The optimism of Timothy Radcliffe

Timothy Radcliffe

Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican friar, was chosen by Pope Francis to lead the three-day retreat for all participants prior to the first assembly last October of the Synod on Synodality.

This was a position of great trust given the eyes of the Catholic world were gazing at this potentially earth-shattering event.

Who is Fr Timothy Radcliffe?

A former world leader of the Dominicans, Fr Timothy Radcliffe (pictured) is a well-known author with a world-wide following, whose six Synod meditations have now been published.

His first meditation on 21 October 2023, called ‘Hoping against Hope’, laid out his own hopes.

Among them was the aspiration that “this synod will lead to a renewal of the Church and not division; the hope that we shall draw closer to each other as brothers and sisters”.

He reassured Synod participants that their efforts may be misunderstood, but they should not worry about this.

During our Synodal journey, we may worry whether we are achieving anything.

The media will probably decide that it was all a waste, just words. They will look for whether bold decisions are made on about four or five hot-button topics. But the disciples on that first synod, walking to Jerusalem, did not appear to achieve anything.

Where to next with the Synod

Recently Radcliffe came to Australia as a guest of the Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn to give a retreat for school principals and a range of public talks in Canberra and elsewhere.

The talk I attended was titled ‘Where to next with the Synod? An evening with Timothy Radcliffe’. It was an entertaining evening, full of wisdom, humour, and stories. He is a most attractive personality.

Radcliffe presented his reflections on the Synod from his privileged position as a senior cleric on the inside. He was optimistic in the face of an audience of outsiders far from Rome who were eager to draw him out.

But it was a particular sort of optimism, eschewing, as he did in his pre-synod mediations, any hope for immediate outcomes.

In fact, he quoted the Australian singer Nick Cave who has described hope as ‘optimism with a broken heart’. This should have been a warning sign to all present not to expect too much.

He followed through on his earlier criticism in his meditations of the world’s media for concentrating on the wrong things.

That is, the hot button issues rather than the deeper reality. Yet as the media, like the rest of us, was frozen out of the proceedings their task was not an easy one.

When pressed it appeared that Radcliffe personally shared some of the aspirations of those in the audience who hoped for church renewal, including for the lives of women in the church.

But he was still confident in the working of the Spirit at the Synod and prepared to be patient. He was at one with Pope Francis in seeing the embedding of synodality within the Church as the main priority for the Church.

What the world, including the media, would see as ‘outcomes’ could wait.

Hope with a broken heart

His ‘hope with a broken heart’ seemed to me to rest on two elements, both of which I rate as problematic. Neither element sits well with the life experiences of everyday Catholics, shut out of the inner sanctum.

One was the alleged transformative power of the synodal method, including the conversations-in-the-spirit.

Radcliffe emphasized that through listening with an open heart in small groups to the views of other Catholics, including lay women and men, and to each other, the senior bishops and cardinals would be transformed, differences would be healed, and the Church would be renewed.

No evidence was offered for this miracle other than his observations. The public statements of some cardinals since then suggest otherwise. Perhaps even an astute observer like him can be caught up in wishful thinking.

‘The second basis for Radcliffe’s optimism seems to be his assumption that it is acceptable for the Church to take its time. Here he shares a common assumption among Catholic leaders.’

We Australians have some other evidence at our disposal. The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, 2018-2022, has been credited with being the inspiration for the Synod methodology, or at least an early exemplar.

We can rightly ask whether the bulk of the Australian episcopate experienced a transformation at the plenary council. What evidence should we look for?

To a hopeful observer, such as myself, the evidence of transformation of church leaders seems thin on the ground. The first official report of progress in embedding the synodal method within the Australian dioceses was a thin document, only worthy of a D+.

That is not being too harsh on most leaders, though some rate more highly. There must be some tangible evidence of transformation for everyday Catholics seeing their church decline around them to hold onto.

Otherwise, we must assume it is lacking in the hearts and minds of our most senior clerics. If that is a misjudgement then it is up to them to correct it. Actions speak louder than words.

The second basis for Radcliffe’s optimism seems to be his assumption that it is acceptable for the Church to take its time. Here he shares a common assumption among Catholic leaders.

How often have we heard that the Church moves in centuries or that Rome is called the Eternal City because everything takes an eternity to happen.

More specifically it is often said that it takes a century for the outcomes of a church council to come to fruition and that sixty years on from the Second Vatican Council it is too early to expect full implementation of its promises.

Radcliffe had his own unique take on this phenomenon.

In response to a question from his audience asking whether there was any ‘sense of urgency’ in Rome surrounding the Synod, he gave the impression that among clerical members, at least, there was not.

In jocular fashion he responded that the Roman Empire took 300 years to fall, but eventually it did. Was the audience to read into this generous timeframe that speed was not of the essence?

It is incumbent upon those, including church leaders and influential clerics, who agree that it is quite acceptable for the Church to move at a stately pace to explain why this should be so.

What is so different about the Church? Does it have a special dispensation? No other human organisation in the public or private sector faced with a major crisis of belonging and belief of the order facing the church is given such latitude.

Imagine if a government or corporate leader told citizens or stakeholders to be patient and wait decades because that was the natural order of things. They would not get away with it. It would be seen as either incompetence or a delaying tactic to preserve the status quo.

The same applies to the Church. Radcliffe’s views are widely held.

Church leaders should be open about their intentions. They certainly should be held accountable for inaction. First published in Eureka Street

  • John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.
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