Sunday, November 04, 2012

Academic freedom and Tina Beattie

Tina is bleating about academic freedom, having found first Clifton Diocese, and now the University of San Diego, withdrawing invitations to speak, after someone noticed that her theological work is not so much a development, or even a distortion, of the Catholic tradition, as a vicious and incessant attack upon it. (Don't take my word for it: read Protect the Pope's collection of Beattie's little gems. The Bones does a very interesting analysis of the cancelled lecture itself.)

The genius of the 'dissenting Catholic' schtick over the last forty years and more is, while heartily detesting Catholic teaching, ridiculing the great Catholic thinkers of the past, and undermining every attempt by Bishops or laity to articulate or defend Catholic positions in public, they loudly proclaim their Catholic identity. This means that secular-minded academic administrators at various kinds of Catholic institutions, and above all the secular media, can present the dissident as a Catholic figure. A Catholic university or newspaper with a balance of Catholic and non-Catholic academics or contributors can make sure most of the former are dissidents. And every orthodox spokesman invited onto the radio or TV can be matched by a dissident, who by his or her very presence undermines the idea that there is a single, coherent Catholic view. The resources of the Church, and the Church's claim, just from its size and historical importance, to have a place at the table in public debate, can accordingly be used against the Church.

It has taken a long time, but Catholics in pews are waking up to this little trick, and are getting fed up with paying people to abuse them. We all get plenty of abuse as it is. Why should we give a platform to abusers?

I use the word 'abuser' deliberately. The Church has been like the partner of an abusive alcoholic, refusing to break the tie that makes it possible for the abuser to carry on perpetrating the abuse. Maybe we feel we deserve it. Maybe it is self-hatred. Maybe we still feel affection for the abuser. Maybe we are ashamed of admitting we made a mistake in hitching up in the first place. Maybe we desperately want to believe their protestations of love for us. But what if this person is not just beating us up, but beating up our children? Don't we at least have a duty to protect them? This consideration seems, at last, to be dawning on bishops and others exercising responsibility for souls.

I'm a Catholic academic, should I be shaking in my shoes at the thought of the Church putting the screws on academic freedom? I'm certainly not relying on the hope that influential churchmen share my opinions: traditionalism is far more marginalised, and treated with far more suspicion, in most Catholic institutions, than even quite extreme liberalism. But I'm not worried, for two reasons. One is that when I'm right it would be a wholesome and useful process to hear what objections there are to my views, and for me to give a defence of them; when I'm wrong it would be a wholesome and useful process for me to be corrected. But the second reason is more practically important: the Church has no power, or indeed wish, to silence academics. This isn't the Middle Ages (perhaps Beattie hasn't noticed). The institutions in which questions about one's adherence to Catholic orthodoxy might be raised, let alone have an influence over appointments or other goodies, are an utterly insignificant proportion of the academic world as a whole. If Beattie is any good, she's be able to find a job, or a speaking engagement, with any of thousands of non-Catholic institutions. Attempts by the Church to keep a space safe for Catholic education and discourse, by restricting the contributions of dissidents, have about as much effect on academic freedom as my switching off the TV, when it is polluting my living room with pornography, has on the freedom of broadcasters.

You can speak, Tina. We don't have to listen.


  1. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this debate I predict that expressed like this it is unlikely to excite the outsider's interest in Catholicism, liberal or conservative.

  2. Good. If ever there was an issue internal to the Church, this is it.

    Nevertheless, it is true that when the Beatties of the world can no longer claim to represent the Church, then the Church's ability to present her teachings convincingly to outsiders will be hugely increased.

  3. Having read something of Beattie's work, it is unsurpising to find that she is unable to draw basic distinctions between the right to academic freedom on one hand, and access to a public platform on the other. The latter is a privilege which can be forfeited for various reasons (and I would suggest that her poorly argued advocacy of murdering the unborn is a perfectly good reason) without compromising her rights as regards the former. Why she should be retained as an academic is another question . . .

  4. The issue of Tina Beattie is one of Catholic identity not academic freedom.

    Anyone is free to express views contradicting those of the Church and I am sure that most Catholic institutes would welcome that. After all our role is to preach the Word and to point out errors.

    What is not acceptable is that Ms Beattie should present herself as a Catholic when she is clearly in wilful dissent from the Church. Such considered dissent places a person outside the Church so she is presenting herself falsely.

    As such she should not speak as a Catholic in a Catholic institution.