The cancellation of Tina Beattie’s fellowship at the University of San Diego in October 2012 raised issues that are of fundamental concern to all Catholics who seek an intelligent and informed engagement with Church teaching, supported by academic theologians, and who wish to remain open to debate and challenge in the quest for truth in the context of modern society and the responsibilities of good citizenship as well as faithful discipleship. Church teachings on issues of social justice and sexual ethics belong within that aspect of Catholic theology which is contingent, contextual and open to interpretation and development in the light of new social, scientific and intellectual challenges. This is not relativism, and there will always be debates as to where the boundary between revealed doctrine and natural theology should be drawn.
However, there is today a dangerous trend towards creeping infallibity which corrodes the boundaries of intellectual freedom and the authority of individual conscience in the life of faith. This means that those who have a more extensive and inclusive understanding of the authority of the magisterium can and do exercise considerable power to silence and harass those who favour a more liberal interpretation, and it seems the former have the full weight of Rome behind them. The current climate of magisterial hostility to independent thought makes it impossible to work with integrity as a theologian in fidelity to the demands of conscience and academic freedom, and guided by established principles in the Catholic intellectual tradition with regard to the interpretation of natural law and the use of philosophical reason in the service of faith.
The British academic system may be almost unique, insofar as it accommodates theology as a discipline capable of being taught from different confessional and non-confessional perspectives, within the secular, publicly-funded university system. This constitutes a space of enviable academic freedom for theologians, insofar as their jobs are not vulnerable to pressure from Church authorities. However, it also brings with it significant responsibilities to both the academic community and the Church, which sometimes make quite different demands upon those who seek to navigate the choppy waters between the Scylla of potentially unrestrained and irresponsible academic freedom (fuelled by government demands for demonstrable ‘impact’) and the Charybdis of excessively zealous and narrow interpretations of Catholic doctrine (fuelled by magisterial demands for obedience and conformity).
In order to open up a debate around these issues, the Digby Stuart Resarch Centre is hosting this forum on which we shall post articles and contributions that we deem to be particularly well-argued or significant in terms of this debate, with a moderated space for comments and discussion. If you are aware of articles or books that you think would be valuable to recommend for users of the forum, or if you would like to make a theological contribution to the debate, please contact Thomas Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The purpose of this forum is to contribute to a high level of theological debate concerning appropriate freedoms and restraints which might apply to lay theologians working within the Catholic tradition. While we welcome broad participation and contributions from a range of different perspectives, all comments will be vetted before being posted. Those which make an informed contribution to the discussion and which are expressed with courtesy and reason will be accepted. Those which make unsubstantiated claims or which are expressed without due regard for proper academic debate or in offensive or derogatory language will be rejected.