Latest Liberal Catholic Claims on Newman Mislead

I am very sorry that Professor Eamon Duffy should have seen fit so immoderately to spring to the defense of Professor Tina Beattie, an invitation to whom to take up a fellowship has been withdrawn by the (Catholic) University of San Diego, following that institution’s discovery of her public support for gay unions.

“It is deeply dispiriting,” he writes, “that the President of a Catholic University should characterize academic discussion and debate among Catholics as ‘dissent’, and should seek to suppress academic exchange by black-balling an individual whom the Church has not condemned.”

That wasn’t all, however. “I fear,” he continued, “that by publicly withdrawing this invitation, the University of San Diego has brought academic ignominy on itself, and is colluding in the Sovietisation of Catholic intellectual life which many people feel is one of the saddest features of the contemporary Church.” In other words this is also a direct attack on the pontificate of Pope Benedict, and one couched in language which is so grossly over the top as simply to discredit not only this particular attack, but even to some extent its perpetrator.

As I say, I am very sorry about this. Professor Duffy is a very good historian indeed, that rarest of academic types who is both a painstaking scholar and is also compulsively readable. Two of his splendid books in particular—most recently Fires of Faith, a fascinating delineation, inter alia, of the intelligent and responsive Catholicism reintroduced into England by Cardinal Pole and Mary Tudor (good Queen Mary) and tragically lost after it was ruthlessly suppressed by Elizabeth I (Bloody Bess)—have greatly contributed to making me the Catholic bigot I am today.

Professor Duffy is, nevertheless, generally considered to be something of a theological liberal; I can’t quite see why he is, though. It is yet another illustration, perhaps, that sound scholarship in one area doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom elsewhere (another famous illustration of this phenomenon was one of C. S. Lewis’s targets, the Anglican Bishop John Robinson, a sound conservative Biblical scholar but a theological loony, even by Anglican standards).

All the same it is a puzzle to me that the author of The Stripping of the Altars should, for instance, be so keen on warm ecumenical relations with the Church of England. He has written that Rowan Williams’s “open-hearted invitation” [yuck] to Fr Timothy Radcliffe to write the official Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2009 was “a sign that the ecumenical landscape is by no means so barren as we sometimes fear”—fear? What is so fearsome about the recognition of reality? But let it pass.

In his defense of Professor Beattie, Professor Duffy quotes John Henry Newman, predictably perhaps, woefully out of context: claiming Newman in this way is, of course, an established liberal tactic; usually, it is the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk which is thus abused in an attempt to paint Newman, that wonderfully acerbic doctrinal rigorist and scourge of liberalism (which he describes in the Apologia as “false liberty of thought”) as being a liberal himself. I think Professor Duffy’s quotation must be from The Idea of a University (though I have been unable, after several digital scans of Newman’s works, to discover this passage—can anyone identify it?) Newman, he says, “criticized the ‘shortsightedness’ of those who ‘have thought that the strictest Catholic University could by its rules and its teachings exclude intellectual challenges to faith. The cultivation of the intellect involves that danger, and where it is absolutely excluded, there is no cultivation’.”

But this simply cannot be applied as a defense of Professor Beattie. For a start, it is clear that Newman was writing about intellectual challenges from outside the Church and not from within the community of faith. Newman made absolutely unambiguous his belief that in modern conditions a specifically Catholic University ought to exclude heresy, so that its enemies were beyond its boundaries and not within them. It is, he wrote in The Idea of a University “one great advantage of an age in which unbelief speaks out, that Faith can speak out too; that, if falsehood assails Truth, Truth can assail falsehood. In such an age it is possible to found a University more emphatically Catholic than could be set up in the middle age, because Truth can entrench itself carefully, and define its own profession severely, and display its colours unequivocally, by occasion of that very unbelief which so shamelessly vaunts itself. And a kindred advantage to this is the confidence which, in such an age, we can place in all who are around us, so that we need look for no foes but those who are in the enemy’s camp.”

That is precisely what San Diego University presumably wants to do by withdrawing its invitation to Professor Beattie, an invitation it should perhaps never have issued in the first place. A few inquiries about Professor Beatty would have elicited that she was already well-known for her rejection of the authority for Catholics of the Magisterium of the Church (she is a trustee of and regular contributor to The Tablet).

Here’s a sample of her writing, from her book God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate (p 80):

Today it [the Mass] has become an act of (homo) sexual intercourse… In our own age, however, the female body is recognised as equal but different and is still incapable of representing Christ, because Christ’s kenotic self-giving has become implicitly associated with the male orgasm, with all the pagan overtones that this implies… women have become bystanders in the metaphysical consummation of homosexual love, a marriage between men and God in which the male body is both the masculine bridegroom and the female bride, the masculine God and the female creature, the masculine Christ and the feminine Church.

In a Catholic University, says Newman, “we need look for no foes but those who are in the enemy’s camp.” Then, maybe: but not now—and that’s the problem. Elsewhere in the same discourse, Newman says that in his own time, the Church “has … a direct command and a reliable influence over her own institutions, which was wanting in the middle ages. A University is her possession in these times, as well as her creation: nor has she the need, which once was so urgent, to expel heresies from her pale, which have now their own centres of attraction elsewhere, and spontaneously take their departure. Secular advantages no longer present an inducement to hypocrisy, and her members in consequence have the consolation of being able to be sure of each other.”

But the Church in our own times no longer has that “direct command and … reliable influence over her own institutions” that Newman believed was essential; and the old medieval imperative to “expel heresies from her pale” has returned as an “urgent need” for the modern Catholic University. Heresies no longer “spontaneously take their departure” as they did in Newman’s day; now, they must be driven out. There can surely be little doubt that Newman of all people would have been horrified at the idea of Tina Beattie teaching young Catholics, in a Catholic University, not only about the desirability of gay marriage and the need to defy the Church’s teachings about that, but about so much else besides.

This column first appeared 14 November 2012 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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