01Nov Academic freedom in the Church is under threat

Late last year, Professor Gerard Mannion, Director of the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of San Diego, invited me to spend several weeks there as a Visiting Fellow. He and I liaised closely to put together a programme of public lectures and seminars, and I was also invited to talk at a prayer breakfast and to give the prestigious annual Emilia Switgall lecture. Last week, I received notification that my talk at the prayer breakfast had been cancelled ‘for pastoral reasons’.

On Sunday morning (28th October) I received a letter by e-mail from Dr Mary Lyons, President of the USD, saying that she was rescinding the invitation because I ‘dissent publicly’ from the Church’s moral teaching. I appealed to her to reconsider, and offered to work with her to find a positive outcome to this situation for all concerned. However, I received a short response on the evening of 30th October British time, saying that her decision was final. I had of course booked my tickets and made arrangements to cover all my teaching etc. I was due to travel on 6th November, returning on 8th December. My husband had been invited to accompany me, and we were both being provided with accommodation. (He was paying his own expenses). The USD has guaranteed that they will fully reimburse me. I understand that Emilia Switgall was happy with me as a choice of speaker.

I do not know the exact reasons for the cancellation of my visit, but I have been the target of a blog campaign in recent weeks, which began with a concerted endeavour to have a lecture by me at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol cancelled. This was because I had signed a letter to The Times, along with twenty six others, saying that Catholics could, “using fully informed consciences, … support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.” Signatories included six priests and several other theologians, all of whom are highly respected.

The Bishop of Clifton, Bishop Declan Lang, resisted pressure to cancel the lecture but the protestors contacted the CDF, who intervened to say that the lecture should not go ahead. My cancelled talk in the Cathedral was on Mary and Lumen Gentium as part of a series on Vatican II, and had nothing to do with any controversial or disputed issue. My proposed public lectures and seminars in San Diego were all similarly written with a broad audience in mind, and with a desire not to create problems for my hosts by provoking controversy in the currently febrile atmosphere of American Catholic politics. The Clifton Cathedral lecture is being published along with others in the series, which also includes a lecture by Cardinal Danneels. I know that my role in the diocese is valued and that I have the trust of Bishop Declan. He has reiterated his support for me this week, acknowledging that, while he does not agree with all my theological positions, he respects my right to say what I think in my ‘search along the pathway of truth’. He also strongly dissociates himself from the bloggers who are using his name to justify their campaign against me.

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Roehampton, Professor Paul O’Prey, wrote Dr Lyons a lengthy and courteous letter in support of me and defending the principle of academic freedom, but that seemed not to affect her decision, nor did the many letters and e-mails of support that were sent to her by senior academic colleagues in Britain and America. Dr Lyons did not contact Professor O’Prey, my Bishop or myself before cancelling the visit. I therefore do not know what her sources of information were, other than the blogs about me. Had she contacted any of us, we would have been able to explain that the situation is more nuanced and positive than the bloggers are suggesting. (I suspect the most influential blog was that of the Cardinal Newman Society, which is ironic since I am in high demand as a speaker by the Newman Association and its various local groups in this country).

The cancellation of my visit is not the most important issue in all this. The real issues are academic freedom, the vocation of lay theologians in relation to the official magisterium, and the power of a hostile minority of bloggers (some of whom are ordained deacons and priests) to command the attention and support of the CDF. The latter is the most sinister development of all, and it is a cause for scandal which brings the Church into disrepute. However, it also shows how deep this crisis has become. As an employee of a state-funded university with the full support of my Vice Chancellor and with my academic freedom protected under British law, I enjoy a position of security which is not true of my theological colleagues in many American and continental European universities. I want to use that position responsibly to address issues that have now become absolutely critical for lay theologians and for the wider Catholic community. In view of the serious allegations being made against me on the internet, I am issuing a statement of my theological position with regard to the specific claims that are being made. I have written this reluctantly since I believe it is better to ignore the bloggers, and all my ideas and arguments are freely available through my publications and through links on my website. However, I feel I must set out my position publicly in a brief and accessible statement.

If you would like to contact Dr Lyons to express your concern, her assistant is Elaine Atencio: atencio@sandiego.edu. I also urge people to express support for Professor Mannion (gesmannion@gmail.com). He has been put in a very difficult situation, and I regret that I have unintentionally and unwittingly played a role in that. He is a highly respected theologian and a personal friend. Please also feel free to forward this to anybody you might want to share it with. I would ask that all correspondence and communication maintains the highest possible levels of courtesy and generosity towards those we are addressing. While this story will inevitably provide more material for those who publicly humiliate themselves and others on the Catholic blogosphere, it is also an opportunity to raise the tone of the debate and to claim a space of theological intelligence, Christian charity and personal dignity, in order to demonstrate that sensitive issues can be discussed and disagreements can be acknowledged without abuse and insult. I intend to put some of this material on my own blog.

For those among you who are Catholics, let’s take as our guiding ethos the spirit of Vatican II which is so magnificently expressed in Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council – ‘Gaudet Mater Ecclesia’ – and in Cardinal Martini’s posthumously published interview, which is a lament for the Church he had served and loved all his life. Finally, please pray for all involved in this – the institutions and the individuals – that we might emerge from this crisis with strengthened faith, deeper understanding, and in such a spirit of reconciliation that those who are watching might still be able to say “See how they love one another”. (Tertullian)

Professor Tina Beattie FRSA, Director, Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies
School of Humanities,  Roehampton University, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PH

15 Responses

  1. Mary O Vallely

    Another bleak reminder of how far we have yet to travel on the road to tolerance and charity. I am so sorry that this has happened to Tina and it is small consolation to be numbered among so many good Christ like followers in being treated with injustice and almost a contempt. It is highly and deeply uncharitable not to be given a chance to dialogue and discuss differences but isn’t that the way the Curia works? It does seem to beggar belief (again) that there are those within this Christian establishment whose hearts appear to be without compassion, understanding or love, some of whom take delight in these games of one upmanship. (women haven’t been long enough in positions of power and authority to excel at this game but given time, who knows. Sisters, let us learn from our brothers’ mistakes.)

    For my part, and I am only an ordinary theologically uneducated person but a baptised one, I will email those Tina has suggested we email. That is a promise and I suggest everyone of us do the same. I will also offer my prayers for all those who suffer, for all in the church and those without. It saddens and maddens me that this has happened. Christ himself, remember, suffered the utmost humiliation and indignity and cruelty. No more shining example of dignity in suffering and in ultimate triumph. Christ is the heart of integrity and truth and we must never, ever forget or abandon these principles.

    This week in Armagh we are saying our annual novena prayer to St Malachy who was born in the city and who had to weave and wend his way through similar type trials in his day. However, one line in the prayer ( Imprimatur Seán Cardinal Brady, November 2010) seems to be unnecessary and rather alarming in its connotations of “them” and “us” and it causes me a great deal of disquiet. The middle part of the prayer goes like this, “…enkindle the hearts of bishops and priests that, aided by your patronage and example, they may labour to form a holy people, strong in faith, constant in prayer,abounding in charity, devoted to the Sacraments and loyal to the See of Peter.” Why is it thought necessary to insert that? What is the thinking behind it? It is actually rather frightening what is happening at present but we are a people of hope and we will, le cuidiú Dé (with God’s help) always remain so. I was just thinking of Jesus in the Temple and wondering what was going through His mind and what He would want us to do today.

  2. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Tina’s blog “Marginal Musings” is here:

  3. Felapton

    Isn’t a professor of Catholic theology who believes that homosexual acts are permissible like a professor of geology who believes that the Earth is flat? Would an astrologer expect to be invited by a department of astronomy to present a series of lectures to the public?

  4. Fr. Kieren

    I wonder if it is possible to make a distinction between a theologian who is a catholic and a catholic theologian? Tina is a wonderful theologian and often does what a good theologian does, that is ask sometimes difficult questions. However in the UK she is often seen as and sometimes used as a dissenting Catholic theologian, this I believe is down to no fault of her own, but I think she does not always make it clear that she is exploring her own (valid) theological speculation and opinion, rather than attacking or dissenting from official Church doctrine. Personally I believe her theological work contributes greatly to theological debate and her voice in the public sphere of professional and not so professional theological musing is needed, but such speculation should not be considered as an alternative or rival to Catholic doctrine. Those who in their ignorance attempt to darken the name of Tina, should consider the contribution of Rahner, de Lubac, Congar and even Ratzinger to Catholic theological debate, such contribution, although not always fully accepted and adopted has I believe enriched the great theological tradition of the Church.
    Saying all that, I will admit that I disagree with much of what Tina says and writes, but if I only studied those theologians I agreed with, I would never pick up a book on theology again!

    When I was writing my thesis for my Masters I wrote about and defended the christology adopted by Jon Sobrino (one of my theological heros). A couple of years later, a good friend of mine wrote a thesis for his STL criticising the same christology. Both myself and my friend could be described as orthodox (not traditional) priests and both of us wrote papers that were successful, which suggests to me that theological debate and disagreement is essential. I wonder sometimes if when studying theology (especially in seminaries) only approved theologians will be allowed to be read and studied; if that is the case the future of theological speculation is in trouble.

  5. Sandra Mc Sheaffrey

    I have sent an email also. I offer the following which came right into my mind on reading Tina’s article
    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me.

  6. gerry oates

    When Tina Beattie writes about academic freedom it reminds me of Hans Kung saying the same thing when he became persona non grata some years ago. Since then, of course, he has warned the Curia that they will have an upheaval on their hands of a proportion like that of Luther’s.

  7. Joe O'Leary

    “I think she does not always make it clear that she is exploring her own (valid) theological speculation and opinion, rather than attacking or dissenting from official Church doctrine.”
    Theologians have to be so careful of their manners, so discreet in what they say, so anxious not to be understood even by those who are eager to misunderstand, that the game is not worth the candle!

    “Since then, of course, he has warned the Curia that they will have an upheaval on their hands of a proportion like that of Luther’s.”
    True, he has said something like that recently; but he may be wrong — what we seem to be seeing instead is a melancholy long retreating ebb of church attendance.

  8. Bob Hayes

    Sandra, whatever one’s view of the Tina Beattie affair, I really do find it deeply insulting to the memory of the Jewish people slaughtered in the holocaust, and to our Catholic Church, to draw a wild comparison between Professor Beattie’s problems and the Nazis attempted genocide of European Jews. Please do not let yourself be carried away with monstrous hyperbole.

  9. Stephen Edward

    You quote good Pope John XXIII, may I do the same?
    “For, as you well know, Venerable Brethren, Our most recent predecessors have often issued serious warnings to priests about the extent of the dangers that are arising among the clergy from a growing carelessness about obedience with regard to the teaching authority of the Church, to the various ways and means of undertaking the apostolate, and to ecclesiastical discipline.” I think that this can be reasonably extended to those calling themselves Catholic theologians.
    (From SACERDOTII NOSTRI PRIMORDIA – a good read)

  10. Joe O'Leary

    “I think that this can be reasonably extended to those calling themselves Catholic theologians.” No, the theologians are being repressed for doing their job of thinking. It is not that they lack “discipline” but that their honest and responsible labors do not suit the taste of the curia and the noisy fundamentalists. The snide “calling themselves Catholic theologians” has been deployed against a host of excellent theologians, most of them far more deeply Catholic than their critics.

  11. Joe O'Leary

    Bob Hayes, what are you talking about? That saying is very widely used to apply to cowardly silence on every front. Your faux indignation would not be appreciated by Jews.

  12. Fr. Kieren

    Hi Joe,

    You seem to suggest that there are those who are eager to misunderstand, which would suggest that there are many who are eager to be led into error.

    The theologian has a vital role and yes ministry in the Church, but no theologian is a or should be treated as an alternative authority to the authentic magisterium in the Church.

  13. Bob Hayes

    Joe (post no. 11), no ‘faux indignation’ from me, I can assure you. The fact that the quote attributed to Martin Niemöller is ‘very widely used’ makes it no less insulting or inappropriate. Florid hyperbole does not encourage dialogue: it closes it down.

  14. Paddy Ferry

    I have to agree with Joe. I have used that so many times, probably always inappropriately according to your criterion, but that, I suppose, is just the way we are. It is still a brilliant means of highlighting moral cowardice, you must agree, and I would never ever want to be disrespectful to Jews.

  15. Bob Hayes

    Well, we’ll beg to differ Paddy. I would have thought Edmund Burke gives a good pointer with, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ – and it avoids Godwin’s Law in so many debates!

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