Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A pontificate of novelty and resistance: Special interview with Tina Beattie

By Márcia Junges and Patricia Fachin (English translation by Rebel Girl)
IHU On-Line (em português)
June 6, 2015

"The Church must get real about motherhood, and that means getting real about the fact that, every day, 800 of the poorest women in the world die from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and thousands are injured," says the writer.

Francis' pontificate is a "novelty" because he "repeatedly stresses the priority of love in practice over abstract doctrines" and "constantly emphasizes a poor Church for the poor," says Tina Beattie in an interview with IHU On-Line via email. Despite the innovation inaugurated by the pope in the Church, it's obvious, she says, that "there are doctrinal teachings he can't change." Tina calls attention to the debate about "how far he can go, for example, regarding the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, the inclusion of people in relationships with people of the same sex within the Church's understanding of the goodness of sexual love and marriage, the ordination of women (which he has said is now a closed matter)."

In the opinion of the theology professor at the University of Roehampton in London, "Francis continues to repeat some of the teachings of his predecessors in a way that shows a certain reluctance to fully embrace the insights and challenges of women theologians and feminists." Similarly, the Pope "has a very negative attitude towards gender theory, continuing to promote the concept of sexual 'complementarity' that has been widely criticized, and he occasionally makes jokes about women, which some find trite and bit paternalistic," she points out.

Despite her support for gender arguments, the theologian points out that the "idea of autonomy should be used with caution" because, as human beings, we are creatures who depend on one another. "The modern secular individualistic idea of autonomy is not really compatible with the Catholic understanding of co-dependent and relational creatures. That said, the Catholic tradition places great emphasis on the duty of every individual to follow his or her enlightened conscience, and that means there must be authority control when intimate matters of personal decision-making are concerned," she explains.

Tina Beattie is a theologian and specialist in ethics and feminism issues, a member of the board of the British Catholic review The Tablet. Aong other works, she is the author of Theology after Postmodernity: Divining the Void (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) and New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

Check out the interview.

IHU On-Line - What is the great novelty of Francis' papacy?

Tina Beattie - Pope Francis has moved beyond the somewhat authoritarian style of both his predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to create a more welcoming and inclusive church, which focuses more on joy, forgiveness and Christ's mercy than on the application of strict rules and dogmas. He repeatedly stresses the priority of love in practice over abstract doctrines. This is a novelty, and the other is his constant emphasis on a poor Church for the poor. In an era of increasing economic divisions between rich and poor, many people welcome his willingness to be a strong voice to remind us of the importance of justice for the poor, the marginalized, the excluded and refugees, and his clear commitment not just to talk about it, but do it. This is a pope who embraces the simplicity of which he speaks, and that's inspiring.

IHU On-Line - What have been the main limitations of his papacy?

Tina Beattie - I think it's fair to say that the Church today is divided between those who accept the more informal and populist leadership style of Pope Francis, and those who pine for the more doctrinally and liturgically conservative style of Pope Benedict XVI. It's not correct to describe these distinctions as "liberal vs. conservative" or "progressives versus traditionalists", but certainly one of Pope Francis' challenges is dealing with these two polarized positions. And of course, there are doctrinal teachings that he can not change. There is much debate about how far he can go, for example, regarding the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, the inclusion of people in relationships with people of the same sex within the Church's understanding of the goodness of sexual love and marriage, the ordination of women (which he has said is now a closed matter).

However, this is a pope who, in my opinion, truly believes and trusts in the Holy Spirit. It's God's Church, and by creating a more open and admittedly contested space for these things to be discussed, he is, I believe, allowing the Spirit to guide the Church. I don't think he feels any need to control this process, even though his role as pope is to ensure wise leadership and discernment. The word 'discernment' is the key to his papacy. As a Jesuit, that's the mark of his spirituality. He also speaks repeatedly of the primacy of time over space - you need to give time to the processes of human transformation, taking into account the limitations and the context of inevitable failures.

IHU On-Line - What advances have been made in these last two years regarding the participation of women in the Church?

Tina Beattie - Pope Francis has repeatedly called for women to play a more significant role in the Church, and there have been some changes. He increased the number of women on the International Theological Commission from two to five, and recently the first woman was appointed to take over as rector of a pontifical university - Sister Mary Melone at the Antonianum. The new Pontifical Commission for Child Protection, established by Pope Francis has several women members, including the respected British psychiatrist, Baroness Sheila Hollins [1] and the abuse survivor Marie Collins [2]. In the first months of this year there were a number of conferences and meetings organized by various institutions of the Vatican to discuss the role of women, and this is a sign that things are changing. That said, Pope Francis continues to repeat some of the teachings of his predecessors in a way that shows a reluctance to fully embrace the insights and challenges of women theologians and feminists.

For example, he has a very negative attitude towards gender theory, continuing to promote the concept of sexual 'complementarity' that has been widely criticized, and he occasionally makes jokes about women, which some find trite and bit paternalistic. He's a man of his time and his culture, but he's also willing to be open and learn, so we should accept his advice and recognize that human transformation takes time and we can't expect him to do and be aware of everything immediately.

IHU On-Line - To what extent do these modifications challenge and revise the patriarchal structure of the ecclesiastical institution? What are their limits?

Tina Beattie - It has often been observed that for the patriarchal structures and androcentric institutions to change, it's not enough to just include a few selected women. There must be a critical mass of women, for example, on pontifical commissions, in universities and other leadership positions. Women theologians should be involved in shaping the doctrine of the Church, and these should be women who represent the rich and vast diversity of life of Catholic women in different cultures and contexts. All this is possible without us radically challenging the teaching of the existing church. Sooner or later, however, the question of women's ordination will have to be discussed and open to a full and serious theological debate. When so many other churches are ordaining women, it's not possible for the Catholic Church to just keep on hoisting the drawbridge on this issue. Pope Francis wants the Church to spread the joy of the Gospel, for us to be evangelizers, for us to be "good news" for all the people of the world, especially the poor. But in today's world, an institution that continues to block women's sacramental representation of Christ on the altar doesn't seem like "good news." Christ took on human flesh in order to redeem humankind - it's his humanity, not his masculinity, which is the most significant in terms of redemption. For women today to hear this message, we need to see that women also represent Christ.

IHU On-Line - Why does the absence of women's influence manifest itself more clearly in relation to the Church's teachings on sexual and reproductive ethics than in any other place?

Tina Beattie - There are huge problems surrounding the Church's teaching in these areas, with respect to a failure to understand and reach out to women who have difficulty with dilemmas and heavy responsibilities in the areas of sexuality, reproduction and motherhood. The official church teachings and papal pronouncements still romanticize motherhood and don't take sufficiently seriously the challenges of maternal mortality, overpopulation and the need for women to have sexual and reproductive rights as an expression of our own ethical responsibility. Moreover, in a world where so many girls and women still lack any role or control over what happens to them sexually, it is ethically shocking to deny them access to safe contraception.

Abortion is a very complex issue, and I know very few Catholic women who embrace the pro-choice movement uncritically. The goal should be to prevent abortion -- in the words of Hillary Clinton, make it safe, legal and rare -- but the lives of unborn children aren't saved by making abortion illegal - it simply ensures that many women will die along with their aborted child. This is an extremely complex ethical dilemma, but women should talk to women about these issues. The idea of a hierarchy of celibate men proclaiming itself the final moral authority over women's bodies, on their sexuality and their reproductive capacity simply ensures that our daughters will move away from the Church en masse, because they realize that it's a ridiculous situation.

IHU On-Line - These days, what do the Church's exhortations and controls on sexuality, especially women's, mean?

Tina Beattie - Of course, there is a need for men and women to think together about what it means to express our sexuality in a responsible and loving way, and take full responsibility for the children we engender. I don't think many people would like the Church to stay silent on such issues. But there is also a strong element of control in some of the teachings on sexuality. In all cultures, the female reproductive system is of enormous importance and is always subject to high levels of control and supervision, but with the advent of women's rights and gender equality, this model no longer has any credibility. We need an ethical transformation.

IHU On-Line - To what extent do these Church policies on women's sexuality represent an obstacle to them achieving their autonomy as individuals?

Tina Beattie - The idea of autonomy should be used with caution. As human beings, we are relational creatures - dependent on one another and responsible for each other. The modern secular individualistic idea of autonomy is not really compatible with the Catholic understanding of co-dependent and relational creatures. That said, the Catholic tradition places great emphasis on the duty of every individual to follow his or her enlightened conscience, and that means there must be authority control when intimate matters of personal decision-making are concerned. The Church can teach, guide, inform and pray, but it should not coerce, force or intimidate, nor should it seek to use the law to enforce those fundamental moral principles of virtue of an individual nature.

IHU On-Line - Why do you say that Francis tends to romanticize motherhood? What does that mean in practical terms?

Tina Beattie - See above. The qualities of nurturing, caring and offering affection associated with motherhood should be the qualities of every Christian, and indeed, Pope Francis himself manifests these qualities to a large extent. But mothers are human, and as women, we often face great injustice, difficulties and injuries in relation to our mothering abilities. The Church must get real about motherhood, and that means getting real about the fact that, every day, 800 of the poorest women in the world die from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and thousands are injured. This is the equivalent of two jumbo jets falling every day, and yet official Church documents never mention this as a serious ethical challenge. And while it's impossible to assess accurately how many women die from unsafe abortions, the numbers are in the tens of thousands each year. These are complex challenges. They have to do with economic and social justice, not just with sexual ethics. The international community has made great strides in reducing maternal and child mortality over the last two decades, but the Church's anxiety about contraception and abortion shows that instead of leading such efforts, it has very often been an obstacle.

IHU On-Line - What is the nexus that links poverty and mortality among women? What is the Church's role in changing that scenario? How could Francis could intervene in that sense?

Tina Beattie - About 99% of maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia among the poorest women in the world. When a mother dies, it also has a devastating impact on her surviving children. Women's lives are blighted by infant mortality and of course, the inability to limit the number of children. However, there is abundant evidence that contraceptive campaigns aren't enough. When women are educated, and when infant mortality is reduced, population numbers begin to decline and women have fewer children. The Church is right about that, and has said so many times. This is important because even Western nations sometimes promote aggressive policies of population control that take away the rights and autonomy of poor communities and of women in particular. So in that respect, the Church could be a champion of poor women's rights. But for an educated woman to limit the number of children, she needs access to safe contraception. This is the stumbling block for the teachings of the Church.

IHU On-Line - In view of your critical stance on the Catholic Church, which do you remain tied to Catholicism, specifically?

Tina Beattie - Catholic faith tells us that the world is blessed by God, that we participate in God's being and the beauty of creation is a manifestation of divine grace. It offers a sacramental view of creation and our place in it, and its core doctrines of the Incarnation, redemption, Trinitarian love and solidarity with the poor are to me the formative beliefs around which my entire life and aspirations revolve. Why would I leave it just because of some temporary difficulties with moral teachings that very few people, after all, follow? The Catholic Church is a lasting human reality, and of course there are struggles, difficulties and differences as we are discern what that means in terms of time, history and a rapidly changing global culture. But it is precisely here where I want to put my efforts and my commitment.

Notes:

[1] Sheila Hollins (1946): professor of psychiatry of learning disability at St George's University in London. In 2010, she received the title Baroness Hollins of Wimbledon in London Borough of Merton and Grenoside in county of South Yorkshire. She was president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists 2005-2008, succeeded by Dinesh Bhugra. She was also president of the British Medical Association and is currently president of the BMA Science Council. In 2014, Pope Francis named her member of the newly created Pontifical Commission for Child Protection. Check out more information on the topic on the IHU site. The pope completed the Commission for minors: eight women and ten lay people, available here. (IHU On-Line Note)

[2] Marie Collins: Irish woman who at 13 years old was sexually abused by a priest while she was an inpatient in a hospital. It was the first time she had been away from her family. Years later, she found out, after having been released, that the hospital discovered that the priest "was a specialist in abusing inpatient children" and that the Church's only "punishment" was transferring him to a parish. Today, she is part of the committee that advises the Vatican in the fight against child abuse in the Church. On the topic, check out the IHU site: "'Meeting in the Vatican on controversial Chilean bishop was very good,' says survivor of sexual abuse", available here; "'Whoever covers up sexual abuse should also be punished": Interview with Marie Collins, available here; "'I will make the voice of a woman abused by a priest heard,' says Marie Collins", available here. (IHU On-Line Note)

Translator's Note: All articles mentioned and hyperlinked in the footnotes are in Portuguese.

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