Saturday, 3 November 2012

Speaking Truth to Power

Perspective is a funny thing.

Professor Beattie, I am sure, believes that she is ‘speaking truth to power;’ a woman confronting the patriarchy, mysogeny even, of an autocratic male-run Church.

One of the ironies, of course is that many of the academics who now claim to ‘speak truth to power’ (it's quite a trendy phrase in liberal academia) tend also not to believe in truth as an absolute, anyway.  

The phrase originated, Google tells me, with the Quakers, who have an admirable commitment to integrity, but interesting notions of where truth is to be found, which seem to me to veer towards the subjective.

But to return to my opening comment about perspective, from where I sit, it is Tina who has power, and we pew-warmers who do not. She is the one who can get her interviews, books and articles published, her views publicised and who has the ear of bishops and all the kudos that goes with being a prominent, dissenting, female theologian.

I am reminded of the apostate bishop in C S Lewis’ The Great Divorce (which one of the kids must have, so I can’t quote it verbatim).  In his apologia to his Guardian Angel, he paints a pathetic picture of a brave soul who risked everything when he publicly preached that a literal Resurrection no longer recommended itself to his critical faculties: I risked everything!  His Angel will have none of that: what did he risk, other than fame, increased sales for his books, and ultimately a bishopric?...

[UPDATE Paul Priest has kindly posted the relevant passage from The Great Divorce here. It is well worth reading.  You will notice that I mis-remembered: his interlocutor is not his Guardian Angel, but a friend who had died and gone to heaven before him.]

Perhaps it is the fact that a bishopric is unlikely that makes Professor Beattie so upset.  But then, she could always become an Anglican (though in that instance, she would risk being so mainstream that nobody would pay her any heed).

Therefore, it amuses me (I am slightly [only slightly] ashamed to admit) when she is hoist by her own petard and the worms turn.  The blogosphere has provided an opportunity for the relatively powerless to speak the truth to her power (and indeed to powers over her head).

The problems, of course, arise from the claims to be speaking the truth.

Let us look at them, in relation to the three parties involved in my analysis.

The Church claims to speak the Truth of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit and guaranteed, by that same Spirit, not to err in matters of Faith and Morals in her solemn pronouncements.  One can either accept that or not: Catholics are bound to accept it.

Professor Beattie claims the right to speak ‘her truth.’  That is to pursue her theological musings without let or hindrance.  However, she also claims the title Catholic theologian.  That title, it seems to me, if it is to mean anything at all, must limit, if not her private musings, at least her public declarations.  It is no good to claim to be a pacifist and then pick fights with people, fire weapons at them and so on: that is to make language meaningless.

The truth that she claims to speak includes such gems as: ‘This is a perverted publication written by and for people with a perverted understanding of the meaning and reality of sexual love in all its joys, struggles and ambiguities;’ a  comment on a CTS booklet which teaches the Catholic understanding of love, marriage and (the impossibility of) divorce.  What has riled Professor Beattie here is its insistence on the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.

Notice that she doesn’t confine herself to disagreeing, but also characterises  both the writer and readers who accept the Church’s teaching as having a ‘perverted understanding.’  Given that understanding is derived directly from Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae, that is a worrying claim.

That is but one sample of her brand of ‘truth.’  There are many others, equally offensive to Catholics who believe what the Church teaches, documented on various blogs.

Which brings us to the bloggers.  Perhaps most assiduous in speaking his truth to her power is Deacon Nick Donnelly, who runs the blog Protect the Pope.  

His truth-speaking (and that of all the other blogs I have read on the subject) consists largely of quoting Professor Beattie’s words, and contrasting them with Catholic teaching, and raising the question: should she be allowed to claim both to be a Catholic theologian and to dissent, publicly and stridently, from so many of the Church’s doctrines?

She thinks the Church uses its power abusively; Deacon Nick, and I, and many others, think that she uses her power abusively.

She thinks she is speaking the truth; we think the Church is.

It's all a matter of perspective: and naturally, I think it is hers that is perverted, and she thinks it is mine.

As Catholics, of course, we submit to the judgement of the Church - or not, as the case may be.


Some charitable souls have expressed pity for her as she is losing a paid trip abroad and speaker’s fees.  I don’t have too much sympathy there: I too would like a free trip abroad, but we can’t all have our wants.  As for her fee, academics, even at the lowest level, are paid significantly more than a living wage, or even the national average salary (non-professorial grades average £43,000). The professoriate are paid significantly more than lecturers (UK average over £75,000, though in fairness, the average female professor at Roehampton is on a meagre £60,585).  But it’s not as though she has eight or ten children to feed...


NB This has nothing to do with academic freedom.  It has to do with intellectual honesty.  She can teach, say or write whatever she wants.  What she may not do, we believe, is pass off her anti-Catholic views as Catholic.  That is dishonest.


Simon Platt said...

Quite so.

Anonymous said...

Well, there's also a practical problem with 'speaking truth to power' - power doesn't much like it. And takes action. And, really, anyone who does not understand this isn't very bright or mature. So there is no point complaining when one's actions bring results one does not like. Buddhists call this 'karma' - we call it 'actions have consequences' - often unintended.

That's a serious point, by the way!

On the side of the angels said...

Posted the relevant extract from The Great Divorce on my Blog as it's too big to post in the comment box

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks Paul: It was a treat to read it again!

tempus putationis said...

I have no sympathy with Beattie's 'theology' but I do think it is tasteless and rather foolish to discuss in the same breath her possible salary and how many children she has (four, by the way).