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Monday, 5 November 2012

Catholic tinker, tailor, soldier ... theologian

Tinker, sailor, soldier, sailor,
Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief.


If I remember correctly, this game involved the stones on the side of the plate after eating plums and custard.

Would it make any difference if the tinker was a Catholic tinker? Would that be different from him simply being a tinker who was a Catholic? What about a Catholic rich man or a rich man who just happened to be a Catholic?

I am prompted to this reflection by Professor Tina Beattie's apologia in response to the decision of the University of San Diego (a Catholic university) to rescind her invitation to speak.

Occasionally I have been banned from speaking. It's quite fun. You get kudos from being somehow of too much robustness in some area or another to be allowed to address the audience. In my case, it would be because I like the Tridentine Mass, or oppose gay marriage, or support the Faith Movement (yes, in the old days that would get you blocked.) In the case of Professor Beattie, it is because she supports women priests, or gay marriage or opposes the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Many years ago I was invited to a school by the Deputy Headmaster. The chaplain complained because in his eyes I was too much of an extremist to be inflicted on sixth formers. I suggested that the Deputy Head contact Archbishop's House, Southwark to enquire about my suitability to speak. I was amused to hear that the then Archbishop's Secretary said that I might be a bit conservative but was certainly a priest in good standing. The sixth  formers had all got wind of the dispute (thanks to the chaplain's lack of professional discretion) and were eagerly waiting for my talk which they received with enthusiasm.

So I must congratulate Professor Beattie for her achievement in being banned from speaking in California. In the Speaking Ban roll of honour that would take some beating and rather dwarfs my being held suspect in Braintree (name changed to protect the innocent.)

In her defence, Professor Beattie makes a distinction between being a Catholic theologian, and being an academic theologian who happens to be a Catholic. Recently the Catholic Herald made something of a historian who apparently delivered a subtle insult to Eamon Duffy by referring to him as a Catholic historian. The point is that Eamon Duffy is respected in academic circles not as an apologist for a Catholic view of history but as an historian in his own right. Being a Catholic, he is naturally interested in subjects such as the Reformation, but that does not detract from his academic rigour in historical study. Hinting at partisanship is indeed an insult.

What then about a Catholic plumber? Assuming that he does not limit his work to the water supply and drainage of Churches, is there anything specifically Catholic about his plumbing? As a good Catholic, he will try to do a good job for a fair price, allowing for a reasonable profit to meet his obligtions to his family and to charity. Since a methodist or muslim plumber could do an identically good piece of work, we could say that there is not much to choose between saying he is a Catholic plumber and a plumber who happens to be a Catholic.

What about a Catholic doctor? When I was young, Catholics generally tried to find a Catholic doctor such as Dr O'Keefe who exercised a kindly authority and made me say Aaah! when I had tonsillitis as a child. I expect my mother found deeper reasons to trust him as she gave birth to six of us. Hectoring advice about contraception was not so common in those days, but she would have been spared the beginning of that movement by Dr O'Keefe who, I am sure, would have had no truck with it. Nowadays, for parents who want to have more than two children, a good Catholic doctor who will not nag them about contraception or about having amniocentesis would be a blessing. Such families would look for a Catholic doctor and not be particularly helped by a doctor who just happened to be a Catholic but did not believe the teaching of the Church. They would probably be better served by a believing Baptist or Muslim doctor.

So then, what about a Catholic theologian? Can a Catholic be an academic theologian who just happens to be a Catholic? To be scrupulously accurate, Professor Beattie distinguishes between "an academic theologian who is also a practising Catholic" and a Catholic theologian as "somebody with a licence who is authorised to teach by the official magisterium."

First of all, I don't think it is nitpicking to focus on the expession "official magisterium" since it is one that Professor Beattie uses often. Surely there is just the magisterium? There is no "unofficial" teaching authority in the Catholic Church, only the teaching authority which we believe to be founded by Christ and exercised by the Pope and the Bishops whether expressed in their ordinary or extraordinary teaching. Apart from this, there are opinions of theologians - as well as journalists, bloggers and the bloke down the pub.

One way in which theologians are distinguished is by their having a pontifical licence to teach; however in the history of the Church there have been plenty of theologians, some of whom (including women) have been recognised as Doctors of the Church without ever having had a licenciate. We can grant, I think, that they were Catholic theologians.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are kids who go to university and think theology might be a cool, rather offbeat subject. They can do some essays on the Trinity, on Meister Eckhart (bloke in pub asked me about him just the other day) Mother Julian of Norwich, and on social justice or green issues with perhaps a bit of feminist theology thrown in. An intelligent and hard-working student could get a first, without any requirement to believe in God or any article of the Christian creed. They could go on to get a doctorate on "The concept of hunger in Gustavo Gutierrez" and take up a teaching post. (Apologies if anyone has done a doctorate on that subject - no offence intended.)

Would such a young professor be a "theologian"? In academic terms he would be counted as such. If the young professor was a Catholic, would he now be a Catholic theologian? He would, I'm sure, reject the appellation, especially if he doesn't believe the Creed.

So what about a theologian who accepts some of the teaching of the Church but does not accept the teaching of what is termed for this purpose the "official magisterium" of the Church on the reservation of priestly ordination to men, or the duty of conscientious objection to arrangements for the legal recognition of civil unions of homosexual people? 

If an academic theologian who happens also to be a Catholic but disagrees with teaching that is formally stated by the magisterium as something to be definitively held as part of the deposit of faith, is there really ground for complaint if a Catholic organisation dedicated to upholding the teaching of the magisterium decides to withdraw an invitation to speak?
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