Friday, 16 November 2012

DSRC Theology Forum

Following the recent controversy surrounding the cancellation of my visit to the University of San Diego, we have decided to open a debate on the role of theology, authority and the magisterium, as the first in our postings on the DSRC Theology Forum. We have been planning to start such a moderated forum for some time, but this seems like an opportune moment to raise an important and urgent issue for theological discussion. We hope that, as well as offering academic theologians an opportunity to exchange ideas in brief blog postings and comments, the forum will provide a resource for parishes, RCIA groups, theology students and others who are interested in how different theologians approach questions of contemporary relevance to religious traditions, with a particular but not exclusive emphasis on debates within the Catholic theological tradition. We are delighted to have two of Britain’s best known theologians opening the debate from very different perspectives – an article by Professor Nicholas Lash first published in America magazine, and a response by Professor Gavin D’Costa.

Please do visit the forum and tell us what you think, and share the link with others. We welcome informed, disciplined and courteous discussion from all perspectives, and we also welcome suggestions for topics that you might like to see explored here, or recommendations for possible contributors. If you have an essay, article, video, poem or other artwork that you think would be an appropriate focal point for discussion, please email Thomas Lynch at, or me at

Please note that all comments will be moderated in the interests of maintaining a focused, informed and courteous discussion which is relevant to the topic.

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:

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Cancelled Visit to the University of San Diego

UPDATE - 6 November:

The American Association of University Professors letter to Dr Mary Lyons, President of the University of an Diego

Letter from members of faculty in the Theology and Religious Studies programme of the University of San Diego to Dr Mary Lyons

UPDATE - 5 November:

Statement by Professor Gerard Mannion, Director of the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, University of San Diego.

I think I should correct a slight misrepresentation in The Guardian's coverage of this story. Contrary to a claim that has been widely disseminated, it is not true that 'Tina Beattie calls on English bishops to defend her dissent.' I do not think bishops should be asked to defend dissent. Their role is to uphold the official teachings of the Church, and I fully respect that role. They would be failing in their duty if they did otherwise. That role is different from the role of an academic theologian, and the two should not be confused. Here is the relevant paragraph in The Guardian, with my actual words highlighted:
"I think it's a really important time for the Church in this country because we have so far been not divided by this kind of ugly rupture," Beattie told the Guardian, calling on the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to show a "very strong united front" in the face of any attempt to stifle dissent. "There's been a creative atmosphere of people being able to hold different positions in this country without it causing this kind of ugliness and I really think it's vital that the Bishops collectively stand up to protect that now."
I did not use the word 'dissent'. I was appealing for our bishops to safeguard the unity in diversity of the Catholic community by affirming that there is legitimate space for informed and mutually respectful debate among Catholics on social, political and ethical issues, against those who are threatening to close down that space.

The Catholic community in this country is graced with an educated, informed and committed laity, with many dedicated and good priests, and with bishops who are generally wise and pastorally sensitive with regard to protecting the vitality of Catholic life and culture with its many different perspectives and opinions. I am suggesting that these are precious qualities which are under threat. I have not nor would I call on the bishops to defend 'dissent', whether by me or anybody else.

UPDATE - 4 November:

I am aware that there is concern among some of my fellow Catholics who perceive me as using my status to undermine Catholic teaching in destructive and irresponsible ways. Before making such judgements about me, please read the page I've posted here, in which I offer a reflection on the responsibilities and methods of theological reflection and debate in engagement with Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae. 

I have done everything within my intellectual ability to study and understand why the Church teaches as she does, before I have ever spoken out to question or challenge any teaching - and I have never done that in relation to core doctrinal teachings. When I feel I have something valid to offer during a time of radically changing values which inevitably challenge the Church to respond, I try to do so in a responsible and reasoned way. Having said that, I know that I have a flamboyant way of writing and speaking, and I don't deny that I could express things more carefully sometimes. However, my principle is that articulated in Pope Paul VI's Decaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, 7 Dec 1965:  

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. (#3)

If you think I am wrong in some of my theological arguments, then you have a right and maybe a duty to put forward a different argument. However, when the people criticising me take their stand upon the most narrow and dogmatic possible interpretation of a theologian's responsibilities - namely, to parrot everything the current magisterium says without question - they betray the diverse and rich intellectual tradition of which they are a part, and make the Church look ridiculous in the eyes of the world.

Here is my response to a beloved friend - a Jesuit priest - who e-mailed me yesterday to offer his support, while also saying that "I consider that the term 'marriage' should  be kept for the union of a woman and man and that some other acceptable term should be used for the union of same sexes." I replied:
I know that many of my friends agree with you about marriage, and I find it an immensely complex issue. I would never come down dogmatically in favour of changing the law, but I have reflected very deeply in the light of natural law, scripture, the Church's teaching and my own wide experience of knowing so many gay people, from my young students to some of my ageing Catholic friends. I think their love and commitment would enrich rather than diminish the meaning of the word 'marriage', for those few who would want to get married. Many countries already legislate in favour of same-sex marriage. The real threat to marriage today is not from gay couples but from chaotic heterosexual relationships and the tragedy of so many children who are born into unstable and loveless relationships. That's a dark social crisis in the making.
Here is an interesting story, relevant to this:
A Catholic priest speaks up in favor of same-sex marriage
And the Archdiocese issues admonition against personal views from the pulpit.
End of update.

This is a version of an e-mail that I have circulated this morning. I am posting it on my blog and I am willing to publish moderated comments according to the following criteria:
  • Personally abusive and offensive comments will be deleted immediately.
  • Comments which show a level of willful ignorance about the norms and methods of the Catholic theological tradition will not be published.
  • If you have good reason to protect your anonymity I respect that, but I prefer not to publish anonymous comments and would encourage you to identify yourself if you are able to.
Links do not show very clearly in this new layout. Please hover over the reference to various documents and statements to follow the link if you want to read them.

"I was warned against writing this book,
People said: If one did not watch out,
It could be burned.
So I did as I used to do as a child.
When I was sad, I always had to pray ...
At once God revealed himself to my joyless soul, held this book in his right hand, and said:
'My dear One, do not be overly troubled.
No one can burn the truth.'"

 Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1260-c.1282/94), The Flowing Light of the Godhead

UPDATE: Here is the statement issued by the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture. It appeared briefly on the University of San Diego's website before being taken down.

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’. (Here is the text of my talk). 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. Professor Mannion poins out that "at no stage was I consulted about the decision to cancel your visit nor informed in advance. I learned at the same time you did. In fact I had received assurances from other senior administrators that the visit would go ahead because this was a question of academic freedom."

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. This is the most up-to-date copy of a statement I wrote, which includes the full text of the letter, names of the signatories, and subsequent correspondence. 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, given the extent to which they are distorting and misrepresenting my work.

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. 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)