In an ideal Catholic world, if a Catholic theologian promoted a woman’s right to choose abortion and encouraged access to same-sex marriage, while also comparing the sacrifice of the Mass to an act of homosexual intercourse, the work of that theologian would be marginalized. But, in the upside-down world of Catholic higher education in 2012, such dissidence is applauded. Case in point: Tina Beattie, the British theologian whose book, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate: A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, promotes such heresy, has been honored as a visionary on Catholic campuses here and abroad.
Conflict and confusion at the University of San Diego
However, after a decade of honors and accolades from Catholic institutions, Beattie’s writings are finally receiving some criticism. In 2011, Bishop Declan Lang, of the Diocese of Clifton in the UK, canceled a lecture to be given by Beattie as part of a diocesan speaker series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. And last month, Beattie’s invitation to serve as a visiting fellow at the University of San Diego’s Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture brought protests from the Catholic community in San Diego and beyond. In fact, the protests were so strong that Mary Lyons, the university’s president, abruptly withdrew the invitation just two weeks before Beattie was scheduled to arrive on the USD campus.
Lyons’ decision to cancel the Beattie fellowship resulted in a vote of “no confidence” from 99 members of the university’s Academic Assembly of the College of Arts and Sciences (the vote was 99 in support, 16 against, and 19 abstentions). Writing that “[t]he president has shown herself to be ethically bankrupt,” the 99 faculty members claimed that their vote “lets the world know that faculty here do in fact support and believe strongly in academic freedom…this body declares a loss of confidence in [Lyons’] leadership.”
In explaining her decision, Lyons distributed a letter to the University of San Diego community claiming that Beattie “has taken positions that many would say challenge Church teachings.” And although Lyons stops short of stating she herself would ever claim Beattie challenged Church teachings, the USD president also said that “offering [Beattie] an honorary fellowship would be a betrayal of those benefactors who supported the Center.” Pointing out that the Center was designed and funded by generous men and women who wanted to present the Catholic tradition “with accuracy and respect,” Lyons made the decision to rescind the invitation. In a letter to the chair of the Academic Assembly, Lyons wrote that she would allow Beattie to speak at the university in the spring semester as long as the theologian was not given an “honorary affiliation” with the institution—a reference to Beattie’s expected title of visiting fellow.
The real question is this: Why has Beattie—a theologian who has denigrated the teachings of the Church for more than a decade—been given so many honors in the first place? As the Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University, Beattie serves on the board of and is a frequent contributor to The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly journal which describes itself as “committed to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.” Consistently criticizing the Magisterium, Beattie is an advocate for a woman’s right to choose abortion. In a 2010 article published in The Tablet titled “In the Balance: Morality of Abortion,” Beattie calls abortion “the lesser of two evils.” Claiming that women have the right to choose abortion, Beattie writes, “It is to my mind unacceptable in today’s world that a religious hierarchy made up exclusively of celibate men should claim the right to make authoritative decisions regarding these most intimate areas of women’s lives.”
In a speech titled “How Far Can You Go?” delivered at the conference for the Movement for Married Clergy in London in 2006, Beattie dismisses the “gendered nuptial sacramentality in which the relationship between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church as Bride is played out in the Mass.” Calling this relationship a “cultic understanding of priesthood,” Beattie argues, “Being a bridegroom certainly did not translate directly into Christ having to be a body with a penis.” For Beattie, “we might learn from our Anglican brothers and sisters that the crisis in priesthood is not resolved by the ordination of married men nor even of women, unless we also address the question of where the homosexual person belongs in relation to the body of Christ.”
Beyond the dissidence, Beattie’s convoluted text itself should have excluded her from publishing in the first place. But, publishers like Continuum—publisher of God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate—are always welcoming to those willing to disparage the male priesthood and the teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexual morality. Most presses—without a political agenda—would be reluctant to publish a manuscript as jargon-laden as the one Beattie published with Continuum. This is just one example of Beattie’s pretentious prose—in this case, explaining to the reader why she is writing her book:
My intention is to liberate the theological language of maternal femininity from the colonizing discourses of masculinity, by mimetically assuming the position of the theoretical Catholic woman as well as being a Catholic woman theorist. As a Catholic theologian, I don the masks and adopt the strategies of Irigarayan woman in order to see Mary differently….
And so forth.
A history of honoring dissident theologians at USD
Still, it is understandable that the University of San Diego’s faculty members were shocked and angered by their president’s decision, considering the fact that throughout the past two decades, they have succeeded in honoring some of the most dissident theologians in the country. In 2008, USD honored Father Peter Phan, professor of theology at Georgetown University and former president of the Catholic Theological Society of American, despite his precarious status as a theologian under investigation by the Vatican and the US bishops for his view that Jesus is but one among many paths to salvation.
In 2007 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticized Father Phan’s 2004 book Being Religious Interreligiously as “notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities.” Claiming that there is a “gnostic tenor running through the book,” the CDF also charges that Phan’s book can be read as suggesting that “non-Christian religions have a positive role in salvation history in their own right and are not merely preparation for the Christian Gospel; that it makes little sense to try to convert non-Christians to Christianity; that it would be better to avoid terms such as ‘unique,’ ‘absolute,’ and ‘universal’ for the saving role of Jesus Christ; that the Holy Spirit operates in a saving way in non-Christian religions; that the Catholic Church cannot be identified with the church of Christ; and finally, that God’s covenant with the Jewish people does not find its completion in Jesus Christ.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops concurred with these Vatican observations—especially concerns over Phan’s treatment of “the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the universality of his salvific mission, the salvific significance of non-Christian religions, and the uniqueness of the church as the universal instrument of salvation.”
The practice of awarding endowed chairs in theology at Catholic universities has actually provided the needed cover enabling faculty members to hire theologians without going through the same kinds of national-search protocols that hiring an assistant professor might require. At the University of San Diego, current theology faculty members have, on several occasions, invited former colleagues or their own professors from graduate school to fill distinguished chairs at the university. The first person to hold the Distinguished Msgr. John Portman Chair of Systematic Theology in 2001 was retired Archbishop of San Francisco John R. Quinn, whose book on the reform of the papacy calls for decreased papal authority, decentralization, more control granted to bishops, and parishioner involvement in the selection of bishops. Implementing Archbishop Quinn’s suggestions would bring the Catholic Church in line with most Protestant denominations and radically weaken the papacy. Yet he was honored with the endowed chair on the Catholic campus.
Invited to teach undergraduate theology students at the University of San Diego, Quinn has openly criticized, in his writings and speeches, the Roman Curia for “wanton disregard” of the local Church, and “blind, rigid application of Church law,” arguing that the Vatican should reopen discussion of such issues as the ordination of women, birth control, and married priests. In May 1999, the Catholic newspaper San Francisco Faith reported that at a meeting of US bishops in Washington, DC, then-Archbishop Quinn called for rejection of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Although Quinn resigned from his position as archbishop of San Francisco in 1995 at age 66, nine years earlier than the mandatory retirement age of 75, the University of San Diego welcomed the longtime critic of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the papacy itself as the first recipient of the prestigious Portman Chair.
Quinn’s appointment seemed to set the pattern of inviting dissident theologians to hold the Portman Chair, as subsequent chair-holders have similarly negative views of papal authority, and have criticized Catholic Church teachings on reproductive rights and the role of women in the Church. For example, the 2002 chair-holder, Peter Hunerman, professor emeritus of Catholic theology at the University of Tubingen, believes that barring women from ordination in the Catholic Church is based on “undefensible premises.” In 2003, Father Bernard Marthaler, OFM, a professor of religion and religious education at Catholic University of America, was invited to hold the Portman Chair. A proponent of the “new catechetics movement,” which privileges personal experience over formal Church teachings and dismisses “book-centered catechesis” as filled with what he called “tired customs and trite devotions,” Marthaler was one of the 87 original dissenters who joined with Charles Curran in 1968 to protest against the papal encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae. Yet, unlike Father Curran, Marthaler faced no disciplinary action and not only maintained his tenured position at Catholic University, but was invited to hold the prestigious chair at the University of San Diego for a year.
Following Marthaler, Mary Hines and Thomas Franklin O’Meara, both Rahner scholars, each held the Portman Chair. While Mary Hines questions the sanctified role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Father O’Meara, a retired theology professor from Notre Dame, dismissed what he called the “trappings and autocracy of the Vatican bureaucracy.” O’Meara published an article in which he decried the hierarchy of the Church and applauded the fact that “the baroque period in Catholicism is past.” And, in a speech at the Newman Theological College, O’Meara lashed out at the Vatican for banning discussion on the ordination of women, suggesting that “the ordination of married men to the priesthood and of women to the diaconate is only a matter of time.” Dismissing Catholic teachings on women’s ordination, O’Meara claims that “it is hard to argue that women should not have public roles because the Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate on the basis of biology.”
More recently, Father James Keenan, SJ was awarded the Portman Chair last year. Currently serving as the Founders Professor of Theology at Boston College, Keenan made headlines in 2003 when he appeared before the joint committee on the judiciary for the state of Massachusetts to offer his support for same-sex marriage. The judiciary was debating a bill (constitutional amendment H3190) that would mandate that only the union of one man and one woman be recognized as a marriage in Massachusetts. Claiming to present the Catholic perspective, Keenan claimed that “H3190 is contrary to Catholic teaching on social justice.… The Catholic theological tradition stands against the active and unjust discrimination against the basic social rights of gay and lesbian persons.” Keenan encouraged legislators to vote against a bill that would ban same-sex marriages.
Beyond the Portman Chair, visiting professors to USD constitute a long tradition of encouraging those with pluralist views of Church teachings to teach undergraduates. Theologian Bernard Cooke, a longtime visiting professor (and the former professor and colleague of a San Diego faculty member) who recently retired from USD, is one of the best-known dissenting theologians today. With a national reputation for criticizing Church teachings on priestly celibacy, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, contraception, and women’s ordination, Cooke is a former Jesuit priest who left the priesthood three decades ago to marry, and has been critical of the current status of the priesthood ever since. Going well beyond the usual left-wing dissidence on sexual morality and reproductive choice, Cooke has been especially critical of the elevated status of ordained priests, and in his book, The Future of the Eucharist, Cooke claims that although a liturgical leader may preside, “it is the community that celebrates the Eucharist.” In a lecture on the USD campus, Cooke claimed that “the existence of a socially privileged group [priests] within the Church is not meant to be.… I hope that in a relatively short time, the inappropriate division between clergy and laity will vanish.”
Criticism of the status of priests within the Church has characterized Cooke’s career for the past 30 years. Claiming that the growing shortage of priests will lead to a “liturgical starvation” for an expanding US Catholic population, Cooke’s solution is to empower the laity and allow married priests (or ex-priests, like him) to assume leadership. A member of CORPUS, an advocacy organization of former priests that lobbies for optional celibacy for Catholic clergy, Cooke is also a board member for Call to Action, a lay movement demanding women’s ordination, an end to priestly celibacy, and a change in the Church’s teachings on sexual morality.
Earlier this year, former Jesuit priest Paul Lakeland, a Fairfield University Catholic Studies professor, was invited to give an address to students and faculty at the University of San Diego. He received this honor despite the fact that in 2007 he was the media spokesman in favor of Connecticut Bill 1098, a bill that would have forced Catholic churches to reorganize along state-mandated lines—giving lay control over parishes and effectively removing the authority of priests and bishops. As a spokesman in favor of the bill, Lakeland, like Cooke, has long lobbied for an end to what he calls the “structural oppression of the laity” by the clergy. In his books (published by Continuum) and speeches, Lakeland promises to help all Catholics “exercise their baptismal priesthood” and dismisses the role of the Catholic deacon as a “monster” which belongs to a “lay-ecclesial species.” Claiming that his newest book identifies the task of the laity as working “to build a non-clerical Church,” Lakeland joins others in organizations like CORPUS and similar fringe Catholic groups to radically change the Church and marginalize the bishops’ teaching authority on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and women’s ordination. Earlier this week, Lakeland wrote a letter to President Lyons decrying her decision to rescind the invitation to Beattie (published on the “support Tina Beattie” website).
The renunciation of Church authority
One of the reasons theologians have confidently challenged the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is that many of those theologians, such as Nicholas Healy—a former Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Diego who currently teaches at St. John’s University in New York—believe that theologians already comprise an “alternative” magisterium:
No single authority trumps the others so that one could say that it is the decisive authority on which all the others rest. Certainly the bishops and popes are weighty authorities. They have something of a US Supreme Court or British lords’ function in that they are to make the final authoritative judgment in cases of controversy. But only that: their teaching itself is not final in the sense that it halts or inhibits further debate on the same matters. For all their judgments must be interpreted and those interpretations discussed by the other magisterium, that of the theologians. (Nicholas M. Healy, “By the Working of the Holy Spirit,” The Anglican Theological Review [Winter, 2006])
Rather than recognizing the authority of the Magisterium, theologians like Beattie, Lakeland, Cooke, and others favor a critical approach to Catholic theology that is rooted in the “acceptance of experience as a legitimate source for theological reflection”—and includes what some left-leaning theologians call a “hermeneutics of suspicion to the sources and questions of theology,” as “pluralism” is now the hallmark of progressive Catholic theology. Unlike those with an orthodox perspective of theology, these theologians have embraced the Enlightenment’s philosophical “turn to the subject.” Such a development undermines the notion of a divine, supernatural revelation operating independently of human reason.
In contrast to Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who have often cautioned against trusting personal experience, liberal theologians argue that revelation and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can be discerned only from within human experience. These theologians claim that their position is grounded in Vatican II’s definition of the Church as the people of God (Lumen Gentium), and is consonant with an empowered laity whose experience must be considered along with that of the ordained as the Church moves forward in history.
Such a pluralistic approach to theology points to what liberal theologians view as a need to reflect on lived experience as a source for the renewal and strengthening of the Church. As self-described liberal academic theologians, Mary Ann Hinsdale, Chair of Theology at the College of the Holy Cross, and theology professor emeritus John Boyle write in the book What’s Left? Liberal American Catholics:
We can point to the appeal made to the experience of married Christians in the discussion of acceptable ways of preventing pregnancy prior to Humanae Vitae, and in the critical way in which the encyclical was received by many lay men and women.… In the decades since 1968, other issues of sexual morality, such as abortion and homosexuality, have been dealt with in Church teaching documents, to be met with similar appeals to the experience of Christians in the formation of the believer’s conscience.
Such an experiential approach to theology raises theological questions about the status of tradition and authority within the Church. For theologians like Hinsdale, Boyle, and others, the experience of the individual is of primary importance. From this perspective, if an individual woman feels called to the priesthood, or called to an abortion, then her call to priestly ordination, or to terminate a pregnancy, should take precedence over any Church teaching. For liberal theologians, “the refusal of those in authority to attend to the experience of Christian believers raises questions about the fundamental fairness of the Church’s processes in dealing with disputes over doctrine or moral teachings.” Liberal theologians claim that from the “critical theology” perspective, “when the Church ignores the experience of its members, it tends to impoverish the perspectives available to enrich the theological task.”
A small but encouraging step
In an interview published in the National Catholic Reporter, Beattie warns that the cancellation of her fellowship was “symptomatic of something very new and very worrying. It’s unheard of, certainly in Britain, for a theologian in my position to feel threatened by this kind of action…it’s not about me, it’s about some change in the culture of the Catholic Church that we should be very, very concerned about.”
For faithful Catholics, it is a hopeful sign that Beattie’s appointment was cancelled. Faithful Catholics have been concerned about theologians like Beattie for more than 50 years now. And, although financial concerns may have prompted President Lyons to cancel Beattie’s fellowship, the fact that it was cancelled at all is a step in the right direction.
This essay first appeared November 16, 2012 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.