A Deeper, Larger Truth
It may be imprudentand impudentfor this reviewer, who teaches at Benedictine institutions, to suggest that readers of a Jesuit journal have much to learn from a Dominican. Timothy Radcliffe, who recently finished a term as master general of the Dominicans and was rumored as a successor to Cardinal Basil Hume as archbishop of Westminster, is one of Catholicism’s brightest lights today. The product of an aristocratic English upbringing and a noted Scripture scholar, he has the rare gift of combining intelligence and wisdom, humor and insight. I Call You Friendscomprising an extensive interview and a collection of essays ranging from commitment to sexualityoffers a warm, unfussy eloquence that is deeply attractive.
At the heart of this book is the question of how the church can authoritatively and credibly preach the Gospel in a first world dominated by the marketplace and yet hungering for the transcendent, and in a third world wounded by violent poverty and offering an encounter with world religions. When truth is at once scorned and desired, and authority is compromised by 20th-century totalitarianisms, simply asserting our faith ever more strongly, hammering away will not do. Such stridency will only confirm suspicions that authority corrupts truth and freedom. How, then, is the church to overcome this crisis of authority and to share the good news?
Radcliffe’s response is deeply Dominican and, surprisingly, Benedictine. The modern world does not so much suffer from secularization, but hungers for the truth that is Godeven if it searches everywhere but Christianity: a little Zen today and some aromatherapy tomorrow. Veritasthe Dominican mottois not cold but living and beautiful, not a possession or ideology to be wielded but a gift to be shared. It is to be proclaimed with the confidence that it is of God and the humility that such divine mystery always exceeds our grasp of it. This truth is, as Aquinas knew, ultimately personal, rooted in the friendship that is God’s very essence and our destiny. It is thus truly good news.
This weaving of truth and friendship gives rise to characteristically Dominican practices. Radcliffe returns time and again to the respectful, generous argument of Thomas Aquinas; the careful listening and consensual governance (and occasional chaos) engendered by authentic obedience; the frank and loving speech exemplified by Catherine of Sienaall qualities, he notes gently but firmly, that are needed in the church today.
More intriguing, however, is Radcliffe’s Benedictine inheritance. His evident concern for the marginal and outcasts of society has roots in that order’s hospitality. More personally, having grown up a somewhat mischievous childnearly expelled from his Benedictine school for reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover during Benedictionhe was not particularly devout. It was the beauty of the monks’ liturgy that kept him in the church, the beauty that would not let me go. Today, the church is called to be a place of the revelation of true beauty, paradoxically rooted in the poverty of the cross. Such beauty reveals truth and goodness and draws us to them. He thus expresses the hope that we might find a way of reconciling the mystery of the preconciliar liturgy with the understanding of the postconciliar liturgy, so that both heart and head be led to God. His comments resonate with those of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who recently said that beauty disarms...is irresistible to those otherwise suspicious of the church (Am., 7/30).
I Call You Friends has its limitations. Like any collection of essays, it suffers from a certain scatteredness. Its final section, while engaging, has an academic tone at odds with the preceding portions. More substantially, I wonder whether Radcliffe’s self-confessed optimism leads him to underplay the ways in which Christianity must rightfully cause division in the world. As his late Dominican confrere, the theologian Jean-Marie Tillard, once wrote, the church has the vocation of saying no to all that corrupts the yes to the Gospel. Sometimes we all need an evangelical kick in the pants.
Radcliffe’s insights nonetheless have an urgency for the church as it continuesin some ways, beginsto receive Vatican II. Both the recent consistory of cardinals and the synod of bishops stressed that the church must be a school of communion, manifesting the inherent attractiveness of holiness as well as a diverse unity opposed to uniformity and promiscuous pluralism. Pope John Paul II has himself stated that much remains to be done. Radcliffe argues that the council’s teaching on collegiality has scarcely been implemented: the synods fail to share responsibility, while John Paul’s call in Ut Unum Sint for a renewed exercise of papal primacy is still far from having [been] answered.
These Petrine gatherings have also revealed, wittingly and not, the need for a genuinely Pauline boldness of speech. We are too afraid of debate, Radcliffe suggests, for it seems to compromise unity. Deeper still is a fear of thinking, which fails to see that honest argument will lead to a deeper, larger truth than can be obtained in an occasionally enforced silence masquerading as unity. To love is, sometimes, to criticize.
At a time when the West remains mired in a crisis of authority and an ever more global church engages religious pluralism, Radcliffe’s vision of a church liberated by the truth of God’s friendship offers a sure way forward: We [must] show that the Word we proclaim does not just stand over and against us. It is more intimate to our being than any word we could speak; it made us and it enters the darkest places of the human heart and offers us a home. Then we will all be able to speak of the absolute claim of Christ with authority, and show it to offer us true freedom.