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.”
Father 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 views.
But now, Father Radcliffe himself has become part of an already contentious debate over the goals and methodology of Pope Francis’ global Synod on Synodality.
Barely 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.
Likewise, 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.
One 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.
“A 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 practices.
These 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.
In 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.
Indeed, 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 discipline.
“We 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 tensions.”
“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.
The 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.
It 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
Will 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?
Catholic 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.
Dominican 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 Preachers.
Father 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 deplored.
It 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.
“The 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.
Catholics 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.”
But 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
The 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 major reforms.
The 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.
Should 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.
Bishops 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 rubber stamps.”
And he took aim at the synod’s message of radical inclusion.
The “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.”
He 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 produced.
It 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.”
“This 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.
Cardinal 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.
Here, Cardinal McElroy seemed to be offering his own vision of a synod’s purpose, saying that advancing doctrinal change was a legitimate goal of the process.
He 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.
But 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.
Like 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.