The feminist Catholic theologian Tina Beattie talks to Stephen Tomkins
Tina Beattie has offended Catholic traditionalists with her defence of women’s ordination. And, in 2012, she was one of 27 Catholics who wrote to The Times arguing that Catholics could “support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples”. As a result, she came to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and had lecture invitations cancelled in Bristol and San Diego.
It is, as she says, not the deferential behaviour one tends to expect from an adult convert, but she was brought up a Presbyterian. She embraced and keeps the Roman Catholic faith with a deep love – however critical. This relationship between love, faithfulness and critical questioning was one of the questions that Reform was keen to get to the bottom of when we met in her Roehampton University office.
Is Catholicism misunderstood by those of us on the outside of it?
Well, I used to be on the outside of it myself. As a Presbyterian I was very suspicious, and I found becoming a Roman Catholic a very difficult decision.
Yes, I do think it’s misunderstood. Paradoxically I found much more freedom within than I ever did as an evangelical Presbyterian. A friend said to me: “At least we know where the authority sits – it’s in Rome; and we can disagree, but none of us can claim that authority, whereas in a more biblical church every single person who can read the Bible is an infallible authority.” I certainly used to find that difficult. The Bible was a ceiling that I kept banging my head on when I asked difficult questions. Then, when I became a Roman Catholic, it began to feel like the trampoline beneath my feet. It was something you sprang off from, not something that limited you.
I suppose all Protestants are expected to read the Bible for themselves, but not all Catholics are expected to read canon law for themselves.
No, but the Bible has, since the second Vatican Council, become more important in the life of the Church. Papal documents shift from a strong natural law perspective in the 1960s to a much more biblical perspective under John Paul II, which continues.
How do you look back on your Presbyterian upbringing?
I look back on my upbringing with fondness. We were members of a middle-of-the-road church in Zambia, and I remember being very well formed by people who were good at understanding, and I do now miss a good old fashioned Presbyterian sermon sometimes.
What I remember with more ambivalent feelings is, after many years away, going back to an evangelical Presbyterian church in Zimbabwe, and I didn’t find it as intellectually robust. I didn’t find the openness to racial reconciliation at the beginning of Mugabe’s government that I would have wished.
I was like a fish out of water and I noticed how much the Roman Catholic Church was doing in the field of justice and peace and racial reconciliation. Then I realised I had a real appetite for bells and smells as well. The social justice is something that holds me when I feel a bit disillusioned.
And I love the sacramental tradition. That’s the most important thing in my Christian faith now, and it’s the thing the Presbyterian Church did not offer. It has become for me, along with the Virgin Mary, the magnetic attraction that really keeps me here.
Do you have a different perspective on Catholicism as an adult convert?
I’m a bit of an oddity, because often converts are the most passionately obedient, but paradoxically I’ve come to feminism through Catholicism. On the one hand – and this is an area where it is misunderstood – it appears as the most misogynist and androcentric of churches, and yet the identity of the Church has always been maternal. The cult of the saints means that, more than any other religion, the Roman Catholic tradition has preserved the voices of women. And OK, they’re carefully chosen, but I do find a very, very rich maternal, female presence.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s too powerful – maybe it’s a bit threatening so that the male priesthood is the last little stake of masculinity in this maternal edifice…
This is an extract from the April 2014 edition of Reform.