Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The optimism of Timothy Radcliffe



Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican friar, was chosen by Pope Francis to lead the three-day retreat for all participants prior to the first assembly last October of the Synod on Synodality.  This was a position of great trust given the eyes of the Catholic world were gazing at this potentially earth-shattering event.

A former world leader of the Dominicans, Fr Radcliffe is a well-known author with a world-wide following, whose six Synod meditations have now been published. His first meditation on 21 October 2023, called ‘Hoping against Hope’, laid out his own hopes. Among them was the aspiration that “this synod will lead to a renewal of the Church and not division; the hope that we shall draw closer to each other as brothers and sisters”.

He reassured Synod participants that their efforts may be misunderstood, but they should not worry about this.


During our Synodal journey, we may worry whether we are achieving anything. The media will probably decide that it was all a waste, just words. They will look for whether bold decisions are made on about four or five hot-button topics. But the disciples on that first synod, walking to Jerusalem, did not appear to achieve anything.


Recently Radcliffe came to Australia as a guest of the Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn to give a retreat for school principals and a range of public talks in Canberra and elsewhere. The talk I attended was titled ‘Where to next with the Synod? An evening with Timothy Radcliffe’. It was an entertaining evening, full of wisdom, humour, and stories. He is a most attractive personality.

Radcliffe presented his reflections on the Synod from his privileged position as a senior cleric on the inside. He was optimistic in the face of an audience of outsiders far from Rome who were eager to draw him out. But it was a particular sort of optimism, eschewing, as he did in his pre-synod mediations, any hope for immediate outcomes. In fact, he quoted the Australian singer Nick Cave who has described hope as ‘optimism with a broken heart’. This should have been a warning sign to all present not to expect too much.

He followed through on his earlier criticism in his meditations of the world’s media for concentrating on the wrong things. That is, the hot button issues rather than the deeper reality. Yet as the media, like the rest of us, was frozen out of the proceedings their task was not an easy one.

 When pressed it appeared that Radcliffe personally shared some of the aspirations of those in the audience who hoped for church renewal, including for the lives of women in the church. But he was still confident in the working of the Spirit at the Synod and prepared to be patient. He was at one with Pope Francis in seeing the embedding of synodality within the Church as the main priority for the Church. What the world, including the media, would see as ‘outcomes’ could wait.

His ‘hope with a broken heart’ seemed to me to rest on two elements, both of which I rate as problematic. Neither element sits well with the life experiences of everyday Catholics, shut out of the inner sanctum. One was the alleged transformative power of the synodal method, including the conversations-in-the-spirit. Radcliffe emphasized that through listening with an open heart in small groups to the views of other Catholics, including lay women and men, and to each other, the senior bishops and cardinals would be transformed, differences would be healed, and the Church would be renewed. No evidence was offered for this miracle other than his observations. The public statements of some cardinals since then suggest otherwise. Perhaps even an astute observer like him can be caught up in wishful thinking.


'The second basis for Radcliffe’s optimism seems to be his assumption that it is acceptable for the Church to take its time. Here he shares a common assumption among Catholic leaders.'


We Australians have some other evidence at our disposal. The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, 2018-2022, has been credited with being the inspiration for the Synod methodology, or at least an early exemplar. We can rightly ask whether the bulk of the Australian episcopate experienced a transformation at the plenary council. What evidence should we look for?

To a hopeful observer, such as myself, the evidence of transformation of church leaders seems thin on the ground. The first official report of progress in embedding the synodal method within the Australian dioceses was a thin document, only worthy of a D+. That is not being too harsh on most leaders, though some rate more highly. There must be some tangible evidence of transformation for everyday Catholics seeing their church decline around them to hold onto. Otherwise, we must assume it is lacking in the hearts and minds of our most senior clerics. If that is a misjudgement then it is up to them to correct it. Actions speak louder than words.

The second basis for Radcliffe’s optimism seems to be his assumption that it is acceptable for the Church to take its time. Here he shares a common assumption among Catholic leaders. How often have we heard that the Church moves in centuries or that Rome is called the Eternal City because everything takes an eternity to happen. More specifically it is often said that it takes a century for the outcomes of a church council to come to fruition and that sixty years on from the Second Vatican Council it is too early to expect full implementation of its promises.

Radcliffe had his own unique take on this phenomenon. In response to a question from his audience asking whether there was any ‘sense of urgency’ in Rome surrounding the Synod, he gave the impression that among clerical members, at least, there was not. In jocular fashion he responded that the Roman Empire took 300 years to fall, but eventually it did. Was the audience to read into this generous timeframe that speed was not of the essence?

It is incumbent upon those, including church leaders and influential clerics, who agree that it is quite acceptable for the Church to move at a stately pace to explain why this should be so. What is so different about the Church? Does it have a special dispensation? No other human organisation in the public or private sector faced with a major crisis of belonging and belief of the order facing the church is given such latitude. Imagine if a government or corporate leader told citizens or stakeholders to be patient and wait decades because that was the natural order of things. They would not get away with it. It would be seen as either incompetence or a delaying tactic to preserve the status quo.

The same applies to the Church. Radcliffe’s views are widely held. Church leaders should be open about their intentions. They certainly should be held accountable for inaction.




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: (Vatican media)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Church, Reform, Synod, Vatican, Timothy Radcliffe



submit a comment

Existing comments

The author needs to realise that one does not need to have access to the 'inner sanctum' in order to impact change in the church.

Micah | 11 April 2024  

Timothy Radcliffe OP is another dated cultural warrior of the misconceiving Post Vatican 2 generation. He and his ilk will gently fade away, hopefully leading to a genuine rebirth of Catholic Christianity.

Edward Fido | 13 April 2024  

Radcliffe, in Warhurst's terms, is no cultural warrior and to hurl against him, or Warhurst for that matter, that standard anti-woke, right-winger's slur (offered as a cover for favouring no change) does Fido no favours.

Warhurst has constructed Radcliffe as an apologist for a Pope assailed on all sides by a terribly divided Church and, accordingly, hardly committed to the one way or the other on the Synod, but instead unquestionably on the side of loyalty.

For Catholics well-used to the contortionism it takes to be a bishop these days this is nothing new. It has, after all, been said that Pope Francis perfected his techniques as a young man doing the tango in downtown Buenos Aires in which, I'm told, the trick is to take two steps forward and one in reverse without tripping over oneself and bringing everyone else down on the dance-floor.

Warhurst is a brave man, clever and highly regarded as the alumnus of Jesuit school and emeritus of Australia's best school of government. Given the effort he has put into the synodal process, he is entitled to feel somewhat despondent.

Michael Furtado | 17 April 2024  
Show Responses

Why should John Warhurst feel at all despondent, MF?
As a responsible Catholic whose experience spans the challenges of both pre and post Vatican II, he has steadfastly articulated and published his views regularly in ES and other forums on the necessity of Church reform. Though I have often had cause to disagree with his point of view, I do not question his sincerity and responsibility - and appreciate his demonstrated willingness to contribute conscientiously to lay involvement in the exercise of full baptismal participation in the Church, including his offerings to dialogue and participation in the synodal process, which, even at this stage, has ensured public and formal addressing of issues critically pertinent to the Church and the world today.

John RD | 20 April 2024  

'Dated cultural warrior of the misconceiving Post Vatican 2 generation' ? Are there no redeeming qualities of Timothy Radcliffe 'and his ilk' , Edward? If brothers-in-Christ can be categorised and 'othered' in this way, can we really hope for an end to the religious tribalism that is at the root of some many of the world's trouble spots?

Ginger Meggs | 17 April 2024  
Show Responses

'If brothers-in-Christ can be categorised and 'othered' in this way...."

Science is all about categorising and distinguishing one from the other because truth is granular. So, why not faith?

s martin | 20 April 2024  

Respectable dictionaries - not only theological ones - distinguish between the adjectives "religious" and "religiose", Ginger. Excess, a form of distortion which can involve the collective hubris manifest in "tribalism", gives religion a bad name.

John RD | 19 April 2024  
Show Responses

'Religiose', excessively 'religious', so a subset of the latter, though I'm not sure where one draws the boundary. But John you miss, or avoid, the point that I was making about Edward, who I would not describe as 'religiose', categorising and othering his brothers in Christ.

Ginger Meggs | 22 April 2024  

What do you make of Christ's own 'othering' as presented in the Gospels, Ginger? The categorising you object to seems restrained next to "Get behind me, Satan", said by Jesus to the appointed leader of the apostles, as do the appellations "empty vessels", "whitened sepulchres", and "brood of vipers" directed at the religious leaders of his own people.

John RD | 29 April 2024  

John Warhurst challenges leaders to justify their alleged movement at "a stately pace" in responding to changes demanded by reform advocates in the Catholic Church. Permit me to suggest several reasons for the rate at which the Church leadership proceeds, not least among them:

1. The synodal process in which the Church is currently engaging involves a careful process of listening to a spectrum of experiences, views and cultures from across the whole world where the Gospel has been introduced.
2. The relative novelty and complexity of key issues, especially in the areas of Christology, ecclesiology, and bio-ethics precipitated by advanced technological research and its implementation.
3. The rapid acceleration of change - largely a contemporary Western phenomenon driven by corporate elites and the compulsive consumerist 'values' they promote; and the shallowness, evident increasingly in much media coverage, that they foster in response to issues radically affecting society's coherence and maintenance, let alone real progress.
4. Related to the above, the sloganeering and petulant tone and tactics displayed in many widely publicized demonstrations that demand change.
5. The nature of the discernment called for by the Church and its reading of "the signs of the times".
Besides the Ignatian charism of "discerning love" characteristic of Jesuit spiritual formation of Pope Francis, it was the eminent philosopher-theologian-priest Romano Guardini - who exercised significant influence on Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, among others - who called for "the discernment of what is Christian"; not only as an antidote to delusion and falsehood presented in the Church's name, but also as a crucial component of engaging with the contemporary world; a pro-active disposition inherent in Vatican II's vision, conception and mandating of the Church's mission today. Says Christopher Schonborn OP of Von Balthasar's contribution to the vision, ressourcement methodology, and agenda of Vatican II: "[He} continually demanded the "discernment of what is Christian" against an aggiornamento that threatens to dissolve precisely what is centrally Catholic by relativizing it pluralistically and making it a matter of language games." (Foreword to Razing the Bastions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
6. The cardinal virtue of Prudence is also especially relevant when it is a matter of distinguishing genuine development of doctrine grounded in the deposit of faith and the Apostolic tradition, and a proposed departure from them not infrequently sophistically couched in terms of tradition.

John RD | 20 April 2024  

A good article John.
Timothy Radcliffe, another male friar dressed up in a pure medieval costume surrounded by religious symbolism who we are exhorted to take seriously.

And for the pace of change in the church! Remember Galileo. His only crime was to claim that Earth revolved around the Sun. That was enough cause for the Catholic Church to persecute him. Condemned in 1633 for his subversive views, the Vatican threatened the scientist with a burning at the stake. That was the actual fate of Giordano Bruno in 1600. Dragged through Rome in chains with his subversive jaw nailed shut.
Forced to retract his statement, Galileo lived under house arrest for the rest of his life. It took 359 years and the leadership of Pope John Paul II to admit the wrong.
The UDHR was passed in 1948 and the Holy See repeatedly recommends its tenets to all nations where women are oppressed. It calls it a Lamp in Darkness.

Yet within the halls of the Curia, women have no voice, no membership, virtually no rights except to jump when a Bishop yells for a cup of coffee.
God spare us.

Francis Armstrong | 25 April 2024  
Show Responses

There's an interesting parallel, Francis, between your observation of the Curia and the role of women in the Chinese Communist Party. Although Mao famously announced that 'women hold up half the sky' and then introduced equal pay for men and women, the latter are conspicuous by their absence from any photos of the CCP heavyweights.

Ginger Meggs | 29 April 2024  

Similar Articles

Vatican invites global discussion on human dignity

  • David Kirchhoffer
  • 18 April 2024

Though there are few surprises in Vatican document 'Dignitas Infinita', this summary of Pope Francis’s moral theology on dignity invites a reevaluation of our shared humanity in the face of an increasingly complex ethical landscape.