Tuesday, 6 November 2012

She said, he said


Have you ever been approached by a Jehova's witness and had them quote from the Bible to you? I have (several times :) and the thing that first struck me, and I have found almost invariably since, is that they tend to use a small set of passages to further their cause while being blind to the fullness of the Good News. A frequent example is their reference to Revelation for arguing that very few will be saved (and that they can get you a seat): "I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites" (Revelation 7:4). Yet, only a couple of sentences later John says: "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands." (Revelation 7:9). And my pointing it out to them in their copy of the Bible tends to be the end of our friendly chat …

"OK," you may think, "so Jehova's witnesses are a bit blinkered - but I already knew that!" and you'd be right. There is no surprise there, but where I have been surprised recently was by the controversy surrounding Dr. Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University. Prof. Beattie has last week had an invitation revoked to be a Visiting Fellow at the University of San Diego and to deliver a series of talks. Naturally, she objected and she went on to claim that unfounded denunciations of her writings by numerous “Catholic” blogs were to blame. This is not the first time such cancellations happened either, as plans for a lecture by her at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol have also been cancelled recently on grounds of her alleged heterodoxy. Such claims by her and her critics made me curious about what was behind them and the following is what I managed to piece together.

First of all, Prof. Beattie does not deny that she holds some views that are in conflict with the teaching of the Church (e.g., she signed a letter to The Times, saying that Catholics could, “using fully informed consciences, … support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.”) Instead, she justifies her position by the following:
“I am an academic theologian who is also a practising Catholic. (This is subtly different from claiming to be a Catholic theologian if that implies somebody with a licence who is authorised to teach by the official magisterium). […]

Any academic theologian working in a university must […] seek to promote an intellectual culture in which reason rather than fideism is the basis for enquiry and research, knowing that in the Catholic tradition reason and revelation go hand in hand. […]

I have also always had absolute respect for the difference between the doctrinal truths of the faith, made knowable through revelation alone, and those truths which are arrived at by reason and which involve philosophical reflection informed by natural law and in engagement with other sources of human knowledge. So, with regard to all the doctrinal teachings that belong within the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, my theological position is absolutely orthodox.”
Hmm … where to start?! Even before looking at what Prof. Beattie has to say, I see several issues with how she positions herself, although I also see things that I agree with unreservedly! Promoting an “intellectual culture in which reason rather than fideism is the basis for enquiry and research” is certainly one of them. Where Prof. Beattie and I would part ways though is her compartmentalization of herself: as a practicing Catholic on the one had and as a critical academic on the other. Not only do I believe this to be unhealthy, but also impossible! Either one strives to be a practicing Catholic (with all that implies and not only with a cherry–picking of it), or one places themselves outside that community and is honest about it.

Such bipolarity is further underlined by the last part of the above quote, where Prof. Beattie draws a line between faith “knowable through revelation alone” and “truths arrived at by reason [and] human knowledge.” At its basis this is just as contradictory a position as the practicing-academic one. Dei Verbum states very clearly that “God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; [through the] Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world” (§8). To draw a line between God speaking “of old” and his “uninterrupted conversation” with the Church is just as contrary to what the Church teaches as the other topics that she has been picked up on.

I don’t mean to recount in a lot of detail what Prof. Beattie is being criticized for, and if you are easily (or even not all that easily :) offended, please, skip to the last paragraph.

The key bone of contention, as cited by the “Protect the Pope” blog and many others, beyond her support for same-sex marriage and abortion under some circumstances, is the claim that she describes the Mass as “an act of (homo) sexual intercourse” on pp. 80 of her book entitled “God's Mother, Eve's Advocate.” This is an accusation that Prof. Beattie vehemently denies and claims is a result of a misunderstanding:
“In the work that is cited and quoted by these bloggers, I was writing an extended critique of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose writings I have studied for a number of years. My comments were made in the context of my deep concern over his highly sexualised representation of the Mass. This criticism is shared by a number of others who have written on von Balthasar. The suggestion that I mock the Mass because I criticise another theologian’s interpretation is outrageous.”
I have to say I agree with Prof. Beattie here: the remarks she is being attacked for are ones she herself is critical of and attributes to another. On pp. 196 of the same book she states clearly that “neo-orthodox theology risks reducing the Mass to an orgasmic celebration of homosexual love.” Where my agreement fizzles out though is with her attributing the view she criticizes to von Balthasar. While I haven’t studied his writings “for a number of years,” I am familiar with some of them and have even tracked down the following passage, where von Balthasar talks about the Trinity (which must also inform his views on the mass), in terms that others have taken as him reading their relationships in sexual terms:
“In Trinitarian terms, of course, the Father, who begets him who is without origin, appears primarily as (super-) masculine; the Son, in consenting, appears as (super-) feminine, but in the act (together with the Father) of breathing forth the Spirit, he is (super-) masculine. As for the Spirit, he is (super-) feminine. There is even something (super-) feminine about the Father too, since as we have shown, in the action of begetting and breathing forth he allows himself to be determined by the Persons who thus proceed from him.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-drama. V: The last act, pp. 91)
To take the above and interpret it as von Balthasar talking about homosexual relationships among the persons of the Trinity or during the mass is confused though - and, more importantly from the perspective of the argument I am trying to make here, not what von Balthasar meant! Here it suffices to just read on in the same paragraph, where he says:
"The very fact of the Trinity forbids us to project any secular sexuality into the Godhead (as happens in many religions and in the gnostic syzygia). It must be enough for us to regard the ever-new reciprocity of acting and consenting, which in turn is a form of activity and fruitfulness, as the transcendent origin of what we see realized in the world of creation: in the form and actualization of love and its fruitfulness in sexuality."
Far from sexualizing the Trinity, von Balthasar instead points to the Trinitarian origin of human sexuality, where its self-giving, reciprocal, consenting and fruit-bearing aspects reflect the dynamics of intra-Trinitarian relationships. A very different and wholly orthodox view in my opinion … It may well be that her way of interpreting von Balthasar is again a consequence of Prof. Beattie’s distinction between Scripture and Tradition as it seems like the taking of a text in isolation and a free interpretation of it (free as in fall - not beer :).

In summary, I acknowledge that I only have a very partial view of Prof. Beattie’s thought and even though she recently prepared a “public statement on [her] theological views,” its focus was on what she does not mean rather than on what she does - a useful, but inherently limited exercise. Further, her self-justification seems to rely on a separation between Catholic practice and academic thought and between Scripture and Tradition, neither of which are beneficial or orthodox. While I wholeheartedly support Prof. Beattie’s commitment to a reasoned critique of Church teaching and to the model of “diversity in unity,” her own approach seems to me heterodox not only in content but also in method. Finally, let me express an even more categorical disagreement with blogs like “Protect the Pope,” who snatch a fragmentary quote out of context and present it in a light that is diametrically opposed to its original meaning and, furthermore, that they take this to initiate a witch-hunt! In the end we arrive at a misrepresentation of a misinterpretation, which instead of supporting either party’s position just places both into disrepute. This is not a reasoned diversity manifesting itself (which I would wholeheartedly support and be proud of), but brawlers lashing out at each other in the dark.