Why Tina Beattie remains a Roman Catholic

When we moved to Zimbabwe in 1980 I spent a few years trying to return to the Presbyterian faith of my childhood, but so soon after Independence it was an insular white society with a few wonderful people but so much racism and evangelical fervour – think of Trump’s America! I tried it all – waving my hands in the air, speaking in tongues, quoting scripture at length to my poor bewildered husband – and all the time I was aware that the Catholic Church up the road was different – challenging racism, running social justice projects, etc.
– Professor Tina Beattie

Editor’s Note: Professor Tina Beattie, born into a Scottish Presbyterian family who travelled to Africa as missionaries, is a convert to Roman Catholicism. Tina was a keynote speaker at the 2018 SMA Summer School.

Events in recent decades within the Catholic Church have shocked many and have contributed to a major loss of moral authority at a time when strong moral and ethical voices are needed. Many have left the Church due to a mixture of disillusionment and outrage. Others through loss of faith in those whose vocation it is to inspire and strengthen faith. 

Below we reprint a blog by Tina Beattie which is challenging, hard-hitting, searing in its critique and laced with – if we are honest – justifiable cynicism and contempt for what was visited upon innocent victims; and the efforts employed by males in authority to cover-up wrongdoing in the interests of preserving a charade of institutional purity. 

As a baptized woman, she pulls no punches when it comes to confronting the historic failure to adequately and justly allow the leadership of women to flourish; to blossom in a way that enables their immense intelligence and wisdom, the neglected hemisphere of our collective brain, to support the broken Body of Christ in finding healing and wholeness. 

This is not a comfortable read. Indeed, many will find it uncomfortable and in some places objectionable. Yet hers is a voice that needs to he heard and deserves to be heard. In this reflection Professor Beattie admits to the temptation to leave the Catholic Church to which she converted. However, she tells us that she remains within because in reading a book about the 16th century masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece, through the lens of Laudato Si’, she realises: “This is what Catholicism is about, and this is what’s worth preserving, understanding and following.”

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When I wrote The Good Priest, I didn’t have to rely too much on imagination to conjure up a luridly flamboyant cardinal who raped boys and murdered prostitutes, though even John Paul II never found quite such a monster to endow with a cappa magna. I’d be a saint if I didn’t admit that I feel a delicious sense of serendipity about the fact that my book has come out at the same time as Frédéric Martel’s well-reviewed and generally respected exposé of the extent to which repressed gay clerics have risen through the ranks to rule the roost – though I’ve yet to read it myself. The summit on sex abuse ended with a whimper, though the women who spoke stole the show. And now George Pell has been convicted of sexually abusing children. You couldn’t make this up – but I did! So yes, I’m no saint and the timing couldn’t have been better, but I’m also a Catholic and never have I felt so very near the edge.

I converted to Catholicism in 1986, a few months after our fourth child was born. (I wanted to make sure that we had decisively dealt with the contraception issue beforehand, so I told the priest I approached that, barring a visit from the Angel Gabriel, there would be no more babies. He didn’t seem too troubled by that).

I’d always been attracted to the Catholic Church. As a very small child we lived in a remote town (Mongu) in what was then Northern Rhodesia, and my Presbyterian parents had an open house which was often host to Catholic priests, Presbyterian ministers and Freemasons, usually outdoing each other in whisky consumption. One visitor once remarked that it was like a Eucalyptus Council visiting our home.

We moved to Lusaka when I was six, and there were White Fathers living opposite us. My best friend and I used to visit them for tea and to swim in their pool. They were kind, welcoming and completely respectful of us. There was no hint of anything other than warmth, friendliness and a place of refuge from occasional domestic turbulence.

When the time came to go to secondary school, my parents sent me to the Dominican Convent with some misgivings. The Zambian education system was in melt down at the time and they couldn’t afford the more expensive private schools, so they swallowed their Scottish Presbyterian inhibitions and set the nuns loose on their daughter.

I was a rebel but I was also bright and impressionable, and those educated strong-willed German Dominicans changed my life – though it would be many years before I would admit it. Those were the years of Vatican II, and I didn’t know that I was witness to a radical process of transformation – from severe long white habits with black veils to more informal frocks, from an ethos of rigid austerity to a sense of liberating joy which only much later would I understand. Sisters who would not have dared to enter a Protestant Church a few years before came to my Presbyterian confirmation service. They had a wonderful time when Lusaka theatre club put on the Sound of Music – my mother was a nun and my sisters were von Trapp children – and they acted as informal advisors. They taught me for the first time to challenge the casual racism I had grown up with. I am so grateful for all that they gave to me during those turbulent years of adolescence. I gave up on education at 15, but many years later when I came back I think it was largely because of them.

When we moved to Zimbabwe in 1980 I spent a few years trying to return to the Presbyterian faith of my childhood, but so soon after Independence it was an insular white society with a few wonderful people but so much racism and evangelical fervour – think of Trump’s America! I tried it all – waving my hands in the air, speaking in tongues, quoting scripture at length to my poor bewildered husband – and all the time I was aware that the Catholic Church up the road was different – challenging racism, running social justice projects, etc. They also had a dynamic and good looking new pope – what wasn’t to like? And once I started moving in that direction, I quickly discovered an appetite for bells and smells and miracles and mysteries too.

So to cut a long story short, here I am, but not since those days of failed evangelicalism have I felt so very tempted to walk away.

And yet, does this not have to happen? Does the corruption which came to breed in the Church under the last two papacies not need to collapse in shame and pain before something new can begin to emerge?

I’m not naive and I don’t believe what follows will be spectacularly better. But I do believe that now is the time to open up a real discussion about ordaining women (married men alone won’t sort out this mess), and to involve the non-ordained as full and equal partners in the life of the Church. Apart from anything else, if they really do apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule to abusers, I suspect there will soon be a real shortage of priests – and that’s before they’ve even started listening to women and seminarians tell their stories of abuse. The last summit was only about the abuse of minors.

So we need women priests and we need them soon, along with lots of other changes in the institutional church. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and this is a time to speak – for priests and bishops as well as the rest of us. The silence of the past has been collusion, and the hierarchy can no longer close itself off in its insular male-only club playing God. Pell was one of the most ruthless and dogmatic defenders of doctrines that are primarily designed to exercise absolute control over other people’s sexuality and women’s reproductive capacities. And what an absolute outrage to the glorious cult of the saints that the man who ruled the Church with a rod of iron while providing shelter for every kind of abuser so long as he brought in the dosh is now a saint. John Paul II … well, don’t get me started.

But as a convert I want to belong to a sacramental church with a rich liturgical cult and a sacramental priesthood, and I know that when women join that sacramental priesthood it will still be vulnerable to power games and corruption and abuse, because despite what Pope Francis seems to think, women are people too – we are not repositories of some kind of feminine genius that makes us too good to be priests but great at being mothers! We too will screw up, because that’s what humans do. The Church won’t necessarily be better, but it couldn’t be worse, could it? And it should be an ordinary clay-footed community, because otherwise people would join for the wrong reasons. It shouldn’t be an attractive club, but neither should it be a den of men hiding behind the rule of celibacy to rape and abuse others. (And I know that there are thousands of wonderful priests and bishops who are not like that, but I wonder now how much they knew and why they have been so fearful about standing up and being counted – but that’s a question I’m sure many are asking themselves).

In the midst of all this though, I’m doing research – reading the Isenheim Altarpiece through the lens of Laudato Si’. This is what Catholicism is about, and this is what’s worth preserving, understanding and following. The greatest masterpiece of Christian art was painted for a hospice where the poor went to die and the monks fed them with the finest bread and wine, while the body of Christ bore the agony of their wounds and gathered in their despair and their fear. All of nature bears witness to the incarnation. As a Catholic I can read the altarpiece in a way I never could have done as a Presbyterian. It is a theological text of the most exquisite depth, beauty and wisdom, a miracle in so many ways.

Anyway, I started with a book and I’m ending with a book – my next research project! Sorry this is so long. I needed to vent and ruminate. I’m not leaving, and I’m speaking out.

And here’s the final irony: within weeks of taking up his role as Head of the CDF, Cardinal Müller found time to personally sign a letter to my bishop saying I was not allowed to give a scheduled lecture in Clifton Cathedral, because I had signed a letter to The Times – along with 26 others including several priests – saying Catholic citizens could in good conscience support same-sex marriage. That’s history now, but at the same time as he was chasing me (and that wasn’t the only time), Müller was ignoring sex abuse cases even within the ranks of the CDF. That tells me all I need to know about women, abuse and the Catholic hierarchy.

I’m through with them but the altarpiece and Laudato Si’ remind me why I stay.