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Catholic Women Speak: on extremism and social media


10/04/2017

The following statement was issued by the Catholic Women Speak Network on Sept. 26, 2017.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a member of Catholic Women Speak (CWS) — an international network of nearly 900 Catholic women committed to defending women’s right to speak and be heard inside as well as outside the church. That is the only single cause we campaign on, for our members represent the diversity that exists among Catholics on other issues.

In early August this year, Rebecca was told that her contract with the Franciscan University of Steubenville would not be renewed, even though she was scheduled to teach three courses in the autumn semester, and to direct two theses. She was shown screenshots of conversations she had participated in on social media, including some taken from the closed CWS Facebook group, as evidence for why she was no longer employable by a Catholic institution. In September the website Lifesite News posted an attack on Rebecca, using similar screenshots to those her employers had used.

Rebecca is one of a vanishing breed in the Catholic Church — a passionately committed young woman academic who is both a faithful Catholic and a feminist. None of the evidence used against her was heterodox or doctrinally challenging in any way. She is also married with children, and the loss of her job has had a devastating impact on her family.

Rebecca’s is one of several similar stories currently in the news. Losing one’s job is a more serious issue than having a lecture cancelled, but we are also dismayed to note that this week Professor M. Shawn Copeland has agreed with Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan, that she will voluntarily cancel a lecture she was due to give after an attack by a group called Church Militant.

There is nothing new about the Catholic far-right using social media, blogs and websites to promote their views, often using multiple pseudonyms, and some of our members have in the past been targeted. However, the increasing ferocity and intensity of these attacks is alarming. Many of the perpetrators have three things in common — opposition to Pope Francis, support for Donald Trump and, in the small but significant faction in the U.K., support for Brexit.

We are dismayed to note how many Catholic organizations and institutions are being swayed by the threat of attack from these groups. This includes the withdrawal or rescheduling of several speaking invitations for Rev. James Martin, SJ, following attacks relating to his book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. Organizations affected include Cafod, the official development agency of the Bishops of England and Wales, which decided to reschedule a lecture by Father Martin because, to quote from a statement, “we saw the strength of feeling it generated in some quarters. . . . We have recent experience of social media attacks. Responding to these takes a significant amount of staff resource.” (See the Tablet editorial, Sept. 20, 2017 http://www.thetablet.co.uk/editors-desk/1/11267/let-father-martin-speak-out.)

Another member of CWS, Professor Tina Beattie, was the target of the attacks referred to in that statement, again instigated by a screenshot from CWS’s private Facebook group. Tina is a member of Cafod’s theological reference group (an advisory group of theologians who volunteer their time but who do not represent Cafod or seek to influence policy). She faced sustained questioning from trustees and senior management because in April 2016 she signed a letter (along with 98 other Catholics, including well-known bona fide theologians), urging the Polish bishops not to support their government’s proposal to criminalize abortion. In May 2016, Tina gave a full account of her position on her blog. Eventually in July 2017, Cafod’s trustees arrived at a decision not to ask for her resignation.

We applaud Cafod for this decision, but we are dismayed that they are still allowing themselves to be manipulated by social media attacks. We believe that, in this time of disunity and extremism, it is vital for all Catholic organizations and concerned individuals, including bishops and priests, to defend the fundamental principles enshrined in Vatican II. We also fully support Pope Francis in his endeavours to nurture an ecclesial ethos of mercy and compassion in which clericalism is condemned, pastoral sensitivity to life’s incarnate and messy realities takes precedence over doctrinal absolutism, and all Catholics share the vocation to follow Christ in joyful humility and solidarity with those who are marginalized, poor and oppressed. We add to this the increasingly urgent need to include women as full and equal participants in church institutions and structures, which would be one effective way to combat the growing extremism and rhetoric of violence which is infecting the Catholic Church along with so many other religious and political institutions.

Among the billions of Catholics in the worldwide church, 900 women’s voices may not be a movement for global change, but the church we love first came to life among a small number of terrified people huddled in an upper room. Let’s act now before we all find ourselves in a small and windowless room, bullied into silence.