Timothy Radcliffe O.P. on celibacy
In a world where sexual desire is celebrated as a sign of good health and lust can even be bought in a pill, being a celibate priest can't be easy.
In today's program, one of the world's best-known Dominican friars challenges us with a spirited defence of celibacy.
Discovering our sexuality, I was reminded in last week's edition of The New Scientist , is a perfectly normal process that must be celebrated. We might wish to tame it, but we never negate it.
Well in the sex-saturated 21st century, how on earth does the Roman Catholic church sell celibacy and attract young people into the priesthood? All the more so if, as many Christians believe, sexuality is a gift from God.
Well it's a challenge our next guest relishes.
For ten years, Timothy Radcliffe led the international Dominican order, a movement of about seven and a half thousand celibate men and women known for their intellectual rigour.
In its distant history the thinkers of the Dominican order spearheaded the Inquisition, the struggle to root out heresy and excess during the late mediaeval period.
Despite the modern world's obsession with sexual gratification and 'desire', the Dominican order, you'll be surprised to hear, is having renewed success recruiting young North Americans into a life of celibacy and lifelong service in the Catholic faith.
Timothy Radcliffe is currently in Australia and in conversation with our own Noel Debien, challenges the notion that celibacy is a deliberate rejection of sexuality, but that, he says, still doesn't make it easy.
Timothy Radcliffe: That's right, and that's tough.
Noel Debien: How do you go about explaining or encouraging a 21-year-old Australian or Brit or African about the joys of celibacy? How do you go about that practice?
Timothy Radcliffe: We're making big steps forward. When I joined the order really there was almost no real preparation. I mean somehow they felt that if you had a cold shower occasionally and you went for a run, 'it would be all right'. But that's not enough.
Noel Debien: Are you saying it wasn't enough?
Timothy Radcliffe: I said it isn't enough to make it easy (laughs). I think that the first thing that we stress is that the formators those who are working, the novice masters, the student masters, the older brethren who work with the young when they join the order, they have to face their own sexuality. They can't help the young unless they've pretty nakedly faced what goes on in their own hearts. Where we've had these scandals of sexual abuse, it's often I think because of a failure to help people to grow in that mature, equal relationship with other people, and I would say fundamental in our tradition is the liberation from fantasy, because sex often tends to go wrong and become unhealthy when you get trapped in a world of fantasy. I think there are two main fantasies that tend to trap people. One in infatuation is you think that the other person is God, that they're everything, and its mirror image is lust, where you make them an object of sexual desire, just to be devoured. As Thomas Aquinas says in lust, 'The lion sees the stag just as a meal'. And that a lot of maturity in sexuality is actually learning to see that the person you have in front of you is neither God nor a lump of meat, but a human being. A human being who's also a child of God. Who's also got their own commitments and their own longings, their own desires, and whose humanity you must deeply respect. I mean it sounds so cold and frigid, but it isn't, it's a real loving, an unvoracious loving, an unpossessive loving of other people. You can't expect to attain that the day you arrive, it's a process, and it's slow, and you must have the confidence to make the journey.
Noel Debien: You've said before that celibacy is not just a matter of not having sex I believe, you said it's a way of admiring a person for their humanity, maybe even for their beauty.
Timothy Radcliffe: Yes, I think one of our brethren, called Herbert McCabe, who is a well-known Dominican theologian in England, he said that if chastity isn't a way of loving, then it's a dead corpse. And I think that the deep value of the vow of chastity is not that you say, Oh, I'm not allowed to have sex, it is that you have a certain freedom, a certain liberty to be available to people to be close to people, and to love them. And if you love them, often, then you will delight in them, you delight in their presence, you delight in their humour, you'll delight in their wisdom, and you'll sometimes delight in their beauty, too.
Noel Debien: I suppose, though, in the West there would be many who would say to you that part of the natural human experience is the sexual dimension of life, and partnering with others, and what that means. Some will talk of marriage and commitment. Others won't even talk of that level of commitment when they talk about expressing their sexuality, and I wonder, there must be a level, when you take a vow, of control, of self-denial, which is not about simple pleasure in other people, it's about something else.
Timothy Radcliffe: Certainly you have to learn a certain discipline but it's not easy. The sexual drive is extremely strong in people, and so it's not enough to swan around just smiling at people and taking pleasure in their company, you're absolutely correct. But it's a discipline which is not just about control, it's about much more, it's a discipline about freedom. If you see David Beckham (I don't know whether you've heard of him in this country).
Noel Debien: We certainly have.
Timothy Radcliffe: Right. To play football beautifully, to learn that sort of freedom on the football pitch, that spontaneity, you've got to learn a discipline. If you want to be a musician, you want to be able to play the piano and discover a sort of spontaneity when you're playing, then you have to go through a discipline. It's not just how you learn control, it's how you learn freedom. And I think in a very similar way, somebody who joins a religious order and makes a commitment to celibacy, they learn a discipline so that they may be loving, so that they mightn't devour people, so that they mightn't be voracious, so that their love will be liberating and will be intimate. You see, what I think is absolutely fundamental to most human beings is the desire for intimacy, and in many ways I think that is as important, if not more important, than the desire for sexual pleasure. Somebody who takes a vow of celibacy has to learn with some discipline, how to be intimate in a way that's appropriate and beautiful, and that's not easy, but it's possible.
Noel Debien: There would be those who say that the church's understanding of human sexuality in itself, and human psychology for that matter, is as imperfect as is our psychiatry and psychology of the present day, at least as imperfect as that. And I wondered therefore how you go about a plan of creating a healthy psychology which includes the abnegation of celibacy. How do you go about trying to achieve that in young men and young women of course, because there are both within the Dominicans. How do you go about actually as a senior within the order, trying to achieve that and encourage it?
Timothy Radcliffe: The first thing is how you think about your sexuality. Often the impression that you get in the press is that the church's sexual ethic is about telling people what they're not allowed to do. And it tells an awful lot of people they're not allowed to do an awful lot of things. That's the wrong starting point. The heart of the Christian tradition is the Eucharist, where Jesus says, 'This is my body and I give it to you'. If you think about it, that's the best basis for a sexual ethic, it's eucharistic. So people have to live in their sexuality as a way of self-gift, just as Jesus at the Last Supper gave himself to us forever, completely, totally, generously, the fundamental basis of any Christian sexual ethic has to be that eucharistic generosity. In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about two things really: sex and Eucharist. And they're deeply linked. So I think that if you have a young celibate, young man or young woman who wants to be a religious and take a vow, the first thing you're doing, is you're not saying 'How do you apply the brakes?' You're saying, 'How do you live with generosity, how do you give your lives totally to other people?' And all that sexual dynamism has to be lived in the context of generosity, self-gift. Now of course, you'll still have to learn a certain discipline, a certain understanding of when to be discrete and hold back.
Noel Debien: Avoiding the occasion of sin, I think?
Timothy Radcliffe: That was the old way of putting it; and there's a lot of sense and intelligence in that too. But it will enable you to grow, slowly, in a mature, adult, holy, love of other people. Trying to attain that equilibrium.
Noel Debien: So detachment from the fantasy surrounding sex is one thing you're preaching, not detachment from sex - but detachment from fantasies that lead elsewhere?
Timothy Radcliffe: Exactly, and it's not detachment from friendship, it's not detachment; it's not a cold detachment which says 'I musn't get too close'. We find in the Dominican order we have a fair number of vocations now in the west, an increasing number. The country in the world where we have most vocations is in the United States of America.
Noel Debien: And what do you attribute that to in the United States? That's an interesting story, because it contradicts the common sense we share these days. Are you saying the Catholic church is over the crisis in vocations to the priesthood, "over the hump"?
Timothy Radcliffe: No we've got a long way to go before we're over the hump. But I think we have to catch up a bit with reality. Reality is changing. There are signs of new vitality.