A dissenting voice

st mary's university college twickenham

An interesting comment appeared in response to my post about the Catholic Women Rising project, stating that I am never going to manage to attempt to get every Catholic woman to sign up. Maybe not, but just because something may be difficult, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing.

As a point of note, the Catholic Women Rising site is not meant to be a personal vanity project – the intention is to hand over blog administration to any other Catholic women (or men) who may wish to be involved, especially in the apologetics side. The aim is to promote the New Feminism, winning over lapsed Catholics and hopefully even persuading women of other denominations,  as well as a manifestation of the huge amount of grass roots support that exists for Catholic teaching.  I don’t care from whence the apologetics comes so long as it is not only sound, but gentle – there will be no time for hectoring those who struggle with teaching or at times fall short. Whilst sin or error can not be validated,  one catches more flies with honey than vinegar as the saying goes and it is intended to be a place of joyful witness to the truth, not petty sniping or personal carping. I wonder whether women are better placed in terms of evangelising to other women nonetheless.

In the meantime, it will mainly be pro-life and personal witterings reflections as per usual on this site, but so far the response has been overwhelming, my email and social media inboxes have been inundated with support, with Francis Philips of the Catholic Herald, Joanna Bogle and Marianne Cutherbertson, being among those who have supported the site and signed. It’s early days yet, but I do intend to keep plugging away at it and getting as many names as possible and publicising the initiative outside of the internet.

Whilst not wishing to pick on the person who left the comment, another one of her points was that unrest exists within the Catholic church with regards to women. If this is the case then this needs to be identified and engaged with, not least so that women who feel uncomfortable with doctrine, are at the very least, afforded the privilege of being listened to and it needs to be established whether any pastoral solution can be sought, or whether they are labouring under a misapprehension. No-one is claiming that unrest doesn’t exist, but it’s a question of how representative some of the media narratives are. The majority of Catholic female voices in the mainstream media (Catholic Herald staff aside), from Joanna Moorhead to even Cristina Odone, seem to publicly dissent from at least one aspect of teaching. The project aims to offer a response and counter, to which a new post has gone up, which names some of the women of influence within the Holy See itself.

Tina Beattie suggests that the handful of women to whom the Vatican are listening are “selected handmaidens”, a deliberately inflammatory phrase, designed to reinforce the notions of patriarchy and sexual subservience and oppression. If one were of a less charitable disposition, one might wonder whether or not there is a hint of bitterness or frustration that as a theologian in a Catholic university, she is not among their number.

Occam’s razor comes in handy here – if there are not as many women as perhaps would be desirable amongst those positions open to the laity in the Curia, it has as much to do with the fact that many Catholic women have a vocation of wife and mother which is incompatible with a full-time job located in Vatican City. The complaint that ‘diverse prominent women theologians’ are not being listened to is due to the nature of the dissenting views of such theologians as opposed to their gender. Hans Kung wasn’t stripped of his teaching faculties on account of his sex.

If the church fails to take account of the problems of the women in the world, and I’m far from convinced that this is true, then this needs further definition.

But the most interesting aspect of this comment, is that it appeared to jump on the fact that I had apparently misunderstood and taken Tina Beattie’s Guardian quote from Protect the Pope, out of context and it appeared to be leaping to her defence. I have no intention of attempting to out the person who made the comment, who I suspect was a student and neither do I have the time or inclination to pursue or track down those who leave comments expressing disagreement.

WordPress does however automatically log the IP address of those who leave comments and as such I can often identify persistent trolls. This commenter is not a troll, she was simply disagreeing with me as she is perfectly entitled to do so, however what jumped out at me was that WordPress assigned a name to the originating comment, which was St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, a Catholic University, which has been experiencing a fair amount ofshenanigans of late.

That we have a student who seems to be in agreement with Professor Beattie is nothing to get rattled about. But it does once again pose the wider question about what might be going on in terms of teaching or catechesis at that university, which seems rather sad.

The power of Catholic bloggers

The Catholic theologian Professor Tina Beattie is this morning complaining about the ‘Sovietisation’ of the Catholic Church, following the cancellation of a series of public lectures at a Catholic University in San Diego. This comes hot on the heels of a cancellation of a lecture she was due to give at Clifton Cathedral in August.

The reason for these cancellations is that Professor Beattie openly dissents from Catholic teaching; she was one of the signatories to a letter to the Times stating that Catholics could in good conscience support gay marriage, she has supported abortion and suggested that Catholics ought to baptise their menstrual period every month, called Catholic teaching on contraception perverted and compared the sacrifice of the Holy Mass to homosexual sex. Deacon Nick Donnelly has catalogued the details.

It goes without saying that all of these statements are not only deeply offensive to faithful Catholics, not to mention those who may have suffered the tragedy of miscarriage, but also heretical. Though Professor Beattie has every right to describe herself as a theologian, although when I saw her debate gay marriage she demonstrated a wilful misunderstanding of Scripture even to my untrained theological eyes, what stretches credulity is that she identifies herself as a Catholic, given her wide-ranging dissent from Catholic teaching.

This is not a question of her academic freedom as she claims, but simply a question of whether she should be given a platform by Catholic institutions to promote her views. It does not matter that the content of her forthcoming tour was according to Professor Beattie, orthodox, being based upon Mary and Lumen Gentium, the problem is, that if Professor Beattie is invited to speak by Catholic institutions, it lends her authority, an authority which she then uses to launch dissenting views. If Professor Beattie wishes to discuss and expound her theology, she is free to do so at any public venue or institution, however the Catholic church should not give her credence or do anything which may endorse her kooky views.

As someone who is faithful to magisterium, which for many of us is not always easy, to hear Professor Beattie as an alleged fellow Catholic describe our way of life as ‘peverted’ is distressing and offensive. I should imagine that celibate Catholic homosexuals feel similar. What she has said about abortion and the baptising of menstrual periods is not only sacramentally and biologically incorrect, but also terribly upsetting. To equate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the moment when Christ becomes present in the Eucharist with sodomy is sacrilegious and offensive to all the faithful.

No-one is claiming that because certain views are offensive that they should be suppressed, no-one has the right not to be offended, Tina Beattie has every right to broadcast or publish her thoughts if she can find a willing platform, however the Catholic Church has every right to refuse that platform and withdraw its endorsement from someone who does not represent them and could seriously mislead people and endanger souls. The magisterium is non-negotiable, it is derived from Scripture and tradition, it is the body of teaching passed down to us from Christ himself and cannot simply be changed at a whim. Though theological matters can and should be discussed, as the Pope said to the English Bishops in 2010:

It is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.

It is vital that the Catholic Church is seen to distance itself from views such as these, because as I discovered to my peril in the run-up to the papal visit, critics of Catholicism along with lapsed or struggling lay Catholics, seize on her words and use them as justification for wide-ranging dissent and condemnation of the Church, such as we have seen with this morning’s Guardian article. Those who are faithful to the magisterium are accused of being “ultra orthodox” or “fundamental’ and as a ‘Catholic theologian’ Tina Beattie’s words are used as proof that not only is one in error, but also the Church itself and that Tina Beattie is actually far more representative of the majority of the faithful. I had both Tina Beattie and Catherine Pepinster quoted at me by the self-righteous liberal mummy forum in the run up to the papal visit, in an attempt to prove that I had no idea what I was talking about. One contributor claimed to have been speaking with a “well-known Catholic female journalist on the inside” and came out with ludicrous claims, which were all eagerly seized upon.

With that in mind, I do have some sympathy for Professor Beattie, in that the cancellation of her speaking engagements will affect her reputation and her finances. It cannot be easy to bear public humiliation and for that she should be in our prayers, along with an intention that she may come to see the error of her current position. With regards to whether or not the Catholic blogosphere is to blame for a campaign against her, I think this is a little unfair. Some Catholic bloggers have highlighted their disappointment that she should continue to be feted as a Catholic theologian and thinker and called for a withdrawal of official support, but no-one has engaged in ad hominem or said anything that is untrue. Tina has been hoisted by her own petard and condemned by her own words.

I would however urge Catholic bloggers, not to get carried away with a heady sense of power and influence. As Tina acknowledges, the blogs who have inflicted the damage, the blogs with real influence tend to be those written by the Catholic clergy who have exercised charity and restraint, whilst expressing their disappointment which is perhaps why they have been so effective. Most of us receive hits from the Vatican and I would wager most of us get traffic from those who are ideologically opposed, or our ‘enemies’. I’ve recently discovered that my blog is read on a regular basis by BPAS amongst others. I’ve not always been as temperate as I should have been, particularly during episodes of terrifying cyber-bullying, but actually as part of the New Evangelisation, we need to exercise charity, remember that we are representatives of Christ’s Church here on earth and keep in mind whether or not our writing is doing anything to promote Gospel values. We cannot complain about Stonewall’s smearing, labelling and cheapening of discourse in an attempt to close down debate, if we are prepared to do that to each other and our clergy.

If we are going to criticise and expect to be taken seriously, we need to ensure that any criticism is appropriate, measured, evidenced, charitable and remember that even if we are criticising clergy or bishops, that these are still men of God and we should neither impugn their motives or holiness. Our role should be that of critical friend and where possible we should attempt to avoid public scandal. Otherwise there is a real risk that we come across as embittered individuals prone to public rantings and internecine feuds and cause damage to the body of Christ. One of the most powerful blogs on the block at the moment is Eccles and Bosco, which is not only extremely amusing to read, but manages to incisively get to the heart of Catholic politics and current affairs with devastating satire. The power of comedy should not be underestimated, it underscores the issues, but manages to add light and some much needed laughter.

I don’t feel any sense of satisfaction over Tina Beattie’s current predicament, more relief that she is increasingly seen as a maverick. Bloggers shouldn’t do anything to justify her sense of martyrdom or claim ‘moral victory’. We have to make sure that criticisms made are out of love and based in truth. Actually what has happened should not be seen in any way as punitive, but in the same way as excommunication, a medicinal measure designed to bring someone back into the folds of the church. If this withdrawal of mainstream Catholic support serves to make Professor Beattie do some serious re-thinking and embrace the magisterium in its fullness and then resume her work whilst recanting her previous views and promoting the beauty of Catholic sexual teaching, then I think Catholic bloggers could claim a victory for the Church. Professor Tina Beattie promoting and advancing traditional Catholic teaching. She’s a highly intelligent passionate woman with a wide-ranging media platform. That would be a truly powerful witness to the positive effects of the Catholic blogosphere.