy Radcliffe

I've recently received the following email, and seeing it popping up elsewhere online, it's clearly something that's going around. 
Dear CYMFED supporter,
Do you know about Fr. Timothy Radcliffe the radical homosexual activist which CYMFED is promoting at Flame 2, the youth event for thousands of young people in the UK?
If not see here and also here.
It is shocking what the organisers were thinking of when they put this event together, have they no shame?
Please protest to CYMFED for promoting this filth to our young people.
The fact that emails like this are zipping about disgusted me, to be honest, especially in the aftermath of all the viciousness directed towards Timothy when he came to the Divine Mercy Conference in Dublin back in the Spring. Frankly, the Little Brothers and Sisters of Perpetual Outrage could do with listening to him and emulating him, rather than praying the Rosary against him as though it's a weapon to be used against our fellow Christians. Small doses of reality and humanity can be a wonderful antidote to hardened hearts and thickened skulls.

Putting it bluntly, I like Timothy Radcliffe, having read several of his books and interviewed him once; perhaps he sometimes phrases things unfortunately when, in effect, thinking aloud, but I don't think it's especially charitable to invariably put the worst possible interpretation on his words when it's clear that what he's doing is trying to grapple honestly with certain realities.

Take, for instance, someone like James Alison, who's definitely one of the most astute and perceptive Christian thinkers out there, and who, being gay, has also written quite a bit on how he thinks the Church should embrace gay Christians. I'm told -- I may have been misinformed -- that James and Timothy fell out many years ago, but I have no doubt Timothy has spent the intervening twenty or more years trying to get his head around what James has to say. James, after all, would have been a devout, erudite, and astoundingly intelligent young Dominican, and then he left and fell out with Timothy apparently at least in part over the very sort of matters James so often talks about.

It is, I think, absurd to call Timothy a radical homosexual activist. A radical homosexual activist would be unlikely to stand with the Church in saying that same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms. He nonetheless is accused of being one because he has expressed frustration with Vatican statements, because of saying things like how love between committed gay couples should be supported, and because he has preached at the Soho Masses. 

I'm going to run quickly through this, knowing that in doing so, I'll inevitably end up talking about 'gay people' as though they're 'those people over there'. That's not what I believe, and I think it's something we should try to avoid doing. An inclusive Church -- indeed, an inclusive society -- shouldn't do that. Unfortunately, it's hard to write this kind of response without doing so. And with that...

Frustration with Vatican statements seems to me to be entirely understandable. Leaving aside how the media can pluck things entirely out of context, making statements seem about something almost entirely tangential to them, we're saddled with jargon like "disordered". 

I know what it means, you know what it means, and yes, Timothy Radcliffe knows what it means, but here's the thing: hardly anyone in the Church taken as a whole knows what it means, and basically nobody who isn't in the Church knows what it means. If you don't believe me, try asking someone who's bothered by the word "disordered" what it would mean to describe something as "ordered". If they can't say what the latter means, you can be fairly confident they have no idea what the former does.

In truth, as a phrase it means very little when shorn of an Aristotelian-Thomist context, and simply sounds ugly, offensive, and hurtful. I don't think Timothy should be chastised because he recognises this. 

The New Testament was written in the crudest, simplest form of Greek the ancient world ever produced, a lingua franca for the common man in half the Roman empire. Christianity was never a mystery religion, hiding its secrets from ordinary people. We shouldn't be holding up a technical philosophical term nobody understands as though it's a pearl beyond price. 

What of Timothy's belief that love between gay couples should be supported? Here it's important to remember that gay people tend to have little choice in their being gay. I'm not saying they're born gay, because nobody knows that, but whether their sexual inclinations originate in nurture, as, say, Desmond Morris would have said back in the day, or in nature, as, perhaps, due to something happening while they're in the womb or at a genetic level (which I doubt as homosexuality would, I think, be an oddly counterproductive variation for nature to throw up even as often as one case in fifty let alone thirty), or a mixture of the two, what seems clear is that same-sex attracted people have very little say in that fact. I suppose they might be the eunuchs 'from birth' mentioned in Matthew 19:12. 

The reality, then, is that the only deep personal love -- the only non-familial love that can go beyond ordinary friendship -- for them is the love that subsists within a same-sex couple. I see no reason at all why that shouldn't be supported, nor why any truly self-giving love within that couple shouldn't be recognised as an expression of Christ's love, though of course, the partners within such a couple would remain called to chastity like everyone else. 

And then we have the Soho Masses. 

That they were problematic is, I think, clear. That plenty of people at them had been frustrated with the Church as a whole, and that people at them and involved with them had sought to challenge and indeed to subvert Church teaching is hard to deny. That's not to say that they were hotbeds of dissent, but it seems pretty obvious that there were problems with them. 

I'll grant all that, while quietly pointing out that I have been at far too many Masses over the years where liturgy was thrown out the window and Church teaching was flatly denied: we have problems that go far beyond the Soho Masses, and singling them out for criticism makes it rather look as though there's another agenda at work.

Still, to stick with that substantive point, does Timothy having preached at the Soho Mass give succour to dissenters, or somehow validate them? Maybe it does, but I'm not sure that's the point. 

Remember, for starters, that those of our gay brothers and sisters who attend the Soho Masses are those who have not walked away. They may have deep issues with the Church, and may feel hurt and wounded by the Church, and they may disobey the Church, and they may wish the Church was other than it is, but still, they are those who have not abandoned the Church. 

I get very tired of people saying how, as Catholics, we're called to love our gay brethren, and to cherish and respect them as we do everyone else, and then, when asked how we should love them, hearing that we should tell them they're living their lives the wrong way. 

No. As Pope Francis would say, doctrine flows from mercy, from love. If we want to love our fellow Catholics of any shade we have to go to where they are, and we have to help them and listen to them and be with them. As Blessed John Henry Newman put it, we become perfect by changing often. Pauline conversions may be the dream, but for most of us we go step by step, and as long as those steps are in the right direction, I think they should be encouraged. 

"Therefore a thousand stages, each in itself all but valueless, are of inestimable worth as the necessary and connected gradations of an infinite progress," as Lewis's master George MacDonald put it, continuing, "A condition which of declension would indicate a devil, may of growth indicate a saint."

I've no doubt whatsoever that the Soho Masses, to Timothy's mind, offer a way of accompanying gay people and helping them step by step towards being who God wants them to be, and thus towards God himself.

This, to be honest, is kind of what Dominicans are for. Friars are called to go to the people: they're not monks, settled out in the countryside, waiting for people to come to them and offering the finest and most beautiful of liturgies when they get there. They're meant to be in towns and villages, going to the people and among the people. And that means going to the outcasts, disreputable preachers standing among disreputable people. 

Whenever I see people attacking Timothy for going to where gay Catholics are, I think, well, Jesus got flack for going among prostitutes and tax collectors. Dominican habits are meant to be white: I don't necessarily think they're meant to be clean.

A friend has already kindly ran a version of this on his own blog.

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