Bishops MUST act to correct error of "Catholic" theologian

You may have missed this story in The Catholic Herald on Monday which reports that Tina Beattie, Theologian, professor of 'Catholic Studies' at Roehampton University, and advisor to CAFOD’s Theological Reference Group, has signed a letter to the Polish Bishops’ Conference supporting “early, safe and legal” abortion. The letter follows proposals by the Polish government to make abortion illegal in the country.

Tina Beattie was one of the organisers of the letter. She set up a secret Facebook group – her words – in order to brainstorm the letter’s wording and solicit signatures.

The actual letter is an extraordinary piece of pseudo-intellectual sophistry which is nothing short of embarrassing from an academic perspective, wrong on every point—every few words contains a categorical error, a lie, a fallacy or a heresy.

It's wrong on liberty, autonomy, conscience, legality, concepts of freedom and rights and their precedential axiomatic principle of the inalienable right to life of the innocent.

It is intellectually dishonest, demonstrating either an extremely poor understanding of theology & philosophy or a deliberate attempt to mislead by selectively quoting the wrong bits of the Magisterium. I have to assume the former, because if the latter is true, it would mean that they expect to get that past the Polish Bishops, to whom the letter is addressed. Good luck with that. Imagine how ridiculous and ill-informed it will look to these bishops?

For example, the letter attempts to bolster their argument by means of recourse to Dignitatis Humanae, which is Vatican II's document on religious freedom. This document seeks to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society. It supports religious liberty, but here it is used to attempt an argument of the primacy of conscience. If one wanted to quote the Magisterium in the context of this letter, one has many options to choose from. The issue of abortion is addressed directly in the Dogmatic Constitution Gaudium et spes, §51, which stressed the obligation to guard against what is a crime, and not just a private sin:
For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.
If one wanted to consult the Magisterium regarding abortion, one should cite De abortu procurator. If one wanted to consult the Magisterium regarding the primacy of conscience, one should cite the thorough treatment of the subject given in Guadium et spes (n.16) & the further explanation in Veritatis Splendor which teaches us that conscience "is not...and independent capacity to decide what is right and wrong" (VS n. 60:1), rather there is an obligation to discover and to do the truth; this is the key duty of conscience and the source of its dignity.

The full text of the letter to the Polish Bishops (which is available online here) is as follows, reproduced here in dark red along with my comments in black:

The following letter is an independent initiative, not connected with any campaigning group or association. It was written by a number of concerned Catholic women theologians in Poland and the UK, in consultation with a wider range of Catholic moral theologians. It has been delivered to the Polish bishops and circulated to the Polish media. Please feel free to publicize the letter and the list of signatories.
For enquiries, please contact one of the following:
Alicja Baranowska:
Anna Cannon:
Zuzanna Radzik:
We, the undersigned, are Catholics who respect the Church’s moral stance against abortion. We are writing to you with a request to engage in dialogue and reflection about the possible consequences of criminalizing abortion in Poland.
We uphold the sanctity of all human life, including the right to life of women and their unborn children. However, we also acknowledge that sometimes women and girls face agonizing decisions about whether or not to continue with a pregnancy that is the consequence of an act of sexual violence; that poses a serious threat to their own health, or that would result in the birth of a profoundly disabled or terminally ill child. [I think it IS important that the discussion acknowledges this reality] While we respect those who decide to continue with such a pregnancy, we do not believe that this decision can be imposed upon them through moral coercion, and far less through the force of law. In our view, the latter constitutes a violation of a woman’s freedom of conscience and personal dignity, [But there are two lives involved in this decision, so doesn't this ignore a basic truth of the circumstance?] and it runs counter to the Catholic tradition’s distinction between morality and legality. The law should not be used to control a person’s moral life, except when that person’s behaviour poses a threat to society.
The Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, affirms the primacy of conscience and the right to “immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom … even [for] those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it.” (DH 2) While we recognize the distinction between freedom from coercion to act against one’s conscience (which is unconditional),  and freedom to act in accordance with one’s conscience (which can be restricted if the exercise of such freedom constitutes a threat to the common good), [Doesn't the legalised killing of the innocent in our society pose a threat to it? If it does not, is this simply because the unborn have no voice?] we believe that the unique character of the conflicts posed by pregnancy justifies the application of this principle in its former, unconditional sense in certain circumstances. Moreover, the use of the Church’s teaching authority to call for a change in law makes it irrelevant in this situation to distinguish between respect for freedom of conscience in matters of religion, and respect for freedom of conscience in a more universal sense. The law affects the freedom of all Polish citizens, and not only of Catholics.
We understand that Poland already has laws restricting abortion to situations when a woman’s life or health would be endangered by the continuation of a pregnancy, when the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act such as rape or incest, or when the foetus is seriously malformed or terminally ill. We are aware that under existing Polish law it is medical assistants who perform illegal abortions who are subject to legal penalties, and not the women who have the abortions. We are concerned that even under existing law, fear of prosecution might prevent doctors from agreeing to perform legal abortions, or might inhibit their willingness to undertake prenatal tests which could diagnose serious foetal conditions - some of which can be treated in the womb, but some of which might under current law permit abortion. However, despite this reservation, we accept that the present law goes some way towards addressing the concerns we express above with regard to balancing potential conflicts between freedom of conscience and the common good. [This paragraph clearly articulates a lack of assent to a fundamental tenet of Church teaching].
We understand that the Presidium of the Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a statement to be read in churches across Poland on Sunday April 3rd, a day now known as Mercy Sunday. This was the day before the Feast of the Annunciation and the Day of the Sanctity of Life, which this year were moved from 25th March to avoid coinciding with the Easter celebrations. We are mindful that, when God chose Mary to become the mother of His Son, He did so not by force or compulsion but by invitation and request. Mary was free in deciding whether or not to conceive a child. Many women and girls do not enjoy such freedom. [And the way to address this is to address the evil of rape and high-light the dignity of women. This is horrendously blasphemous, to try and use Our Blessed Mother to justify forced abortion? Surely Mary's Fiat points to the evil of rape, not childbirth? What about trusting that God can bring good out of evil? Killing the child only brings evil].
You argue in your statement that the conditions laid out in the abortion law of 1993 should not be regarded as definitive. You are calling for believers and unbelievers alike to support a move towards the total prohibition of all abortion and the full legal protection of the rights of the unborn, to mark the jubilee year of the 1050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland. You also ask parliamentarians and governors to propose laws and to initiate programmes that support the parents of children who are sick, disabled or conceived by rape. You ask all Poles to pray for the full protection of human life from conception to natural death both in Poland and beyond. Your statement needs to be read in conjunction with a bill calling for similar measures – i.e. the outlawing of all abortions – proposed by the civil initiative, “Stop aborcji 2016” of the “Fundacja PRO-prawo do życia” organisation.  [I have to say all this strikes me as outstanding from the Polish Bishops, BRAVO! Would that more Catholic Bishops had the courage and conviction to do likewise!]
We agree that principled opposition to abortion must include active measures to support parents – including single mothers – who are struggling to bring up children who are ill, disabled, or were conceived through acts of violence or force. However, we also note that many Polish citizens, including many practising Catholics, have expressed outrage and have held demonstrations in protest against any move to further restrict Polish women’s access to abortion. Some find it difficult to reconcile their Catholic faith with such draconian measures against girls and women who are often in desperate situations. We are concerned that any woman who seeks an abortion and anybody who assists her in obtaining one faces a possible prison sentence of between three months and five years. This criminalization of those who may be victims of violence or who may have made a deeply distressing decision to abort in tragic circumstances seems to betray the call to mercy and compassion which Pope Francis insists must be at the heart of the Gospel message.
We appreciate the complex ethical challenges involved in any intentionally abortive act. However, we also believe that our Catholic faith calls us to be attentive to suffering in all its forms, and to respond with trust in the mercy, forgiveness and compassion of God when faced with profound moral dilemmas that offer no clear solution. In situations where abortion is deemed necessary – such as those currently permitted under Polish law – we believe that access to early, safe and legal abortion is essential. [Utterly shocking! The inclusion of this statement puts those signing this letter "at variance with the teaching of the Church to which they belong. The teaching of the Church is not going to change; they need to change." (see Rev Dr Alexander Lucie-Smith's comments here). As Caroline Farrow points out here, there are no quick, easy abortions for children with abnormalities. Tina and co are peddling a dangerous, harmful myth here.

On this point, Dr. Joe Shaw comments:
It is difficult to see ‘mercy, forgiveness, and compassion’ at work in the decision to abort a disabled or sick child, particularly when the serious psychological and physical dangers abortion, compared with childbirth, has for mothers. Abortion is the preferred answer, rather, of a medical and social system which would rather not be burdened by the task of supporting mothers and their children in these difficult circumstances.
When a child is conceived in rape, the motivation of the rape victim and her friends and family in seeking abortion is easy to understand. It is equally clear, however, that it can never be a healing choice for a mother to consent to the destruction of her own child. The testimony of many women to the psychological trauma caused by abortion does not encourage the view that abortion is an easy way out for victims of rape.
Making abortion illegal does not save the lives of unborn children. It kills women who would rather risk death than carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Tina is pedlling a dangerous & harmful myth here. There is no quick, easy abortion for children with abnormalities and the opinion of the modern medical profession is that abortion is not necessary to save women's lives as assented to by THOUSANDS of medical practitioners in the 2012 Dublin Declaration on Maternal Health, which states:
As experienced practitioners and researchers in obstetrics and gynaecology, we affirm that direct abortion – the purposeful destruction of the unborn child – is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.
Again, Dr. Shaw explains: The Declaration clearly distinguishes, as the Catholic moral tradition does, and as laws restricting abortion typically do, between abortion, as a procedure aiming at the death of an unborn child, and the medical treatment of a pregnant mother which may endanger the child’s life. In the Catholic tradition, as in the law, the latter can often be legitimate, taking account of the seriousness of the threat to the mother, the possibility of alternative treatments, and so on.

Finally, there is a body of evidence to show that the best way to prevent abortion is to respect women’s human dignity and freedom of conscience with regard to reproductive decisions, by guaranteeing access to reliable methods of birth control. To deny such access and to criminalize abortion as well seems to instrumentalize women as reproductive bodies rather than as full and equal human beings made in the image of God.]
We thank you for taking the time to read this. We hope that your response will be to open a forum for dialogue between the bishops and the women who are most affected by such laws and campaigns.
  1. Marta Alanis, Córdoba, Argentina
  2. Barbara Hilkert Andolsen, Professor of Christian Ethics, Fordham University, New York, USA
  3. Claire Ball, religious education teacher, Liverpool, UK
  4. Alicja Baranowska, public servant, Brussels, Belgium
  5. Dr Olive Barnes, lay pastoral worker, UK
  6. Judith Barwick LCM, religious sister, retired midwife, Sydney, Australia
  7. Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, UK
  8. Justyna Bednarek, writer, journalist, Warsaw, Poland
  9. Daniel Borek, philosophy student, Warsaw, Poland
  10. Carol Burns, charity manager, Leeds, UK
  11. Anna Cannon, translator, interpreter, Reading, UK
  12. Maureen Clarke, UK
  13. Rosaline Costa, human rights activist, Commission for Justice and Peace of Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  14. Magdalena Ćwiklińska, paediatrician, oncologist, Cracow, Poland
  15. Séverine Deneulin, Associate Professor of International Development, Bath, UK
  16. Rachel M. Denton, hermit of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nottingham, UK
  17. Verónica Díaz Ramos, Valparaíso, Chile
  18. Diane Diffley, Thame, UK
  19. Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, MDiv, Philadelphia, PA, USA
  20. Marta Duch-Dyngosz, researcher, Cracow, Poland
  21. Betty C. Dudney, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
  22. Miriam Duignan, Development Director, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, London, UK
  23. Marcin Dzierżanowski, journalist, Wprost weekly , Warsaw, Poland
  24. Professor John Eade, University of Roehampton, London, UK
  25. Jolanta Elkan-Wykurz, retired pedagogue, volunteer, Łódź, Poland
  26. Ruth Fehlker, theologian and pastoral worker, Germany
  27. George Ferzoco, University of Bristol, UK
  28. Sr. MaryRose Fitzsimmons HHS, Spiritual Director and pastoral worker, Liverpool,  UK
  29. Zuzanna Flisowska, art historian, Warsaw, Poland
  30. Sr Madeleine Fredell OP, theologian, Stockholm, Sweden
  31. Tomasz Kamil Gbur, technical consultant in quality assurance, Berlin, Germany
  32. Mar Grandal, studies in pastoral theology, Instituto Superior de Pastoral Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca, Spain
  33. Teresa Gręziak, choral conductor, Warsaw, Poland
  34. Aleksandra Grzeszak, psychologist, Warsaw, Poland
  35. Elfriede Harth, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  36. Rosa Maria Hernandez Sosa, Professor of Theology, El Salvador
  37. Sarah Hicklin, ESOL tutor, UK
  38. Gladys Via Huerta, Perú
  39. Jan Jans STD, Associate Professor of Ethics, Tilburg University, the Netherlands
  40. Agnieszka Jedrzejko-Pires, MA student, translator, University of Sheffield, UK
  41. Mary Kennan, BPhil Ed (VI), qualified teacher of the visually impaired, Liverpool, UK
  42. Alison Kennedy, pastoral assistant/musician, Leicester, UK
  43. Clare Keogh, Health Sciences,Occupational Therapy student, Melbourne, Australia
  44. Ursula King, Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Bristol, England
  45. Aleksandra Klich, Editor-in-chief , Magazyn Świąteczny, Warsaw, Poland
  46. Katarzyna Knaś, Registered Nurse, theologian, Polish citizen, currently in Fleet, Hampshire, UK
  47. Lesley-Anne Knight, CEO, the Elders Foundation, Hampshire, UK
  48. Marta Kostulska, administrative assistant, Warsaw, Poland
  49. Sylwia Kostulska, banking economist, Warsaw, Poland
  50. Julia Maria Koszewska, PhD candidate, art librarian, sociologist, former vice-president of Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK), Warsaw, Poland
  51. Dr Dominika Kozłowska, Editor-in-chief, Znak monthly, Cracow, Poland
  52. Katarzyna Kucharska-Hornung, art historian, Warsaw, Poland
  53. Anna Kupicz, teacher, Warsaw, Poland
  54. Małgorzata Kurkowska, humanitarian program manager, Nice, France
  55. Teresa Lanza, Bolivia
  56. Anna Lewczuk, assistant to the disabled, Warsaw, Poland
  57. Gerard Loughlin, Professor of Theology, Durham University, UK
  58. Grażyna Lyska, teacher, Zebrzydowice, Poland
  59. Heather McCrae, BSc, MA, German-to-English technical translator, Hamburg, Germany
  60. Mary McDermott, retired teacher, Lanark, Scotland, UK
  61. Dr Patricia Madigan OP, Sydney, Australia
  62. Sara Maitland, writer, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, UK
  63. Irena Mangone, Nottingham, UK
  64. Katarzyna Martynuska, icon painter and musician, Warsaw, Poland
  65. Sandra Mazo, Colombia
  66. Jeanette Middendorp Paap, van der Horst, Netherlands
  67. Natalia Mileszyk, lawyer, Warsaw, Poland
  68. Margaret-Mary Morran, university careers adviser (retired), Glasgow, Scotland
  69. Dr Susan O'Brien, academic historian (retired), Cambridge, UK
  70. Marianna Oklejak, artist, Warsaw, Poland
  71. Anna Pawlikowska, editor, Cracow, Poland
  72. Martin Pendergast STL, MA, pastoral worker, London, UK
  73. Barbara Piotrowska, graphic designer, Warsaw, Poland
  74. Jean Porter, John A. O'Brien Professor of Moral Theology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
  75. Edyta Przykaza, Polish philologist, Tarnobrzeg, Poland
  76. Zuzanna Radzik, theologian, Poland
  77. Prof. Dr Maria José Fontelas Rosado Nunes, Postgraduate Programme in Religious Studies, Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brasil
  78. Susan A. Ross, Professor of Theology, Loyola University, Chicago, IL, USA
  79. Joanna Rózga, social activist and volunteer, Warsaw, Poland
  80. Christine Schenk, MS, MA (Theology), Certified Nurse Midwife, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
  81. Hanspeter Schlad, Neuwied, Germany
  82. Joseph. A. Selling, STD, Professor Emeritus of Theological Ethics, Belgium
  83. Teresa Sergot, born in UK to Polish parents
  84. Janet Soskice, Professor of Philosophical Theology, University of Cambridge, UK
  85. Dr Kate Sotejeff-Wilson, translator, Jyväskylä, Finland
  86. Katarzyna Sroczyńska, editor, Warsaw, Poland
  87. Dr Jacqui Stewart, Department of Theology and Religions, University of Exeter, UK
  88. Maja Szwedzinska, business trainer, coach, manager, Warsaw, Poland
  89. Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, The Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University, USA
  90. Lesley Toner, retired care services inspector, Cupar, Scotland, UK
  91. Kamila Trajnerowicz, conference interpreter, Warsaw, Poland
  92. Dr Anna Wallentin, academic teacher, Berlin, Germany
  93. Teresa Wasiak, economist, Warsaw, Poland
  94. Barbara Wilson, retired, London, UK
  95. Katarzyna Winsch-Supera, Romance philologist, Warsaw, Poland
  96. Pat Black Woodbury, retired, USA
  97. Maria Wójtowicz, art historian, Seville, Spain

In this blog I have attempted to address the academic & medical position or argument held by the authors of this letter, however the more concerning dimension to me is the absence of consideration of a metaphysical context.

The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes nn. 18, 22 alerts the modern world to the need to confront the reality of death and the yearnings for enduring life to which Christ alone provides an adequate response. Pope Saint John Paul II introduces a new Magisterial phrase in his encyclical Evangelium vitae 2:1 where he speaks of human life "in its temporal phase" and "in its earthly state" (EV., nn 38:3, 47:2). This points us towards another phase of human existence, namely eternal life, for which this current existence is a preparation. As De abortu procurato n. 25 states:
A Christian's outlook cannot be limited to the horizon of life in this world. He knows that during the present life another one is being prepared, one of such importance that it is in its light that judgments must be made. From this viewpoint there is no absolute misfortune here below, not even the terrible sorrow of bringing up a handicapped child. This is the contradiction proclaimed by the Lord: "Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted" (Mt. 5:5). To measure happiness by the absence of sorrow and misery in this world is to turn one's back on the Gospel.
Being Catholic is not opposing the Magisterium, but having the intellectual courage and conviction to defend its teaching and explore its meaning.

This is not, therefore, merely a question of academic freedom, but a question of whether someone holding such views (i.e. Tina Beattie) should be given a platform by Catholic institutions to promote her views. The problem is, that if Tina is invited to speak by Catholic institutions, it lends her orthodoxy and authority. An authority which Tina then tends to use in order to launch dissenting views. Of course, Tina can discuss and expound her theological position at any public venue or institution, however if she is welcomed by Catholic institutions, it looks like the Church is giving credence or even endorsing her blatantly heretical views. One of the results of Tina being given a platform ends up being that those who are faithful to the magisterium are accused of being “ultra orthodox” or “fundamental’ and as a ‘Catholic theologian’ Tina Beattie’s words are used as proof that not only is one in error, but also the Church itself and that Tina Beattie is actually far more representative of the majority of the faithful.

Our bishops are our leaders. Their job is to teach us the faith of the Apostles and it is their responsibility to speak out when something like this happens which has great potential to confuse the faithful. Dr. Shaw does an excellent job, but his letter should have been written by a bishop, preferably all the bishops.

The issue is clear. The Church’s teaching is truth, the truth of Christ sets one free and so truth is the most merciful and compassionate approach because it draws one towards the freedom of the children of God for all eternity (and the tone should, of course, be consistent with this), anything less is not actually kind or compassionate at all, even though it seems so from a limited earthly perspective.

These people are determined to view the Church’s teaching as unmerciful and uncompassionate, that is the wedge they drive between doctrine and practice, as though doctrine was not salvific, just harsh, or an ideal. It is neither when understood in its fullness as leading us most quickly to heaven. It also requires grace and a denial of the Church’s teaching as too harsh is actually a refusal to want to live by grace or to encourage people to know that they can truly trust Christ’s gift of himself for our salvation from sin.

As for you, dear reader, I would urge you to write to your own sleepy bishop about this and sign this this petition calling on CAFOD to dispense with Tina's services which stands at 4422 signatures at the time of writing.

As Cranmer notes here, No word has yet come from the bishops, but any failure to denude Beattie of all her positions in Catholic life will not only put them at odds with their brother Polish bishops and grassroots Catholic opinion in this country, it will give the impression of an episcopacy in office but in not in power.


  1. I dont even have to read what is written above in simple and unequivocal terms I support life from its natural beginning to its natural end. Wether the life span is short or long is the gift of God to each one of us. let us not be afraid in supporting Life and the great gift it is.

  2. Good article, Mark. Excellent analysis and commentary.


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