The Upside-Down World of Catholic Higher Education | Anne Hendershott | Catholic World Report
Recent controversies at the University of San Diego underscore the prevalence and influence of dissent on Catholic campuses.
In an ideal Catholic world, if a Catholic theologian promoted a woman’s right to choose abortion and encouraged access to same-sex marriage, while also comparing the sacrifice of the Mass to an act of homosexual intercourse, the work of that theologian would be marginalized. But, in the upside-down world of Catholic higher education in 2012, such dissidence is applauded. Case in point: Tina Beattie, the British theologian whose book, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate: A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, promotes such heresy, has been honored as a visionary on Catholic campuses here and abroad.
Conflict and confusion at the University of San Diego
However, after a decade of honors and accolades from Catholic institutions, Beattie’s writings are finally receiving some criticism. In 2011, Bishop Declan Lang, of the Diocese of Clifton in the UK, cancelled a lecture to be given by Beattie as part of a diocesan speaker series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. And last month, Beattie’s invitation to serve as a visiting fellow at the University of San Diego’s Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture brought protests from the Catholic community in San Diego and beyond. In fact, the protests were so strong that Mary Lyons, the university’s president, abruptly withdrew the invitation just two weeks before Beattie was scheduled to arrive on the USD campus.
Lyons’ decision to cancel the Beattie fellowship resulted in a vote of “no confidence” from 99 members of the university’s Academic Assembly of the College of Arts and Sciences (the vote was 99 in support, 16 against, and 19 abstentions). Writing that “[t]he president has shown herself to be ethically bankrupt,” the 99 faculty members claimed that their vote “lets the world know that faculty here do in fact support and believe strongly in academic freedom…this body declares a loss of confidence in [Lyons’] leadership.”
In explaining her decision, Lyons distributed a letter to the University of San Diego community claiming that Beattie “has taken positions that many would say challenge Church teachings.” And although Lyons stops short of stating she herself would ever claim Beattie challenged Church teachings, the USD president also said that “offering [Beattie] an honorary fellowship would be a betrayal of those benefactors who supported the Center.” Pointing out that the Center was designed and funded by generous men and women who wanted to present the Catholic tradition “with accuracy and respect,” Lyons made the decision to rescind the invitation. In a letter to the chair of the Academic Assembly, Lyons wrote that she would allow Beattie to speak at the university in the spring semester as long as the theologian was not given an “honorary affiliation” with the institution—a reference to Beattie’s expected title of visiting fellow.
The real question is this: Why has Beattie—a theologian who has denigrated the teachings of the Church for more than a decade—been given so many honors in the first place?