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.


My Questions:

(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.


Update: 11/4/12:

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


Update 11/6:

At 1:30pm, approximately 120 students, faculty, and staff participated in a “solidarity demonstration.”

NCR coverage here and here.


Update 11/8:

The Office of the President distributed the following letter from President Mary Lyons by email today:

Office of the President

In recent weeks there has been considerable interest in, bewilderment, and anger about a decision I made to rescind an invitation given to Dr. Tina Beattie, a Catholic theologian from the United Kingdom, to hold an honorary fellowship in the University’s Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture (CCTC).  While I have released several statements to our internal constituents explaining this decision, it is evident that my decision has raised questions about my commitment to the academic freedom of our faculty and, thus, the academic reputation of our university.  Thus, my comments are offered with the hope of further clarifying my position and reiterating my support for academic freedom.
Dr. Tina Beattie was invited many months ago by the Director of the CCTC to hold a one month honorary fellowship within the CCTC.  A respected theologian within her own circle of scholars, in her own scholarly writings she has taken positions that many would say challenge Church teachings.  Would this have been a reason to question her selection as a fellow in the CCTC by me?  Absolutely not.  However, in late October, I was made aware that, on August 13th 2012, Dr. Beattie had joined others in issuing a public statement within the UK stating that “it is perfectly proper for Catholics, using fully informed consciences, to support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.”  Whether you agree or do not agree with this position, it is a stance in direct conflict with the Church’s own teaching.  Dr. Beattie’s own bishop subsequently cancelled a lecture she was scheduled to deliver within his diocese. She herself reported that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had intervened, urging her bishop to take this action.
One academic theologian put the matter succinctly:  “Theologians can, and indeed must, probe the tradition and raise critical questions.  This is how a tradition develops and continues to speak with credibility and relevancy to succeeding generations.  However, engaging in open defiance of the Church’s pastors by signing public letters designed to undermine the confidence of the laity in the leadership of their bishops is not an appropriate or responsible way of seeking to advance the development of the tradition.”
Given the above, why did I withdraw the honorary fellowship for Dr. Beattie?
First of all, Dr. Beattie was not invited to the university by one of our academic departments.  She was invited to hold an honorary position and represent the University through the CCTC.  Its purpose, from the beginning, was simply to be a resource for others, especially the faculty, inviting them to explore through the lens of their own disciplines and research interests how a scholarly life pursued within the context of a Catholic university provides a vast landscape for their intellectual pursuits, one that reckons with the reality of the sacred and rests upon the foundation of a rich and vital wisdom tradition.  The CCTC’s purpose then is to present that tradition with accuracy and respect.  With this mission in mind, I and the CCTC’s first Director solicited benefactors, generous men and women who were champions of our effort to enhance the Catholic identity of the university.  Never would they imagine that their gifts would be used to provide honors to Catholic theologians who publicly dissented from the Church’s teaching in the matter that occurred here.
So, what does this have to do with my decision to rescind the invitation to Dr. Beattie?  Her public position in opposition to Church teaching, as a Catholic theologian, is incompatible with the CCTC’s purpose.  In addition, offering her an honorary fellowship would be a betrayal of those benefactors who supported the Center with that purpose in mind.  The CCTC Director provided no notification of Dr. Beattie’s public action in August and the consequences that befell her within her own diocese.  Thus, we only learned about this in late October, just weeks before her scheduled arrival, leaving no time for making other arrangements that might have ameliorated the situation.  As we became more aware of the problems associated with honoring Dr. Beattie and as the time drew near for Dr. Beattie to begin her travel, it became my responsibility to notify her of the cancelled visit.
Am I an enemy of academic freedom?  Absolutely not.  The faculty and their academic departments have always been free to pursue their own teaching and research without interference from the administration.  Similarly, academic departments often extend invitations to scholars for lectures, collaborative projects, etc.  To suggest that my decision regarding Dr. Beattie betrays academic freedom has been one of the most egregious misrepresentations of my position.  I can state unequivocally, that I have not and will not interfere with the faculty’s right to pursue their teaching, research, and scholarly activities freely and responsibly. Individual faculty members and academic departments regularly extend invitations to other scholars with whom they collaborate, and I fully support these ongoing activities. The invitation to Dr. Beattie was not extended under these circumstances; had it been, it is unlikely that I would have known about her visit and, if I knew, I would not have acted.
This has been a very difficult episode for many people, including Dr. Beattie, our faculty and students, and for many others who may or may not be familiar with the University of San Diego.  I hope that we can move forward constructively and focus on the important work before us on behalf of our students.
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USD on Flickr________
Update 11/9:
NCR Coverage here
Update 11/14:
Yesterday the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences held a meeting (called Academic Assembly) and overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence. NCR coverage here.