Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Professor Tina Beattie
In a scene seemingly plucked right out of the film Dead Poet's Society, an impassioned battle over academic freedom is being waged at the University of San Diego, a Roman Catholic college whose president revoked an esteemed British theology professor’s speaking invitation when she learned that the professor supports civil marriage rights for same-sex couples in the UK. 

Tina Beattie, a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton in London who’s known for her work on gender issues and feminism, was scheduled to lecture on how women are represented in art depicting sin and redemption.

But on Oct. 27, USD President Mary Lyons announced in a letter that she was rescinding the invitation. Lyons says the decision was based on the fact that in August, Beattie, along with 26 other well-known Catholics, reportedly signed a letter to The Times of London supporting the extension of civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Beattie told KPBS in San Diego, “I only question those questions of morals and social ethics that Catholic theologians have always questioned, or we would never change. We’d still be living as they did in the Middle Ages.”

USD President Mary Lyons
Lyons' decision has become a public relations nightmare for the university. There've been several heated protests, including one last week that attracted more than 100 students. USD professors in the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences decided almost unanimously to support Beattie and urge the president to change her mind. 

A Facebook page, Toreros Stand With Beattie, created by a USD senior, has more than 400 “Likes.” 

In a story in Vista, USD's student newspaper, Susie Babka, a professor of theology and religious studies at USD, said the issue is not church teaching, but academic freedom. 

“It makes the school look as though we don’t honor diversity in Catholic thought,” Babka said. “There are many ways to be Catholic, and there is certainly a diversity of ideas that are represented in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Dr. Beattie was simply doing what Catholic theologians do, which is to say that there are other ways to think about (teachings).”

According to the National Catholic Reporter, the 47,000-member American Association of University Professors, which rates universities on their protection of academic freedom, has also expressed concern over Lyons’ decision. 

The group said in a letter to Lyons that the situation raises “serious issues of academic freedom with which we are concerned,” and cited similar concerns it raised in 2009 when the university revoked its offer of an honorary chair position to Rosemary Radford Ruether, an American Catholic feminism scholar and theologian.

These are indeed serious concerns. USD is a good school, but in the United States, academic freedom is essential, even at a private Catholic institution. This nation is not a theocracy, folks. I sincerely hope Lyons changes her mind, for the sake of the university. Sources at USD tell me that on Thursday she'll appear before the Faculty Senate, the top governing body of the faculty. We’ll see what transpires at the meeting; it's likely to be contentious. 

Meanwhile, some reports suggest that Lyons made her decision to block Beattie from speaking after receiving pressure from prominent Catholic groups such as the Cardinal Newman Society, the sometimes heavy handed non-profit organization that holds Catholic colleges and universities accountable for activity on campus that it considers un-Catholic. 

In this incendiary blog post, the Society accused Beattie of comparing Catholic mass to homosexual intercourse. But after Beattie complained that her work had been cited out of context, the Society said it would “respect that explanation with apology and regret for any error.” 

But as I write this, the shocking headline is still up on the Society’s blog.

Other Catholic blogs, too, have been critical of Beattie, including the Protect the Pope blog, where Deacon Donnelly writes that Beattie "has the right as a Catholic to question and doubt such fundamental and sensitive doctrines of Faith, but only in private, seeking advice and guidance from her spiritual director, priest and bishop. But surely Prof. Beattie does not have the right as a Catholic to use her position as a professor at a Catholic foundation college to publicly disseminate dissent and disloyalty in the Church. But even more objectionable is Prof. Beattie voicing her dissent to young people under her care as a teacher."

Refreshingly, on that same Protect the Pope blog, Prof. Paul D. Murray, the newly appointed consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and president of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, writes a letter to Lyons in which he defends Beattie, saying she has "integrity" and that "the way in which theology serves the Church and thereby the world is through robustly charitable conversation."

But Lyons is evidently unmoved. She does not appear willing to rescind her decision. In an email released by the university, she wrote:

“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.”

But the wagons have begun to circle around Lyons. One visiting USD faculty member even went so far as to resign his position at the university in a show of support for Beattie. Michael Davis, a professor at the University of California, Riverside who had accepted a visiting fellowship at USD, announced his resignation on Nov. 2.

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