Monday, May 02, 2016

The Beattie petition pro-abortion fringe

One of the most striking things about the Open Letter calling for continued legal abortion in Poland is the list of signatures. The petition has been promoted by some of the most well-connected people on the liberal Catholic scene, and yet the list of signatories they came up with is derisory.

Tina Beattie is ubiquitous on the liberal Catholic scene. She holds a professorial chair in Roehampton University, she sits on the Tablet's board, she is on CAFOD's  'Theological Reference Group', and she has been around a fair while - she must know everyone who matters. To promote this petition, she's been assisted by such liberal luminaries as Elriede Harth, the European representative of Catholics for Choice. And what have they come up with?

From the list it looks as though they started out with the idea that it should include only female Catholic academics, but gave up on this when they realised they were only going to get a tiny number. So they've puffed out the list with people with no academic credentials. A bunch of these are teachers, some retired; others are simply students, and others again have nothing to say about themselves at all. The notorious Twitter troll Maureen Clarke (@retrochbabe, down simply as 'UK') would probably prefer as little said about her as possible.

They've filled some corners with a few men too, like the gay activist Martin Pendergast, who describes himself as a 'Pastoral worker'.

They clearly wanted to get signatures from Poland, and around the world, so they've ended up with a Polish icon painter, an art historian, and a choir director, and a handful of people from outside Europe with only a place of residence as their claim to fame:
  1. Verónica Díaz Ramos, Valparaíso, Chile
  2. Betty C. Dudney, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
  3. Gladys Via Huerta, Perú
Oh yes, very impressive: I'm sure the Polish Bishops will sit up and take notice when they see those names. They are 'prominent theologians' all right.

The purpose of the petition is not really to influence the Polish Bishops. It is to create headlines of a certain kind, and it succeeded in this up to a point: see the National Catholic Reporter headline screenshot above. It would have gone  lot further into the non-Catholic media if the names had been more impressive, so this must be a frustration for Prof Beattie. Why did she do so badly?

One can't rule out simple incompetence, of course, but her basic problem was that you have to be very far gone as a Catholic liberal actually to support 'safe, legal' abortion, as the petition does (while the signatories are 'personally opposed' to abortion, naturally). Like the promotion of women's ordination, it is a fringe view. Not that we can expect liberal Catholics to lift a finger, generally speaking, to oppose abortion actively, but their support for it takes the form of criticising orthodox Catholics for being 'obsessed' by the subject, rather than actually signing petitions in favour of legalisation. As you move away from the full possession of the Faith, as you become more and more liberal, there is a very narrow area of intellectual territory in which anyone is likely to say 'I'm a fervent Catholic but I believe abortion should be legal'.

Indeed, most people, on their way out of the Church, would give up being a self-identifying supporter of Church teaching, even 'as they understand it', before they start advocating for legal abortion. Catholics For Choice has always struggled to present more than a handful of non-lapsed Catholics in leadership positions. Those who do hang in there as nominal Catholics are either under some unusual intellectual delusion, or are motivated by the influence or paid positions which go with being a Catholic. In either case, there is a strong whiff of cognitive dissonance about the whole enterprise.

And that, in fact, is something the Church can be proud of. Abortion is perhaps the only major issue on which a person being a Catholic (of some degree of seriousness) is a strong indicator that he or she will not agree with the secular consensus. When this stops being the case, we'll know the decline has plumbed new depths.

Where does that leave Tina Beattie? She is out on a limb even compared with her fellow Tablet trustees. I don't suppose they'd criticise her, but they've not followed her lead. She puts the bishops in an awkward postion, and her role at CAFOD looks anomalous. I don't expect anything bad to happen to her, but she's making things harder for her friends.

A lot of good stuff has been written about the contents of the petition (and I don't just mean by me!) You can see my analysis here; Caroline Farrow here, and Mark Lambert here; there's more about Prof Beattie on Cranmer's blog here.

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  1. The letter will further the view, common, I understand, among Polish bishops, that the RC church in England is irredeemably modernist. This has a divisive effect as they insist on their compatriots here avoiding "contamination" by integrating as little as possible with the mainstream church.

  2. And is it not the case that Polish priests who come to England and Wales, are obliged by the Conference of Bishops to undergo a training in English pastoral practice before being permitted faculties to work even under the aegis of the Polish Mission in Britain?