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Conversations Catholics need to have

Michael McVeigh  |  10 November 2018

Fr Timothy RadcliffeDominican author and theologian Fr Timothy Radcliffe was in Australia earlier this year, speaking to staff in a number of Catholic schools. Australian Catholics editor Michael McVeigh sat down with him to talk about faith, education and how we might better open up conversations as Catholics.

MICHAEL: Our Catholic education system here in Australia is quite different to other places. One of the big challenges for schools is the area of ‘Catholic identity’. You have schools where the majority of students wouldn’t be going to church on Sunday, in fact the majority of teachers wouldn’t be going to church on Sunday. How do we engage people in a church space when so many are on the margins or even on the outer?

TIMOTHY: I don’t think any of the school groups I met put it like that. But if you look at Jesus, what you find is it’s precisely the people on the margins that he’s interested in. So seeing that there are people who are on the margins of the Church, who are suspicious of it, maybe even afraid of it, finding ways to engage them, doesn’t dilute our Christian identity. It’s actually what you find in that foundation of the Church in the first place. It’s the old people, it’s the prostitutes, it’s the Pharisees, it’s the critical ones, it’s the questioners and the doubters.

I think one of the first things you have to say is, ‘Bring us your doubts. Let’s have a conversation about them.’ And I always think the important thing for the Church is we will only have authority as a Church if we really give authority to people disagree with us. To say, ‘Gosh yes, I’m going to listen to that. What can we learn from you?’


MICHAEL: We have a young teacher working with us who has just finished his Masters. He was talking to some of the other young teachers in his course about some issue such as same-sex marriage, and one of the teachers said, ‘Well we can’t really go there in the classroom’. He had quite an irritated response to that, arguing that issues like this are what students are asking questions about. How do we find confidence in being able to open up those kinds of conversations in our classrooms?

TIMOTHY: Well, people need to be trained. I think we must give a good formation so that they’re able to face complex issues and not fall back on the prejudices of the press, which most people do.

We live in a very litigious society, and we think everything is about law – everything is about what you’re commanded to do or you’re forbidden to do. And it usually seems that you’re commanded to do what you don’t want, and you’re forbidden to do what you do. But actually the Christian moral tradition is not about that at all. It’s about growing in friendship with God. It’s a formation in friendship.

Aquinas said morality is about growing in freedom and happiness. The freedom and happiness of the children of God. That’s what the training in virtue is about, becoming strong. It’s not primarily about obeying rules, any more than playing football is primarily about that. You don’t play football to obey the rules. You need the rules of course. You couldn’t have a game of football if there weren’t any rules. But the point of football isn’t to obey the rules. It’s the joy of the sport. And so, also, our moral vision is about growing in joy and freedom.


MICHAEL: The Catholic Church in Australia is currently engaged in a listening and dialogue process, trying to engage the community about where is the Holy Spirit calling the Church today. From your perspective, where do you think the Holy Spirit is calling the Church today?

TIMOTHY: I think the great thing about Pope Francis is that he doesn’t know. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable. I think the biggest challenge we have is to have grown-up conversations. Francis wants the Church to become a community in which there is conversation at every level. The Bible isn’t God’s voice booming out saying, ‘Here are all the answers.’ As Pope Benedict said, ‘Revelation is God’s unending dialogue with His people.’ And I think this becomes flesh and blood in Jesus who is a man of conversation. I love the Gospel of John – it’s one conversation after another.

So are we grown up enough to have adult conversations? That means we state our convictions, with courage, but we listen. It means that you never dismiss people who disagree with you as ridiculous, or absurd, or nonsensical. And that you recognise that we all have different forms of authority.

Blessed John Henry Newman recognised that there are three authorities in the Church. The authority of tradition, and the hierarchy. The authority of reason – in the universities in his case. The authority of experience, which is in the whole people of God. He said to have a real conversation, we have to not only talk, not only listen, but realise that different people speak with different sorts of authority.


MICHAEL: One of the challenges for this conversation is that there are many people who haven’t felt that their authority and experience have been heard, and don’t think the Church is ready to listen to them. There are also plenty of people who have really been hurt by the Church. How do we overcome that?

TIMOTHY: When the Church listens to somebody’s pain the temptation often from the hierarchy or the priests is to be defensive. But that has to come much later. We have to first of all listen. And this is obviously the case with the sexual abuse scandal. We have to go through a long process. A few apologies are not enough. And a few meetings with survivors are not enough. You really have to be touched by the depth of the pain.

When Pope Francis realised he’d made an utter mistake in Chile, he got these young people to come over and he spent something like two or three days listening, and listening and listening. And that’s just the beginning of the listening. And that has now given him an authority he didn’t have before.

Fr Enda McDonagh – a great Irish priest – said unless we’ve been touched by the despair of the people who’ve been hurt by sexual abuse, unless we’ve really entered into their darkness, then we’ve nothing to say. I wonder whether we’ve even begun that. It’s going to be very painful to do – to really listen. But if we do a new Church will be born.

For the full conversation, download the Chattersquare podcast from Eureka Street.


Topic tags: ourrelationshipwithgod, thecatholictradition, politicsandreligion

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