How to Discover What We Believe

Timothy Radcliffe

In wrestling with the hot topics of contemporary religious debate, from ordination of women to gay partnerships, we should not expect to reach speedy conclusions, writes the former Master of the Dominicans. It involves a process of searching.

CATHERINE PEPINSTER, the editor of this journal, is intrigued by the cover of my recently published book, What is the Point of Being a Christian? She wrote: "It shows Radcliffe with his hands covering his mouth, possibly in prayer. Or is he restraining himself from speaking out, possibly too honestly, too tactlessly? What does he really think?" ("An enigma wrapped in a cowl", 17/24 December, 2005). Actually, the photograph was taken during grace at Santa Sabina, and probably I was wondering what was for lunch. It is true that I am sometimes hesitant to offer an opinion on various hot religious topics, but this is not because I fear to say what I think, but because being truthful about matters of faith is more than just reporting what happens to be in my mind at the time.

We live in a marketplace of opinions. People are expected to have opinions about everything, from the European Union to fox-hunting. Likewise, we Christians are expected to produce opinions on every religious topic of the day, from the ordination of women to gay unions. But being truthful is more than just having an opinion. It involves a process of searching. The Greek word for truth – aletheia – implies the activity of uncovering what is hidden. We must study the Word of God, attend to the teaching of the Church, reflect upon the experience of Christians through the centuries and today; we must pray for enlightenment and test our ideas in debate with one another. We are not consumers expressing our preference for one soft drink or another. We are concerned with the truth of what is revealed to us by God.

Surveys are frequently carried out which tell us what Catholics think about various subjects, from contraception to the virgin birth. These are not only interesting from a sociological point of view. They are also significant because these are the views of people who practise their faith, say their prayers and are touched by the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. But it is not enough: we are not a democracy that can vote for what we feel to be the truth. We must sometimes wrestle with God's word and with each other if we are to discover what we are to believe.

Let us glance at some touchy issues: sexual ethics, homosexuality and the ordination of women. Christian morality is not mostly about sex, despite the impression given by the media. It is fundamentally about becoming free and happy in God. But if the Church's teaching about sex becomes radically out of touch with what Catholics live, then there is a problem. Many Catholics are divorced and remarried, or living with partners or practising contraception or are gay. To put it simply: should the Church accommodate her teaching to the experience of our contemporaries or should we stick by our traditional sexual ethics and risk becoming a fortress Church, a small minority out of step with people's lives? Neither option seems right.

In my book, I confess that I do not know the answer. We must find a way towards one and I propose we do so by focusing on a more fundamental question: What does it mean to be bodily? We cannot have an illuminating sexual ethics that helps people on their way to holiness unless we build on the proper foundations of a Christian understanding of what it means for us to be sexual, corporeal beings. I suggest that we may do this by thinking of our sexuality in the light of the Last Supper. "This is my body, given for you." It is in the light of these astonishing words that we should reflect upon what it means for us to give our bodies to other people. Our bodies are not possessions to be disposed of but gifts to be given and received with reverence. This may ultimately offer us the foundation for a better understanding of sexual morality and its demands.

The question of homosexuality is the focus of intense division and discord in every major Christian Church in the West. We have what seems to be an unbroken tradition of the condemnation of homosexual acts by the Church. On the other hand, nearly all Western Christians have friends who are homosexual and whom they know to be good, lovable and wholesome people, who do not in this respect appear to suffer from any pathological distortion of their minds or lives. Are they to be told that they can never have sure and recognised relationships in which they can flourish and grow in their capacity to love? Are they to be told that they must for ever be celibate? I must confess that I do not know. If the Holy Spirit was indeed poured upon the Church at Pentecost, then the Church's consistent teaching cannot simply be wrong. But nor, many will say, can it simply be right in its present development and formulation.

To arrive at the truth of the matter implies a patient labour that will include studying the Word of God in the light of the best available analytical tools, looking at the evolution of the teaching of the Church, listening to what gay Catholics can teach us and then debating. There are lots of gay Catholics who have thought and prayed about this all their lives. We must attend to their experience, which has its own authority. A Christian morality is not a theoretical construction, derived from abstract first principles to which human nature must be forcibly conformed. Thomas Aquinas taught that it is a practical wisdom, and so it evolves in the encounter of the Gospel with the lives and experience of the people of God.

Then there is the ordination of women. One of the most extraordinary achievements of the twentieth century has been the profound challenge to the oppression of women. It is arguable that this is rooted in Jesus's own practice, but the Church has yet to catch up. A purely male hierarchy of the Church is incomprehensible for most of our contemporaries, and for many Catholics too. And yet we are faced with an unbroken tradition of a male priesthood since the foundation of the Church. Is it then true that women cannot be ordained?

I confess for a third time that I do not know. This is not the threefold denial of Peter, who did not wish to get into trouble by saying what he believed. It is genuine puzzlement. It is not enough for me to inspect my feelings about this matter. Feelings are highly volatile. Again we are forced back to more fundamental questions. What does it mean to be a priest? I cannot think of any theological study that has yet offered me a profoundly satisfying understanding of the priesthood. What is the meaning of gender difference? Our Enlightenment inheritance may tempt us to think that what really matters for our humanity is our minds and thus minimise the significance of gender difference. But Christianity cherishes our bodiliness and thus our sexuality. A good incarnational theology should explore sexual difference in equality. Maybe there are roles that are best fulfilled by either men or women? What is the relationship between sacramental ordination and authority in the Church? Should decision-making solely be in the hands of the ordained? Until we wrestle with all of these questions, then how can we possibly discover whether women should be ordained or not? We would not even know what sort of a question we were asking.

There are questions to which I do not know the answers. Indeed there are questions to which I believe that the Church does not as yet know the answers. If we are to seek the truth, then sometimes we must confess our perplexity. We must live through moments when we are faced with apparently contradictory truths. Loyalty to the tradition may push us in one direction, and yet our experience or reason may pull us in another. This is painful. We may be tempted to escape from this predicament by jumping one way or the other, either absolutising or dismissing the theology of our forebears. Either option is a flight from the painful and patient exigency of truthfulness, which takes time.

We formulate tentative hypotheses and submit them to the judgement of the Church, hoping that even if they are not accepted at least they may be helpful. It took the Church centuries of study, prayer and debate to arrive at clarity on the great central doctrines of our faith, and from time to time issues will continue to arise which will perplex us, I hope. We will only stop questioning and questing with the coming of the Kingdom. It will be objected that people need clear simple teaching. But if we do not take the necessary time to arrive at the truth, then our teaching will be simple and clear but without authority. Embracing the patient discipline of study, reflection, prayer and mutual attentiveness is vastly demanding.

So there is no short cut to the truth. Being truthful takes time. The role of the Magisterium is, or ought to be, to ensure that the Church takes the necessary time. It needs to pose tough questions when new views are articulated, not because of a fear of change or as "doctrinal enforcers", though that may sometimes be necessary, but to ensure that in the search for truth we do not take lazy short cuts and grab at premature and inadequate answers. The role of the Magisterium is to keep us talking, thinking and praying about what is central to our faith, as we journey towards the one who is beyond all words.

Timothy Radcliffe is the former Master of the Dominicans. What is the Point of Being a Christian? is published by Continuum.

The Tablet January 28,2006

Your comments are welcome.

Click here to return to the list of articles.

Go to top

Welcome | Living Our Story | Just A Thought | Reader Comments |
Author's Remarks
| Newspaper Reviews | Free Downloads | Contact Us | Links