Theology in transition: opposition to Pope Francis' reforms is entrenched worldwide
The theme was “Theology and Plurality”. I was asked to run workshops on “opportunities and challenges for Catholic women”, and I was invited to give a plenary lecture on “women, faith and peacebuilding”. Also contributing were Zeljko Tanjic of the University of Zagreb, Carmelo Dotolo of the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome and Pantelis Kalaitzidis of the Volos Academy in Greece.
I’d hesitated before accepting the invitation. My public involvement with Catholic institutions invariably provokes vitriolic social media campaigns seeking to ban me on the basis of my support for the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. The slanderous allegation is also made that I “promote” early abortion because I argue against its criminalisation. Why make trouble for the organisers?
But it was an irresistible opportunity, and times have changed, I told myself. Pope Francis has done much to relax the smothering of theological debate that prevailed under his two predecessors, and has taken the sting out of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s ability to silence “dissenting” theologians. (When he was in charge of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Müller had directly intervened several times to have me blocked from speaking at church-organised events.) I decided I’d go.
I’ve worked with Catholic women from many cultural contexts, and my theological engagement is filtered through an awareness of the diverse perspectives that women bring to their faith. The concerns of feminist theologians in the West often focus on issues of women’s ordination and the lack of leadership roles for women in the Church, but for many Catholic women these are not their primary concerns.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women theologians tend to focus on issues such as the double impact of globalisation and traditional culture on women’s lives, on violence and sexual abuse and on developing a critique of patriarchy in church and society. For women in Eastern Europe, the main concern is the after-effects of the collapse of Communism, an upheaval that brought social conflict and a new kind of poverty, and saw a rapid increase in sex trafficking. One concern that is shared by women across all cultures is domestic violence.
So I went to Croatia with a desire for dialogue, wanting to understand the concerns of young people in countries slowly recovering from the traumas of the Communist and post-Communist eras. I prepared by reading about the challenges and opportunities facing women in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and by studying the work of theologians from that region, including a small number of feminist theologians such as the Bosnian Muslim Zilka Spahic-Siljak and the Croatian Franciscan Sr Rebeka Jadranka Anic.
I arrived to find myself in the eye of a storm. Accusations from ultra-conservative Catholic groups that had circulated on English-language social media networks had been taken up by their Croatian counterparts and were doing the rounds. The Bishop of Mostar, Ratko Peric, had written an open letter to the Bishop of Dubrovnik, Mate Uzinic, offering his fraternal advice that young people should not be exposed to my progressive feminist ideas. Peric described me as a “notorious heretic” and reminded Uzinic that bishops in the United Kingdom and the United States had cancelled lectures by me in church venues.
My instinct was to leave before I was sent packing. But I had underestimated the determination of my hosts. They repeatedly assured me that this was not about me but about the divisions within the Church in Croatia, and from the moment I arrived they went out of their way to make me feel supported.
Bishop Uzinic personally attended the summer school every day. The more I came to know him, the more I understood what the kind of pastoral leadership that Pope Francis has called for looks like. Rather than expect special treatment because of his position, or use his power to control the programme of lectures and workshops, he simply listened and engaged: attentive to the struggles and hopes of his people.
In my workshops, I was joined by an ecumenical group of male and female students. All spoke with impressive intelligence and deep conviction about faith, society and the challenges of modern life. They did not always agree with one another, but they respected the importance of informed dialogue.
I asked the students to email me their comments and feedback at the end of the week, and I was moved by their wise and mature reflections. They spoke of the need for patience, for trust in God even as we hope for change, and they made repeated references to Pope Francis’ emphasis on dialogue, which had been a key theme during the week.
Time and again I hear the same fears expressed by Catholic women – that if they identify themselves as feminists, or if they speak out on issues in ways which might be interpreted as questioning church teaching, they will be treated with suspicion; and, if they are employed in a Catholic parish or educational institution, they will put their position in jeopardy. My own experience bears this out.
But the energy and vitality of the Church cannot be sustained if women are silenced. As Bishop Uzinic pointed out, controversial issues will not go away by not being talked about. A willingness to listen and engage in dialogue does not imply agreement, but without it no understanding is possible.
I came away from Dubrovnik feeling reinvigorated and full of hope. But I also realised how well organised are the forces ranged against Francis’ vision of a revitalised Church. A Croatian organisation that campaigned against my presence in Dubrovnik has links to the US-based lay Catholic organisation, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), one of the many groups operating under the TFP banner. There is now a branch of TFP in the UK. These groups have strong ties to far-right political movements and operate through well-funded networks and websites.
They see homosexual priests as at the root of the sex abuse crisis in the Church, are virulent in their opposition to LGBT rights, and loathe “gender ideology”, the condemnatory catchphrase popularised by Benedict XVI and frequently used by Francis. In their determination to stifle debate, they are spreading poison through the Church. Unless other church leaders follow the example of Bishop Uzinic and his team in resisting them, their influence will grow in these febrile times.
To sound a warning about these networks is not to trivialise the legitimate concerns of those towards the more conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. Croatia is emerging from an era during which Catholics experienced the suppression of their faith by Communism, and then its revivification in the post-Communist era as a marker of national unity and belonging.
Croatia is, to quote Professor Tanjic, a society in transition. Catholicism has for many been a sustaining source of communal identity and hope in the face of profound suffering. The forces of secularism are too often ignorant of or indifferent towards these deeply rooted narratives of faith and the shared practices to which they give rise, particularly with regard to family relationships and domestic life.
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, London.