Last month I was one of four theologians invited to take part in an ecumenical summer school for theology students on the theme of “Theology and Plurality” in the beautiful old Croatian town of Dubrovnik. The school was organized by the Diocese of Dubrovnik, and participants came from all over the former Yugoslavia.
I nearly turned down the invitation. After years of being targeted by militant Catholic groups because of my theological advocacy for women priests and same-sex marriage and my opposition to the criminalisation of abortion, I had decided to have nothing more to do with institutional Catholicism. I would attend Mass and continue to promote women’s voices in the Church, but I would avoid hostile campaigns mounted against any Catholic institution that dared to give me a platform.
But faith is, as Pope Francis keeps reminding us, a risky enterprise. It’s an adventure that might get us into trouble and involves being willing to make mistakes. Moreover, Francis has challenged the punitive doctrinal absolutism of recent decades that led to the emergence of a potent network of Catholic vigilantes and a theological culture of self-censorship. I decided to accept the invitation.
I arrived in Croatia to discover that the vigilantes were already on to me. Croatian bloggers were regurgitating all the same old abuse and slander that had been used by their English-speaking counterparts. It was front-page news that another bishop had publicly criticized the Bishop of Dubrovnik, Bishop Mate Uzinić, for inviting a “notorious heretic,” a feminist who “promotes abortion” and who poses a serious threat to young theologians, to teach in the summer school.
Bishop Uzinić stood his ground in defending my presence. He pointed out that dialogue does not necessarily imply agreement but that it is essential to understand different points of view if we are to engage with modern society. He attended the summer school every day, sitting among the students and engaging in the discussion sessions. He and his team went out of their way to make me feel welcome and supported during what would otherwise have been a lonely and difficult time.
The widespread publicity had a positive effect in the end, opening up a forum for discussion between secular society and the Church beyond the hostile condemnations and campaigns of the Far Right. Several Catholics told me that they felt inspired and encouraged by the emergence of a fresh theological approach to issues of culture, plurality and Catholic identity.
For me, it was an opportunity to get to know a lively and inspiring group of theology students from across the former Yugoslavia, a region with a legacy of complex religious and political conflicts that still form a turbulent social undercurrent. In such a context, the decision to focus on themes of plurality and diversity in the summer school was a bold example of contextual theology in action, bringing Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant students into robust but respectful and friendly dialogue with one another.
One of the most significant outcomes of the whole affair was the decision by four Croatian theologians – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – to publish a statement describing this as a Kairos time in Croatian society and challenging the silence of theologians in the public sphere in the post-Communist era. Echoing the emphatic “No!” of Karl Barth to Christian collusion with Hitler’s regime, and citing later feminist, liberationist and Black theologians who said “No!” to poverty and racial and sexual discrimination, the statement makes a vital distinction between “religion in the political sphere and political religion.” While there is a need for theological voices to be engaged in public debate, this is a vocation to seek nonviolent solutions to social crises. It is quite different from “the struggle for power clothed in religious attire” that “sooner or later reaches for the lever of domination to establish its principles.”
This timely statement has relevance far beyond the Croatian context. As the authors point out, “If theologians are silent then sooner or later theology itself becomes a victim of that silence.” There is an urgent need for public theology rooted in the Catholic tradition’s affirmation of the mutually illuminating relationship between reason and revelation to bring a credible theological perspective to bear on the challenges facing modern societies. Not least of these is the shocking rise of a form of political Christianity that is parasitic upon populist movements across the western democracies. Leaders such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Britain’s Jacob Rees-Mogg and Americans Steve Bannon and, of course, Donald Trump have cynically exploited Christian fears and prejudices, particularly among Catholics and, in the US, evangelicals, in their thinly disguised white supremacist campaigns posturing as a defense of “Judeo-Christian” values. It is hard to imagine a set of values more antithetical to either the Jewish or Christian traditions than the buccaneering swagger of these wealthy white male elites operating in a moral vacuum of corruption and lies.
In these volatile and dangerous times, we theologians have a duty as citizens to engage with society and to challenge those who distort and manipulate the Christian faith for political ends. We could start by refusing to collaborate with any institution that is willing to censor or silence our theological colleagues. As Francis recently told a gathering of theologians in Naples, theological freedom is necessary for “without the possibility of experimenting with new ways, nothing new is created, and one does not leave space for the newness of the Spirit of the Risen One.”
Political Christianity appeals to an ossified traditionalism to keep the Word of God safely sealed within the tomb of the past. Theologians are called to find a language that opens a space of risk and encounter through which the mystery of the risen Christ might emerge as an incarnate reality, bringing God’s peace and justice to a wounded and divided world.
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.