The University of San Diego is in the news again, and unfortunately not for very positive reasons. [Full disclosure: I teach at USD.] However some reporting has been inaccurate, and so this post will address the facts as I know them. I will make updates as I learn more and as this story continues to unfold.
Professor Tina Beattie, Director of the Digby Stuart Research Center of Roehampton University, was invited by the University of San Diego’s Center for Catholic Thought and Culture to be a Visiting Fellow and to give a series of public lectures. On October 27, 2012, less than two weeks prior to her departure date, she received a letter by email from Dr. Mary Lyons, President of the University of San Diego. That letter read, in part:
It has come to my attention that an invitation was extended to you to be a Frances G. Harpst Center of Catholic Thought and Culture Visiting Fellow at the University of San Diego and, in that capacity as a Catholic theologian, to deliver public lectures.
The Center’s primary mission, consistent with the intentions of those who have financially supported the Center, is to provide opportunities to engage the Catholic intellectual tradition in its diverse embodiments: doctrinal, spiritual, moral, literary, artistic, and social. This would include clear and consistent presentations concerning the Church’s moral teachings, teachings with which you, as a Catholic theologian, dissent publicly. In light of the contradiction between the mission of the Center and your own public stances as a Catholic theologian, I regretfully rescind the invitation that has been extended to you.
In a letter (dated November 2) to USD Professor and Chair of the University Senate Amy Besnoy, Dr. Lyons elaborated on the above claims by saying:
Last week I was made aware that, in August and subsequent to the Center’s earlier invitation, she [Professor Beattie] took an action which prompted my decision. It is that action and my decision which I want to clarify.
First, Dr. Beattie’s extensive record of scholarship has been well known, addressing issues that many would presume to be controversial, e.g. abortion and sexual orientation. I want to emphasize that it was not her teaching or scholarship that prompted me to rescind this invitation. I respect her right, as an academic and a Catholic theologian, to engage in whatever work she deems necessary and important. Indeed, my own record of support for academic freedom is well known at this institution and the previous ones which I have administered…
On August 13, 2012, Dr. Beattie became the signatory of a widely distributed, public letter urging Catholics to dissent from official Church teaching. It is significant that she signed the letter as a “theologian.” This action is materially different from the exercise of scholarship and teaching appropriate to the role of an academic and whose freedom to do so I consistently defend. The Frances G. Harpst Center of Catholic Thought and Culture, for which I was the primary architect several years ago, exists to provide opportunities for its participants to learn about and encounter the Catholic intellectual tradition in its many dimensions, including its doctrinal, moral, spiritual, social, aesthetic contributions. I personally solicited benefactors who understood and support this mission. One might assume that those Catholic theologians to whom we offer a public platform and an honorary fellowship, particularly when offered through the CCTC, would give evidence by their own public positions of support for both the mission of the Center and the Catholic character of our university. It is my considered judgment that Dr. Beattie’s decision to exercise her office as a Catholic theologian and sign a public document dissenting from the Church’s official teaching is what led me to rescind the invitation.
To summarize, Dr. Lyons claims:
- Professor Beattie is a Catholic theologian.
- Professor Beattie dissented publicly from Church teachings by signing the 8/13/12 letter in The Times.
- CCTC speakers must support the mission of the CCTC and the Catholic character of USD.
- Because she signed the letter in The Times, Professor Beattie is not eligible come to USD as a Visiting Fellow for the CCTC because she does not support the mission of the CCTC and the Catholic character of USD.
Professor Beattie has posted her reflections on her blog.
There, one will find Professor Beattie’s “Personal Statement” regarding the cancellation of a lecture at Clifton Cathedral. In that statement, Professor Beattie explains:
I was one of 27 Catholic signatories to a letter published in The Times on Monday, 13th August, which suggested that “it is perfectly proper for Catholics, using fully informed consciences, to support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.” The letter did not commit any of the signatories to a position for or against same-sex civil marriage. Rather, it was putting across a reasoned argument as to why there are sound principles for Catholics in good conscience to take a number of different views on social policy issues such as same-sex civil marriage, even if these to not agree with the position stated by the hierarchy…
As an academic theologian and a practicing Catholic I try to maintain a difficult but important balancing act—deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition—between upholding the revealed doctrinal truths which are part of the timeless and unchanging mystery of our faith, and entering into reasoned and informed debates about issues of morality, society, and values which are contingent and capable of being adapted to different cultures and contexts. I do not believe than an informed theological contribution to issues of public interest is detrimental to the interests of the Church. On the contrary, I believe such debate bears witness to the theological vigour and social dynamism of Catholic Christianity, and allows us to draw on a long and rich intellectual tradition to play an active role in society today.
Professor Beattie includes the full text of the Letter to The Times and the list of signatories in her personal statement.
To summarize, Professor Beattie claims:
- She is an academic theologian and a practicing Catholic.
- She does not speak for the Catholic Church or the official magisterium.
- She does not distort or misrepresent the official teachings of the Church even when she disagrees with that teaching.
- The letter in The Times asserts that Catholics are obliged to follow their fully informed consciences and that not all Catholics share the hierarchy’s stated views against same-sex civil marriage.
(1) What does it mean to describe oneself as a “Catholic theologian” today? [OK, so this is a loaded question…]
(2) Did the signatories of the 8/13/12 letter in The Times “publicly dissent”? Does the letter “urge Catholics to dissent” from Church teaching?
(3) Can one “engage” the Catholic intellectual tradition while also noting personal disagreement with statements from the CDF or a bishops’ conference?
(4) Is this a violation of academic freedom?
(5) Would it make a difference if the public letter Dr. Beattie had signed concerned an issue other than civil marriage for same-sex couples?
(6) Could this have further consequences for Catholic theologians teaching at USD?
Comments welcome, please… I am very interested in hearing what other contributors and readers think about this story. I will add updates as I can. If my summaries are inaccurate please advise.
I received the following assurance from President Mary Lyons via personal correspondence:
“I reiterate my support for the Academic Freedom of our faculty. You will note that the issue that prompted my decision was limited to a very particular—though significant—issue: fidelity to the original mission of the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture and to the benefactors who supported it with this understanding.”
On another point, in the President’s letter to Amy Besnoy, she writes: “It is significant that she [Dr. Beattie] signed the letter as a “theologian.” This action is materially different from the exercise of scholarship and teaching appropriate to the role of an academic and whose freedom to do so I consistently defend.” The end of the letter makes reference to “Dr. Beattie’s decision to exercise her office as a Catholic theologian.”
Professor Beattie has since clarified that she signed her name to the letter but that signatories did not add titles; rather, titles were added by Martin Pendergast who finalized the letter and handled correspondence with The Times.
While the job description for the title “Catholic theologian” remains contested, this point of clarification seems significant to me since Professor Beattie claims she signed her name, not necessarily that she “signed the letter as a ‘theologian.” Dr. Beattie describes herself as an academic theologian and practicing Catholic; interested readers can see how she elaborates on this self-identity in her personal blog posts.
On another point, it seems as though there is a litmus test functioning here at USD for determining what we mean by “support for both the mission of the Center and the Catholic character of our university.” Gerard Mannion, Director of the CCTC, told me via personal correspondence that he has never seen a document requiring CCTC speakers to be vetted according to whether they have taken public stances consistent with official church teachings. He was given assurances about academic freedom for the Center. The CCTC has in fact invited other speakers in the past who were openly critical of some magisterial teachings, and the President did not object at the time. He said that in Fall 2010 he introduced the following phrase explaining the CCTC mission in its public literature: “In essence, the CCTC’s mission is concerned with helping USD and its neighbors to explore, understand and celebrate everything it means to participate in a university community that calls itself Catholic in the twenty-first century.” Mannion explained that nobody from USD administration ever disagreed with this presentation of the CCTC’s mission. Further, Mannion told me that he has never been told of any problem with donors.
Someone asked me about the title of the talks Professor Beattie had been scheduled to give. I’ve pasted the schedule below. As one can see, the topic of same-sex marriage does not appear to be a focus of any of her lectures.
Annual Switgall Lecture
“Visions of Paradise: Women, Sin and Redemption in Christian Art”
Tina Beattie, PhD
Thursday, November 8, 2012
6:00 p.m. in Warren Auditorium
Explorations in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition
“Women in Catholic Education since Vatican II”
Tina Beattie, PhD and Ursula King, PhD
Monday, November 12, 2012
6:00pm in Degheri Boardroom and Courtyard
Dinner will be provided
Explorations in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition
“The Catholic Church and Human Rights: Debates, Dialogues and Conflicts”
Tina Beattie, PhD
Thursday, November 29, 2012
12:15-1:45 p.m. in UC Forum A
The Office of the President distributed the following letter from President Mary Lyons by email today:
Office of the President
Thanks, Emily. Your first question (as well as the others, perhaps) in your concluding list of questions is something that will be considered at the next annual meeting of the College Theology Society. The theme is “Teaching Theology and Handing on the Faith: Challenges and Convergences.” The call for papers is at http://www.collegetheology.org/index.php/
Emily– Thanks for posting further information on this “from the ground.” Dr. Lyons’ further response, and your excellent and careful questions, focus the discussion, I think. According to Dr. Lyons’ letter, it is really your question #2 that is the main issue: is it legitimate, as an aspect of the “office” of theologian, to issue or support a public statement that “urges Catholics to dissent”? And did the Times letter constitute that, or not? (I have not been able to find a link to the actual statement that Dr. Beattie signed.) Evidently, Dr. Lyons’ answer is no…
… although there is a qualification here, which is the question of “honors.” I believe the 2004 USCCB policy on speakers makes a distinction between persons who are invited to campus for academic discussions and debates, and persons who are “honored” in some way. I know that at MSM, this distinction functions. Dr. Lyons appeals to this distinction in her further response, by suggesting that the lectureship is a honorary thing. Factually, that does seem right – we list invitations to lectureships on our CV’s as if they are honors. But it doesn’t clear up the further question about whether such lectureships (or other “honors”) should be open or closed to those who make public claims of dissent.
I must admit, to go slightly further, that one wonders if there is an important difference between publishing a scholarly article raising questions about a contested issue and publishing a petition speaking directly to the faithful on an issue of public importance. We theologians obviously value the latter highly, because it reaches so many more people. But precisely because (and for the same reason!) we value it more highly, wouldn’t it be understandable for Magisterial authorities to “police” it more vigilently? (Again, I want to be clear: I am prescinding from the issue at hand, and from whether this decision was fair or reasonable. I am just trying to understand better the distinctions involved in responding to the questions above)
I did find the original Times statement for consideration:
Thanks, Tobias, for that link! And David, thanks for these helpful distinctions. I hadn’t thought about the “honors” distinction as you describe it. I think the term “Visiting Fellow” and the calendar of academic lectures seems to emphasize an academic role. USD was not giving Dr. Beattie and honorary degree. But I would hope that in some way we always see academic invitations as an honor. So perhaps the language here is slippery.
The teaching against the state legalising same sex marriage is not a dogma. It is part of the Church’s social teaching but whether or not to support a particular piece of legislation would be a prudential judgement. Certainly the UK Bishops have made a prudential judgement about this particular bill. Other Catholics could, and do, differ in their prudential judgement on particular bills, as is their competence as taught by Vatican II.
The reality is that many Catholics don’t have a problem with legalising same sex marriage. Polls show most U.S. Catholics support it. My Bishops support legal recognition of same sex unions which is a natural law right of people living together (and is independent of sexuality). Legalising same sex marriage is one way (a bad way) to give effect to my Bishops’ teaching.
The Church needs to be a big enough place that we can tolerate and welcome a variety of views. That’s what it means to love God (who is served by genuine theological enquiry and who is not served by theological clamp downs) and to love neighbour (how uncharitable is it to cancel this appointment at the last minute?).
The Times letter which Tina Beattie signed (along with many others, including a number of priests) was quite benign. The only possible objectionable part was the concluding sentence:
We suggest that it is perfectly proper for Catholics, using fully informed consciences, to support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.
Note that this DOES NOT support gay marriage at all. It merely states that it is proper for Catholics to follow their consciences which may result in their supporting legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.
To follow ones informed conscience is what the Church teaches. The current Pope once wrote that everyone is obliged to follow their conscience even against the Pope.
What seems to have gone on here is that the university agreed to take Tina Beattie, having found here a great theologian, but then was subject to a slander campaign by the Newman Society against her. It beats me why signing a letter which restates Catholic teaching should bar her from the position.
This seems to me one more sign of a creeping fundamentalist extremism which does not even tolerate what the Church actually teaches (on conscience and prudential judgement on particular pieces of legislation) and which is expressed in very uncharitable personal attacks on those with different views.
This is not healthy for the Church and will only further discredit her public credibility.
This kind of thing (and there is a sadly lot of it in the USA) is a huge obstacle to the New Evangelisation and something the Bishops need to put an end to by creating a climate where there is freedom to express a variety of views.
In Essentials Unity, in non-Essentials Liberty, in all things Charity
Thanks for starting this discussion. Is there is something different about signing a statement and giving a talk or writing a piece on a blog or a magazine like Commonweal in which one argues for a position contrary to official Catholic teaching? Certainly, many theologians worry about these things, too, and try to be “careful.” But I wonder if this is good for the church.
Richard Gaillardetz recently wrote in America magazine (http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=13576):
What would happen if the magisterium were to view theologians as serving the teaching office of the church by challenging faulty arguments, raising difficult questions and proposing alternative frameworks for the church’s prayerful discernment? What would happen if theologians and the rest of the faithful were to attend seriously to official magisterial teaching with an attitude of respect but with a determination to test its adequacy in the light of their own insight and intuitions? Perhaps the church would become a more authentic school of humble Christian discipleship, one better equipped to offer the world the liberating message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thank you for this information. As a non-theologian, I am hoping to get an informed opinion from folks on this site as to what precisely Lyons means by “official Church teachings” in her letter. Ratzinger’s CDF commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem notes that non-definitive teachings of the ordinary Magisterium require “degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will [of the Magisterium] manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.” My question is: has it by this point been established that the “degree of adherence” required for Catholics on the question of civil recognition of same-sex marriage does not allow for any public disagreement? I ask because the CDF document outlining why Catholics are obliged to oppose the civil recognition of same-sex marriages seems to involve assumptions about the nature of the modern state that are at least arguable. Since CDF documents are not infallible, if a Catholic dissents from premises leading to the conclusion of such a document, wouldn’t she be able prudently to withhold assent from the document’s conclusions? Or are we to believe that CDF documents suddenly have the status of Humae Vitae?
Thanks to all those who have jumped into this discussion! Like Chris Sullivan, I am not (at least not yet) convinced that signing the Times letter in itself constitutes “dissent.”
Nevertheless, I totally agree with David and Julie when they invite us to think about the difference between a scholarly article, popular article, and signature on a group letter. We’re talking about differences in audience, differences in style, differences in the level of sophistication of the argument and level of detail. Although I think a theologian must go through a similar process of discernment for each venue if one is advocating for a position that differs from magisterial teaching. One would have to think through the competing goods and risks, right? Things like: contribution to communal discernment (+), personal gain via reputation, feeling empowered in public sphere (+), risk of scandal, in thick sense of leading another into sin- not just embarrassment in the news (-), risk to job or reputation (-), etc. I think the scholar’s record and area of expertise should be a factor one considers (for example, is this just my opinion and I attach my scholarly credentials to to persuade a reader, or is this an area I have researched and prayerfully discerned and by attaching my scholarly credentials I testify that I have something to contribute to the discourse). I would also want to point out that the scholar’s contribution (whether via ivory tower or popular press) shouldn’t be motivated by a desire to weaken the credibility of the bishops’ conference. But neither should the teachers of the Church demand blind obedience. In short, I do agree that there is a difference. But theologians don’t really have a “how to” manual for discerning these kinds of contributions.
Billy Junker is right to point out that magisterial teachings are presented with different degrees of authority. So I think the answer to my Question #5 is “yes.” But I hesitate to elaborate.
Many good points to consider here – a very good discussion.
Julie’s question about the responsibility of the theologian, especially in a more “public” and less “scholarly” realm, is really the key one here, I think. To me, this is a question about authority/power. In framing it this way, I do not mean to prejudice the question for or against one “side” – I just mean that to publish statements in public forums (= where Catholic laypeople will read them) means to lend a kind of expertise (and therefore, authority) to a particular view. It is true that the statement in this case made an appeal to conscience, but one should note that the statement AUTHORIZES such an appeal. It says it is “perfectly proper” – while it may not be meant as such, certainly what such appeal can and will be taken as is a kind of authorization for the lay Catholic to say, well, I’ve thought about this, and I tend to agree with these people, and they are theologians – they should know. So, I’ll speak from experience here: I am uber-careful in the undergraduate classroom to lay out competing arguemnts for everything. But I am also uber-careful to avoid letting David Cloutier’s views serve as an authorization for students to “disagree in conscience.” To me, the appeal to expert authority potentially distorts authentic conscience formation, rather than fosters it. How do we know where the line is? Well, it is a complex one, but I think it’s important.
It seems to me the question of “challenging bishops publicly” has to be split into two (not entirely exclusive) areas. One, theologians can and should challenge poor use of traditional theological language – and this is something both “liberal” and “conservatives” can and do do! Two, should theologians challenge received teachings which they think are false and in need of revision? Again, I think it’s impossible to claim that they should NOT – this is surely what happened in the case of slavery or religious freedom (two easy examples). The question then becomes twofold: what degree of certainty and gravity should theologians have before doing this? And in what kinds of forums is it pastorally appropriate and most effective to bring such a challenge?
Ultimately, this can’t happen well until such point as both bishops and theologians sit down and work out some kind of cooperative working relationship, instead of viewing one another with suspicion.
Well said, David. Helpful distinctions and great questions. I think this is a very fruitful discussion.
To take your last question one step further- if a scholar publicly challenges received teachings does that person still retain the title “Catholic theologian”? Who decides?
I don’t want the current situation to get lost– because as flawed as the Times letter might be, the issue at USD right now is that a signatory to the letter is now prohibited from coming to campus to speak on other theological topics (at least under the sponsorship of the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture).
If this precedent is set (or if we see this as a pattern, Ruether (2008), Beattie (2012)), then the USD administration seems to be saying that scholars who make such public statements can’t come as Catholic theologians. Perhaps they could be invited by Women’s and Gender Studies, or the Kroc School of Peace and Justice. If I am understanding the implications correctly, the vetting process for future invitations to “Catholic theologians” is going to be very complex indeed.