Over the weekend I caught word that Pope Francis had appointed a Dominican, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe to be a consultor on the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace. As a temporary professed Lay Dominican, I learned that he headed the Dominican Order in the 1990s and was known for his passion for social justice.
Apparently, he is passionate about acceptance and approval of homosexual sexuality as well.
When Nick read some of his quotes to me, I will confess that my words were unprintable. I was dismayed. This was a priest in favor of at least homosexual civil marriages.
What is the problem with the Radcliffe appointment? The evidence for his favor of homosexual sexuality is overwhelming. Let me mention just two instances.
The devisors of an Anglican Church report on homosexuality asked Fr. Radcliffe to comment on their research. During his comments he said he was suspicious that the Catholic Church’s obsession with sex and a stress on rules (are) both relatively late and alien to traditional Christianity.
Now I know that rules tell us very little about God’s evaluation of sexual expression. But they are where most of us begin, including the Apostolic Church. The New Testament is filled with lists of directives regarding sexual conduct. It is not a late development.
Radcliffe then lays out a few paragraphs about fertility, fecundity, and the role of the body in self-giving love. These statements didn’t seem controversial although they seemed foggy and overly general.
But then the the bomb drops.
We cannot begin with the question of whether [homosexual marriage] 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 non-violent. So in many ways I think it can be expressive of Christ’s self-gift.
Now if these statements were qualified with statements about how homosexual love will always fall short of God’s design because it can never be entirely free of the disorder of same sex attraction, I wouldn’t be as exasperated as I am right now. Or he could have included clear statements about the sinfulness of homosexual genital activity. Then I would be comfortable going on to discuss recognition of non-genital self-giving love between homosexual couples.
But apparently Fr. Radcliffe has already moved beyond me on this and given his approval of, at least, civil homosexual marriage. In a December 2012 article in The Guardian, Radcliffe wrote, “It is heartening to see the wave of support for gay marriages. It shows a society that aspires to an open tolerance of all sorts of people, a desire for us to live together in mutual acceptance.”
It is possible he was misquoted. But I doubt it because the journalist’s summary goes on: “But, he said, a heterosexual notion of marriage should not be imposed on gay couples, though differences should be embraced.”
Now what differences should be granted to homosexual couples? Are they subject to monogamy, fidelity, what about consummation? Doesn’t this pose a serious obstacle? I haven’t a clue what he means by “differences.”
Then I remembered appointments under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
When it comes to John Paul II, in 1980, he appointed Kenneth Untener as Bishop of Saginaw. His consecration to the episcopacy became controversial when critics complained about his seminary workshop on sexuality. Detractors of the workshop claimed it promoted lewdness and promiscuity. In the Archdiocese of Detroit it has become the stuff of legend and I’ve never been able to sort out what was true and what was false. But I am confident it wasn’t good; it was discontinued.
Bishop Untener had many personal pastoral qualities that I admired. When I was hospitalized after an amputation. He called having lost a leg early in life. I loved his intimacy with his priests with whom he lived for long periods of time. But he was perhaps best known, it is regularly claimed, for refusing to ordain any more male priests until the Church allowed the ordination of women to the priesthood. In any event, he supported women’s ordination.
Pope Benedict XVI had his controversial choices as well. One French Bishop was known as the “Rainbow Bishop” because he was “gay friendly and wore rainbow stoles.”
In 2010 this same Catholic bishop wore alb, stole, cope, mitre, and pectoral cross in a non-Catholic sanctuary with a non-Catholic presider.
With two non-Catholic “bishops”, he processed and participated in a travesty of ordination. The gravity of the scandal is increased by the fact that 13 women, dressed in chasubles, were among the “ordinands.”
So Pope Francis is not alone is making some disturbing appointments. So I then began asking myself how many consultors are there and what kind of authority do they exercise. What’s the difference between a Pontifical Council and a Congregation, etc. What’s the difference between a Consulter and a Member?
So here is a little lesson in church organization. What is called the Roman Curia is composed of a number of different dicasteries, i.e., departments but by far the two most common types are Congregations and Councils. There are nine Congregations like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, etc. They wield executive authority.
Then there are the Pontifical Councils of which there are 12 like the Pontiifical Council on the Justice and Peace, on Family, on Life. While Congregations have executive power, Pontifical Councils do not, and remain in the background working in their own spheres of influence.
There is also the Pontifical Academy of Science which is not quite as lofty as a Pontifical Council but members are still ultimately appointed by the Pope. The current head of it isn’t even a Catholic although he is a committed Christian who won a Nobel Prize. The atheist Stephen Hawking has been a member and might still be. There are over 80 members.
So then how significant and influential are Consultors? The number of Consultors and Members of the Pontifical Commissions vary widely. For instance, the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace has forty members and consultors. The Pontifical Council for Family has 15 Cardinals, 12 Bishops, 19 married couples, 39 consultors and a staff of ten making a grand total of 95. We are looking at hundreds of consultors and members.
Just how much influence Fr. Radcliffe will exercise is questionable. He is not a voting member. He is one among many who may be asked for expertise in a given area. He is primarily a sounding board, a consultor when a member wants to check out various ideas or expressions. It is an honor but not the high point of anyone’s life.
While this appointment is not good, it is hardly a game changer. Couldn’t Pope Francis have found some other equally qualified theologian to reward with this appointment? Only he knows. We don’t even know why he was chosen. His homosexual opinions may have nothing to do with it. He has many areas of expertise.
The bigger problem is his application of his so-called Eucharistic Ethic. It is foggy, imprecise and can be applied to almost any sincere loving relationship. His self-giving ethic of love justifies all. Remember the old situation ethic of love advocated by the former Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher. It smells the same.
Now I’m painting with a very broad brush here and I’m fairly certain Fr. Radcliffe would object to my comparison. I’m confident, however, that the logical conclusion of his Eucharistic Ethic ends in the ethical swamp of relativism just as surely as Fletcher’s Situation Ethics.
For instance, according to my lights, unmarried, non-Catholic, cohabiting couples can experience authentic self giving love. Isn’t that the definition of “Eucharistic ethic”? Does that mean we should welcome them to the Lord’s Table?
Radcliffe’s appointment is also a problem inasmuch as it forces us talk more about internal church issues- exactly what Pope Francis wanted us to avoid. He asked us to not be so self-referential. He wanted us to turn our attention to the New Evangelization and reach out.
Holy Father, we are trying but with appointments like this conscientious lay Catholics can’t help but wonder why. You’ve said yourself that this is not an age of changes but a change of the ages. This applies to the way the Church does ministry. We are in an age where the greatest change in Catholic ministry in centuries is taking place: the laity is taking co-responsibility for the Church. Informed laity can charitably ask for rationales. In matters like this, you are not obligated to give them. Nevertheless, even if we don’t get them we can and will ask.
We pray for Pope Francis. His is a grueling, relentless job and I’ll wager 100 to 1 that he only rubber stamped this appointment. Nevertheless, I pray that in his attempt to shake things up and stretch our sympathies for the marginalized and excluded, “the prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners”, he doesn’t inadvertently lead us to ignore Jesus’ closing admonition to the woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more.”
That simple admonition keeps Jesus’ mercy from morphing into lackadaisical excusing of sin. The Church does something far more difficult that excusing or ignoring sin; She forgives it in Christ’s name and by his sacrifice while never forgetting to uphold God’s standards as the goal for all of us.