New Catholic Feminism by Tina Beattie

Beattie, Tina,  New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routlege; London, 2006)

I met Tina Beattie recently, when attending the annual conference of the Mystical Theology UK Network in Dublin.  She is my kind of woman, complete with red patent leather heels to present a kick-arse paper on Aquinas!  Mind you, even with the heels she can’t be much taller than the average hobbit; but with some women, their small physical stature comes across as an ironic defiance of their overall personal stature and Tina Beattie certainly has a commanding presence both in the flesh and in her writing.

Tina made headlines in the Northern Hemisphere last year after she was ‘uninvited’ to speak at a university having signed a public statement in favour of (secular) same-sax marriage legislation for the UK.  Her media release in response to the scandal is an eloquent exercise in grace and generosity and displays the strength of her personal character.  She is an academic theologian who is a practicing Roman Catholic, committed to open and honest conversations about God, the church and the world.  You can follow all this and much more on her blog Marginal Musings.

New Catholic Feminism is a polemical work engaging a post-Vatlcan II conservative movement in the Roman church, which has branded itself as a new kind of feminism.  Theologically it is grounded in the gendered theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, then Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict).  Pope Francis’s ‘theology of the body’ is yet unclear to me: that he retains the same conservative markers on gender and sexuality doesn’t actually tell the theological thinking behind them.

The ‘new catholic feminism’ is a movement that has much in common with the Anglican and Protestant movements towards gendered theology, most strongly known in my world through the influence of conservative Sydney Anglicanism under the banner of ‘complementarianism’.  Men lead and women follow; men run the world (and therefore the church) and women run the home; it is feared that any slip in these boundaries destabilises not only the created order but also the order of salvation.  If you want to check whether or not I’ve given you a biased perspective, you can check out this interview with Michelle Schumacher, one of it’s proponents.

I’ve taken months to digest this book, so a blog post is hardly going to do it justice: it would make a great core text for a masters unit on feminist theology!  Beattie critiques contemporary feminism with theological insights and contemporary theology with feminist insights, developing an argument for a ‘sacramental feminist theology’.  That is, “a feminist theology of grace informed by a sense of the sacramentality of creation and by an awareness of the significance of prayer, revelation and faith for Christian ways of knowing, through a critical feminist refiguration of contemporary Catholic theology.” (p.4)  It’s an exploration of the symbolic structures of language in relation to male, female and God who is beyond gender.

Beattie argues that “[w]hen psycholinguistics and neo-orthodox theology are brought into intimate dialogue with one another, the confusion which surrounds the place of the female body in Catholic symbolism and sacramentality begins to burn with a dark intensity.  This illuminates an unexplored space -virgin territory perhaps – which is at one and the same time charged with the most profound and threatening irrationality, but also with a sacramental and sexual potency that might yet bring about the transformation of the Catholic vision.” (p.5)

I guess the question is, why does the church have so much difficulty with sex?  And why is this difficulty so often projected onto women?

It is not just a matter of official policy, doctrine and practise: what is not said and what is not considered possible is just as important as what is.  Why have women’s voices been so long excluded or marginalised in Western theology and liturgy?

Beattie offers some suggestions:
Following Irigaray, when complexity and multivocality are denied in a patriarchal context, what is lost is the feminine.
Following Butler (and several others – Jantzen, Clack, Coakley), the body is lost in the Christian preoccupation with death.
Following Kristeva (and others), the symbolic rejection of the mother’s body, as per psychoanalytic theory, destroys the proper developmental context for human sexuality and gender construction.

A disclaimer – it is entirely possible that I have not grasped all this accurately or have reduced it dishonourably in this three line summary: it really was a crash course in psycholinguistic philosophy and post-postmodern feminist theory!  But these are the things in my mind as I place the book back into my bookshelf.

I am left with the conviction that sex and gender in the church, particularly in theology, are even more complex than I realised.  It is impossible for me to think outside of being a woman, a mother, a sister and daughter, a sexual person and all those other things that have gone into constructing my identity.  I cannot do theology outside of these constructs and when I pray, I quite purposefully embrace them all as I open my whole self before God!  So, if this is the case, theology needs to slow down!  We need to feel what is being said (and not said); leaving time and space to notice the source of our reactions, deeply within out body and spirit.  Further, sexuality and gender are such essentially human constructs that we have to understand their limitation an analogies for the Being of God.  Specific memories are evoked in us whenever we invoke the notions of femininity and masculinity – their definitions are intuitively grounded in our experience way more powerfully than they are in the abstract definitional constructs we can read and review in a dictionary.

This is why Tina Beattie argues Christian feminism must be sacramental – embodied, lived, devotional, humble before our God – and I whole heartedly agree.

3 thoughts on “New Catholic Feminism by Tina Beattie

  1. This has just been brought to my attention. Thank you so much for such a sensitive and insightful reading of my work – every author’s dream, particularly when it’s a book as complex and densely argued as this one!

    • Thanks Tina,
      You may remember we met at a Mystical Theology conference in Dublin and talked about it. In the end I wrote von Balthasar out of the thesis – I found it unworkable – but the building block work to critique him was so helpful and I have a draft article arguing that von Balthasar’s unconscious and unacknowledged conceptions of love distorts his whole theology.
      Blessings for your work, Chelle

      • Thank you Chelle. Yes, I remember and writing vonB out sounds like wise advice – wish every theologian would do the same! Warm wishes, Tina

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