Friday, 9 November 2012

Academic freedom, lay theologians and the official magisterium

The Council of Trent, Fresco
Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The cancellation of my planned visit to the University of San Diego continues to generate considerable media interest and expressions of support and concern. You can read all the details on my earlier post here.
Faculty and students at the University of San Diego continue to protest vigorously against the President's cancellation of my visit, and I have been inspired and encouraged by their passion, commitment and courage. Their struggle is by no means over, and I shall follow developments with great interest and support for their cause. However, I believe that this is now becoming a question of the internal politics and policies of the University of San Diego, and I want to step back from that in order to allow that process to continue.

I shall not be posting any further updates on this particular situation, unless there are significant new developments which directly involve me. Rather, I now want to deflect attention away from me personally, to focus on wider questions which this situation has raised. Thank you more than I can say for the astonishing number of messages of support and encouragement I have received, and to those who submitted comments to this blog. Here is the text of an address I was asked to submit to a forum on 'Academic Freedom in Catholic Universities' at the University of San Diego last night. You can also read a number of other reports and documents on the Facebook Community site, 'TorerosStandWithBeattie'. Please continue to support their campaign.

It is clear from the fine investigative journalism undertaken by Joshua J. McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter that there is a very murky world of Catholic politics and power underlying the decision to cancel my visit. It seems that the President of the University of San Diego may have been pressurised or supported (I'm not sure which) by influential conservative Catholic benefactors and watchdog groups with links to the local Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican. Some students and faculty at the University are making connections between this and a wider attempt by conservative American media barons to virtually take control of civic life in San Diego. Douglas Manchester and John Lynch, who recently bought the San Diego Union Tribune, have allied themselves to a highly conservative and militaristic agenda. In an interview with Associated Press, Lynch is reported to have said that they 'bought the newspaper in part to promote their views in editorials. He called those views pro-family, pro-military and pro-America, and said "anybody who isn't shouldn't be living here"'. Once again then, conservative Catholicism risks forming an unholy alliance with a far-right American political agenda which flies in the face of so much that is enshrined in Catholic social teaching and the Christian ethos. Barack Obama's victory might temporarily take the sting out of this situation and the lethal politics it engenders, but these are not people who give up easily.

This raises questions which are of fundamental concern to all Catholics who seek an intelligent and informed engagement with Church teaching, supported by academic theologians, and who wish to remain open to debate and challenge in the quest for truth in the context of modern society and the responsibilities of good citizenship. Church teachings on issues of social justice and sexual ethics belong within that aspect of Catholic theology which is contingent, contextual and open to interpretation and development in the light of new cultural, scientific and intellectual challenges. This is not relativism, and there will always be debates as to where the boundary between revealed doctrine and natural theology should be drawn. In an incarnational theology, the two cannot and should not be held apart, because what we believe of God inevitably shapes what we believe of humankind, and vice versa. Some argue that there is very little room for negotiation and change on any matter about which the official magisterium holds a position, others argue that there has always been considerable room for a plurality of interpretations and debate on matters of moral theology and social ethics which are not part of the deposit of faith or the infallible teachings of the Church.

Both positions are capable of being defended, but today there is a dangerous trend towards creeping infallibity which corrodes the boundaries of intellectual freedom and the authority of individual conscience in the life of faith. This means that those who have a more extensive and inclusive understanding of the authority of the magisterium can and do exercise considerable power to silence and harass the latter with the full weight of Rome behind them. The current climate of magisterial hostility to independent thought makes it impossible to work with integrity as a thinking, reasoning theologian in fidelity to the demands of conscience, academic freedom and Catholic identity.

The British academic system may be almost unique in the world today, insofar as it accommodates theology as a discipline capable of being taught from different confessional and non-confessional perspectives, within the secular, publicly-funded university system. For theologians like myself, this constitutes a space of enviable academic freedom insofar as our jobs are not vulnerable to pressure from Church authorities. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Roehampton has been an exemplary model of what this means during recent cancellations of my activities, when he has robustly defended my academic freedom. However, it also brings with it significant responsibilities to both the academic community and the Church, which sometimes make quite different demands upon theologians such as myself who seek to navigate the choppy waters between the Scylla of potentially unrestrained and irresponsible academic freedom (fuelled by demands for demonstrable 'impact') and the Charybdis of excessively zealous and narrow interpretations of Catholic doctrine (fuelled by demands for obedience and conformity).

Those of us who work in British universities are in an excellent position to begin a debate around these issues because of the protected environment within which we work. My own recent experiences are not typical. Indeed, they are unprecedented. For a lay theologian employed by a British university, it is unheard of to find oneself bullied and silenced by dark magisterial forces working invisibly through various masked intermediaries. This is not a world I want to be part of. I converted to Catholicism in 1987 because I was inspired by the beauty and mystery of Catholic sacramentality, by the strong ethos of social justice that motivates so many Catholics I know in their work with the poor and the marginalized, and by the marriage of faith and reason which enabled me to leave a narrowly biblical evangelical church and become, for the first time in my life, a person with the philosophical and theological resources to think and reason with honesty and integrity about my faith. I now feel that this great intellectual tradition is being abused and betrayed by those who claim to be its custodians.

In order to take the focus off me personally and open up a wider academic debate, we are setting up a forum on the website of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing, on which we shall post articles and contributions that we deem to be particularly well-argued or significant in terms of this debate, and we shall run a moderated discussion forum on these. We hope to arrange an international symposium some time during 2013 to address such issues. Once the forum has been set up, I shall post news of it here as well as sending round announcements to various e-mail distribution lists. In the meantime, if you are aware of articles or books that you think would be valuable to recommend for users of the forum, or if you would like to make a theological contribution to the debate, please contact Thomas Lynch of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing:


  1. Dr Beattie, I believe that to discuss this issue in terms of academic freedom is to divert attention from what lies at the heart of the matter.

    You could very easily disarm your critics by explaining how (or whether) you see any difference between a "theologian", a "Catholic Theologian", and a "theologian who professes the Catholic religion".

  2. You keep referring to the "official magisterium". You've done it here and in other articles you've published over the last couple of weeks. Could you assist me by explaining what you mean by that and what inference you intend your readers to draw from it. Secondly, could you help me understand your notion of being a theologian and how it relates to the ecclesial vocation of the theologian?

  3. Hi Beatie, You are not alone in all this. I have a friend here in Denmark who has studied in Rome. In Rome he wasn't allowed to hold a lecture because it was about Hans K√ľng.
    We also have a small group of people here who are spreading false rumours about priests and laypeople they don't like, and if the Bishop doesn't like the person either, they will do anything to get rid of this person. Even things that are against our faith.

  4. A great deal used for distribution this grand post.


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.