Last year, in an August 2021 video posted
on the Synod of Bishops’ website, Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe —
a controversial British theologian who has publicly contradicted Church
teachings on homosexuality — decried political polarization and the fact that the “Church itself has been touched by these sterile culture wars.”
Radcliffe, who served as head of his Dominican order from 1992 to 2001,
urged Catholics to “transcend this fear of difference” by imagining the
experiences that shaped the opinions of fellow believers with opposing
now, Father Radcliffe himself has become part of an already contentious
debate over the goals and methodology of Pope Francis’ global Synod on
a week after the late Cardinal George Pell’s posthumous critique of a
“toxic” synodal process prompted Francis’ supporters to rush to his
defense, the Dominican priest’s unexpected appointment to preach a
three-day retreat before the October session of the synod is stirring
additional concerns about the direction of this complex process.
Russell Shaw, the
Catholic author and Church historian, told the Register that he was
reserving judgment on the significance of Father Radcliffe’s role as the
synodal assembly’s retreat master. But Shaw observed that a retreat
preceding a Synod of Bishops appeared to be something new.
he noted that additional protocols announced by synod organizers that
restricted the role of bishops had already fueled alarm that the process
was being manipulated to secure a particular outcome, such as a
rejection of Church teaching on homosexuality.
Dominican sources contacted by the Register offered a mixed response to the news on Father Radcliffe.
Dominican who did not want his name used said the priest was
“controversial even within the order” and expressed doubt that the
Register would “find anyone willing to go on the record.”
Another member of
the Order of Preachers praised Father Radcliffe’s gifts as a retreat
director and said he was widely respected by fellow Dominicans.
A popular speaker, Father Radcliffe is the author of What Is the Point of Being a Christian?, which won the 2007 Michael Ramsey Prize,
awarded by the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury for the “most
promising contemporary theological writing from the global Church.”
Support for Same-Sex Relationships
Over the last two decades, Father Radcliffe, 77, has publicly challenged Church teaching on homosexuality.
In a 2005 article, “Can Gays Be Priests?” published in The Tablet, a British Catholic publication, Father Radcliffe challenged a papal document that directed seminaries to bar candidates with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.
In the 2013 Anglican Pilling Report,
he wrote that 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.”
A year earlier, in a December 2012 article in The Guardian,
he applauded the “wave of support for gay marriages” as “heartening”
evidence of growing social “tolerance” and “mutual acceptance.”
But he appeared to
reject the argument in favor of same-sex civil marriage as an antidote
to promiscuity because same-sex couples in legal unions would now be
free to embrace the stabilizing practice of monogamy. Rather, he
suggested that traditional notions of marriage need not necessarily
apply to these couples.
society that flees difference and pretends we are all just the same may
have outlawed intolerance in one form, and yet instituted it in other
ways,” he wrote, advising his readers to accept differences in marital
statements, which mark the priest’s long-standing ministry to “LGBTQ”
Catholics at a London parish, drew headlines, but did not appear to
affect the Dominican’s standing at the Vatican.
2015, Father Radcliffe was named a consultor to the Pontifical Council
for Justice and Peace. Previously, he served as director of the Las
Casas Institute of Blackfriars, Oxford, which promotes social justice and human rights.
He is also a “witness” expert to the Synod of Bishops.
when Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general of the Synod
on Synodality, announced on Jan. 23 that the October synodal assembly of
bishops and participants would begin with a three-day retreat led by
Father Radcliffe at the invitation of Pope Francis, no mention was made
of the Dominican’s views on sexual ethics.
Instead, the Luxembourg cardinal, who has also faced criticism
for calling for a change to Catholic teaching on homosexuality, used
the press conference as an opportunity to deflect concerns that the
synodal process was deepening polarization in the Church by providing a
platform for voices that opposed bedrock Church teaching and
do not need the synod in the Catholic Church in order to experience
tensions,” the cardinal asserted. “There are already tensions without
the synod, and these tensions come from the fact that each one honestly
wants to see or share how we can follow Christ and proclaim Christ in
the world of today.”
Cardinal Hollerich noted in his Jan. 23 comments that the working document
for the continental phase of the synod, “Enlarge the Space of Your
Tent,” views tension as “something positive. Because in order to have a
tent, you need some tension. Otherwise, the tent is falling down. And I
think that the synod, the listening to the word of God, the listening to
the Spirit, praying together, being together on the way, will ease bad
“So we do not want
bad tensions destroying the Church, but good tensions sometimes are
necessary for harmony,” he concluded, without defining these terms.
During an October 2022 press conference introducing the working document, Cardinal Hollerich and other organizers celebrated the synod’s message of “radical inclusion” as the work of the Holy Spirit.
44-page document notes that many synod reports raised questions about
the role of women, young people, the poor, people identifying as
“LGBTQ,” and the divorced and remarried.
also identifies the celebration of the Mass, whether according to the
pre-Vatican II missal or the post-Vatican II liturgy, and access to the
Eucharist as “knots of conflict” in the Church and cites a great
“diversity of opinion” on the subject of priestly ordination for women,
which some reports called for, even though Pope St. John Paul II declared in 1994
“that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly
ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by
all the Church's faithful.”
Respected Retreat Leader
the three-day retreat led by Father Radcliffe clarify the difference
between good and bad tensions and better ground the goals and
methodology at work in this process?
experts contacted by the Register said they hoped the priest would
provide a stronger foundation for the upcoming synodal deliberations and
help bring the synodal delegates together.
Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services at the Archdiocese
of Los Angeles, who has attended retreats led by Father Radcliffe,
vouched for the priest’s reputation as a strong retreat master.
“A wide range of people have come back from his retreats with glowing reports,” said Father Fox.
And though some of
Father Radcliffe’s public comments have raised eyebrows, he had charted a
prudent course during his decade-long service as master of the Order of
Radcliffe’s considerable gifts may well mute criticism of his
appointment. But his vocal stand in favor of “LGBTQ” issues, coupled
with similar comments from synod leaders, will do little to tamp down
the internal Church divisions that he and Cardinal Hollerich have
may also lead more Catholics who support Christian sexual ethics to
mistrust the synodal process and conclude that it is being manipulated
by organizers who have their own agenda.
people who sound this note about ‘division in the Church’ often present
people who stand by traditional Church teaching as the ‘bad’ guys,
while those who want a change in Church practice are the ‘good guys,”
observed Russell Shaw. “I wish the people” who use such terms “would
just let us know what they want.”
The existence of
tension within the Church is not the more fundamental issue, said John
Grabowski, a professor of theology at The Catholic University of
America. “Tension can be fruitful,” he told the Register.
can hold different ideas and still possess a “common faith and a common
desire to see how can we meet the needs of the Church.”
if the voices of those on the fringes of the Church are equally
weighted with settled Church teaching, that is not a good tension. It is
a recipe for confusion,” he said. “The Church isn’t a polling group. It
is the body of Christ in the world.”
Cardinal Pell’s Concerns
Synod on Synodality has no magisterial authority. However, the final
report will be sent to Pope Francis, who will then issue a post-synodal
apostolic exhortation, which does. But experts worry that the process,
especially translated through the lens of secular media, will raise
expectations that Church structures and discipline are on the brink of
late Cardinal Pell outlined a number of related concerns in a Jan. 11
article published posthumously in the British magazine The Spectator.
In one of his final commentaries, the Australian cardinal urged the Church to address unresolved tensions in the poorly defined multiyear synodal process.
synods be “servants and defenders of the apostolic tradition on faith
and morals,” or will they “assert their sovereignty over Catholic
teaching”? he asked. Likewise, he directed his brethren to adopt a
stronger role during the synodal process.
are “successors of the apostles, the chief teacher in each diocese and
the focus of local unity for their people and of universal unity around
the Pope, the successor of Peter,” he said. They are not “wallflowers or
And he took aim at the synod’s message of radical inclusion.
“insertion into the [synodal] dialogue of neo-Marxist jargon about
exclusion ... the voiceless, LGBTQ, as well as the displacement of
Christian notions of forgiveness, sin, sacrifice, healing, redemption,”
he argued, constituted an “attack on traditional morals.”
directed Church leaders to become more active participants in the
synodal process, reasserting their role as trusted shepherds of their
flocks while offering a firm judgment of the documents that are
is too soon to say whether bishops who agree with the late cardinal’s
critique will become more vocal as the synodal process continues.
But the following week, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego published an article in America magazine,
the U.S. Jesuit news outlet, that echoed his past support for changes
to Church teaching on homosexuality and women’s role in Church
governance, even as it decried the “growth of polarization within the
life of the Church and the structures of exclusion that it breeds.”
polarization ... is found in the friction between Catholics who
emphasize inclusion and others who perceive doctrinal infidelity in that
inclusion,” he said as he listed other areas of conflict.
McElroy presented a “culture of synodality” as “the most promising
pathway to lead us out of this polarization in our Church.” Such a
culture can help to “relativize these divisions,” he said.
Cardinal McElroy seemed to be offering his own vision of a synod’s
purpose, saying that advancing doctrinal change was a legitimate goal of
proceeded to explain why women and lay Catholics should play a more
prominent role in Church governance and why Church discipline barring
active “LGBTQ” Catholics from the Eucharist should be changed, with
“conscience” taking priority over doctrinal precepts.
he did not adequately clarify how a synodal process, which might
advance the radical reforms he is seeking, would ease polarization in
the Church itself.
Father Radcliffe, Cardinal McElroy expresses his dismay over the
divisions among Catholics. The symptoms they identify are real, but the
prescriptions they offer, which sow confusion over Church teaching, will
do little to heal the divisions afflicting the Church.