Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Academic freedom and dissent: again

Jesus really should have made reasoned arguments which could have
been understood by those outside his faith tradition.
Back in 2012 I wrote about the argument made by Prof Tina Beattie that it was wrong for her invitations to speak at Catholic institutions (be they universities or parishes) to be withdrawn, on the basis of academic freedom.

Her argument was insane. The freedom of academics to speak and write as they wish does not imply an obligation on anyone to read or listen. It really is as simple as that. These institutions, or their leaders, are free to invite, not invite, or withdraw invitations, according to their own lights; to deny this would be to deny them freedom.

Chalcedon451, a Catholic blogger on All Along the Watchtower, has criticised Beattie's most recent critics, however. The post appears to make some concession to Beattie's claims to be using 'reason' in the service of the Church, but the central point would seem to be prudential.

This seems to me a real problem. I disagree with Professor Beattie’s views on abortion (and other matters), but to attack her in the way that has been done – as though no Catholic should ever dissent from the teaching of the Church on anything – and to make some of the comments I have seen on social media sites, is simply to turn her into the victim of what looks like a witch-hunt. If the aim is to get the Bishops to look at her activity, this seems not the way to achieve that objective. What Bishop wants to look as though he is trying to stifle the freedom of a woman academic to speak her mind?

'As though no Catholic should ever dissent from the teaching of the Church on anything': Eh? Obviously Catholics shouldn't dissent from the teaching of the Church. Even Beattie is not arguing in favour of dissent; she is arguing for a different understanding of the teaching of the Church.


I cannot imagine that those in positions of responsibility will feel inclined to act in a way which might produce allegations of bowing to mob pressure. The arguments against her position on this, as on other matters where she disagrees with the Catholic consensus are obvious and, as with Austen Ivereigh’s piece, should be deployed. But that should be done in a way which wins support from those who do not necessarily agree with the Catholic position – not one which confirms such people in their view that we are interested only in suppressing free speech and are uneasy with strong women. Own goals should be avoided.

Allow me to state the obvious. A number of bishops in England and Wales since the era of the Second Vatican Council have used official or unofficial means of reining in theologians or other Catholic commentators who were uncomfortably, for them, too conservative. But I challenge Chalcedon451 to give me any examples of bishops disciplining progressive dissenters other than after pressure from below. In the old days it was letter-writing campaigns; today it is social media. Such pressure has historically been most effective when it is mediated by Rome, but the only times Rome acts is following such local protests.

Certainly, bishops will invariably tell you that such pressure is counter-productive, that it makes things harder for them, that they don't want to be seen to be giving in to a lynch mob, etc.. Officials in Rome often say the same thing. I have written about this kind of argument, and why they make it, here. But just show me the cases in which they have acted without such pressure. The conservative 'mob', if that's how we want to look at it, doesn't catch every individual or every instance of dissent: far from it. Bishops have numerous opportunities to deal with problems without the mob getting in the way. And they do not.

Indeed, knowing a little about some of these cases, I can tell Chalcedon451 that it has frequently been the case that bishops have received detailed information about serious problems privately, and have done nothing about it for years and decades, unless and until the matter has either gone to Rome or gone public. It has worked in exactly the same way with theological dissent as it has with clerical child abuse: why would it work any differently? In these cases we know the bishops who needed to know, knew. Again and again, it is only pressure from outside which has stimulated action - in the relatively small number of cases where there has been action at all.

Going to Rome is, of course, almost a complete waste of time at the current moment in the history of the Church. It was pretty hopeless in previous decades, but sometimes something would happen, perhaps if Cardinal Ratzinger took an interest and the people causing the problem didn't have big backers in Rome itself. Today - forget it. So we are left with the social media on its own.

So a first point, Chalcedon, is that the kind of fuss being created over Tina Beattie, her petition in support of legal abortion, and CAFOD, is not counter-productive or an 'own goal'. It is the only means available to Catholics to address the problem, and it is a means which has some, albeit small, prospect of success.

A second point is that, while naturally we can all deprecate some of the things said on Twitter and Facebook on this topic, this is true of any topic which is discussed publicly, so doesn't serve as any guide to our actions, unless the suggestion is that we should simply ignore what Beattie says. That would hardly be engaging in reason for the good of the Church, now, would it? The only relevant question is whether what Austen Ivereigh, who is discussed in the post, or I, or Caroline Farrow, or anyone else making a serious, more-than-140-character comment on the subject, have done so in a way which is open to criticism, and what that criticism is.

The criticism these kinds of contributions make seems to be this. We should be making our arguments
in a way which wins support from those who do not necessarily agree with the Catholic position – not one which confirms such people in their view that we are interested only in suppressing free speech and are uneasy with strong women.

The point about 'strong women' is a bit strange; I really don't see what Beattie's sex has got to do with it. I fancy rather that Chalcedon451 may be 'uneasy with strong women' if they take the form of critics of Beattie like Caroline Farrow or Claire Short; would it help if I made a list of female Catholic conservatives? This is a profoundly silly game to play.

But why are we supposed to be concerned with gaining the support of non-Catholics in our opposition to Tina Beattie's role in the Catholic community? I am quite sure there are serious issues at stake when Jews or Muslims or Anglicans criticise each other theologically, accuse each other of inauthentic understandings of their shared tradition, and so forth, but I am equally sure that it is no business of mine to get involved. The suggestion is preposterous. Were anyone from those communities to appeal to outsiders to judge between them, everyone would recognise how innappropriate it would be. The question of whether Tina Beattie should be regarded as an authentic Catholic theologian is a question for the Catholic community - ultimately, for those who wield authority within the community, but in the first instance it is a matter for exploration by reasoned discussion in the ordinary way.

The last quotation from Chalcedon451's post also raises the question of 'free speech'. Who, pray, is going to take away Beattie's right to speak and write? Is she in imminent danger of being thrown into a dungeon in the Castel San Angelo? Is she going to be sent to a penal convent in Antarctica? I hardly think so. The most serious consequence she faces is that certain Catholic institutions which might otherwise listen to her, decide they can do without her pearls of wisdom after all. Possibly, just possibly, CAFOD will decide she is no longer needed on its 'Theological Reference Group'. I strongly suspect the position is unpaid. Even if it were paid, it must be insignificant in terms of Beattie's income or time, or come to that her theological influence. Its importance, such as it is, is as a way for CAFOD to signal its critical distance from Catholic teaching. Catholics who are asked, as Catholics, to support CAFOD, Catholics who are obliged, indeed, whether they like it or not, to support CAFOD, since it receives a grant from the Bishops ultimately supported by pennies in the collection plate, have a right to make their concerns known. Sensible ones will do so sensibly; the less mature denizens of social media will do so in the only way they know how. Unlike Tina Beattie, who can only appeal to a secular conception of free speech which is itself contrary to the teaching of the Church, we can appeal to our right and obligation to oppose the misrepresentation of Church teaching and to protect the innocent.

Objections like Chalcedon451's are not going to stop us doing that.

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1 comment:

  1. The Polish bishops won't take much notice of Tina Beattie, a professor of Roehampton, one of the recent London universities, although the Guardian, the Tablet and of course the UK press will. The Church in UK and the British Isles, but not N. Ireland it seems, will continue with its usual embarrassed silence on the subject.

    But you are right about CAFOD. They have to decide as a Catholic charity group whether they can afford to be associated with the Beatties of this world?