Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Debate About Catholicism As A Force For Good In The World

Stephen Fry stole the debate and Archbishop Onaiyekan lost it on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy.

Britian's BBC held a debate over the weekend on the statement "Is Catholicism A Force For Good In The World. Arguing the affirmative side for the Catholic Church was Archbishop John Onaiyekan, a man John Allen sees as a potential future pope, and Anne Widdecombe, a convert and former Bristish Conservative Minister. The opposing side was argued by atheist author Christopher Hitchens and the actor/commedian Stephen Fry. It was a route. Archbishop Onaiyekan did not serve his cause well at all. The first report is from the Indendent Catholic News. Their reporter was at the live event.

Catholics lose BBC debate
By: Stephen Portlock, Independent Catholic News. Thursday, October 22, 2009

After the end of a debate on Wednesday night over whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world, an elderly irate member of the audience was heard haranguing one of the stewards. She moaned how the event had been hijacked by the 'gay mafia' and how the panel were very rude to Archbishop John Onaiyekan. Her comments were wildly over-the-top, but I could not help feeling that after over ninety minutes of hearing the Catholic church being pulped, only someone with such extreme views would dare raise his or her head above the parapet.

The debate at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster was organised by Intelligence Squared and pitted Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja and Ann Widdecombe against Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. It was filmed for TV and was to be broadcast on BBC World.

As might be expected, Hitchens bombarded the audience with facts, but they were better organised than might be expected by anyone who read the ramshackle God is not Great. He castigated the Catholic church's history of violence, it's collusion with fascism, its cover-ups of child abuse and its attitude to homosexuality and AIDS. The latter point was reinforced by Stephen Fry - arguably the strongest speaker and definitely the most passionate - who implored the Catholic church to change its attitude to condom use.

Part of his strength as a speaker was that unlike Hitchens he did not appear hostile to Christianity. His objection to Catholicism was that it bore no resemblance to Christianity or to Jesus's teachings.

Against such firepower Ann Widdecombe argued that it is unfair to judge the past by present day standards. She appeared to argue that women could not be priests as they could no more enter the mindset of Jesus than a man can enter the mindset of the Virgin Mary. She cited scientific evidence that condoms are not the answer to problems in Africa but did not acknowledge that unprotected sex is inevitably more risky than protected sex. As for Archbishop John Onaiyekan, his contribution was woefully negligible and from the outset he seemed out of his depth.

In fairness, a good chunk of the audience were not open to persuasion. The National Secular Society appeared to have rounded up its troops, as witnessed not just by the rapturous applause that greeted Christopher Hitchens but after the debate and before closing remarks when audience members were invited to question the panel. The bias of questioning was so heavily biased against the Catholic church that chair Zeinab Badawi intervened to invite questions from members who supported the debate's contention.

Yet even with these provisos in place, the debate was still a resounding failure for Archbishop Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe. At the start of the debate, audiences were required to cast an anonymous vote on the motion and while 678 people supported the motion and 346 were undecided, 1,102 argued against it. At the end of the debate, the same anonymous vote was cast and this time only 268 people voted in favour of the argument with 1,876 voting against it and 34 people being undecided.

Here's the take of the 'gay mafia' from Andrew Tippits writing for Pink News.com UK. He too was at the live debate.

During the two-hour showdown, organised by Intelligence Squared at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, Hitchens and Fry mercilessly and articulately lambasted the church for its record of homophobia, child abuse and anti-semitism, as well as its stance on contraception.
Christopher Hitchens wasted no time in living up to his reputation as a bulldog debater: “On the institutionalisation of rape and torture, the maltreatment of children in their care, [the current pope] Joseph Ratzinger said: ‘It is a very serious crisis which demands us in the need for applying to the victims, the most loving pastoral care.’ Well, I’m sorry, they have already had that.”

Hitchens tore into the Vatican for its refusal to hand over Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Archbishop of Boston, to Massachusetts police for questioning about his role in the child abuse scandals. “Here is a man wanted for the promotion, protection, covering up and defence of people whose crimes against children are too revolting to specify," he fumed. "Yet he is acting as vicar of the American Catholic Church in Rome, personally appointed by the Pope and in 2005, even joining the Conclave, to decide who the next pope should be.”

This brought him to the topic of homophobia: “The rape is not to be relativised, and certainly not to be excused by the hideously false claims made by some conservatives, that this wouldn’t happen if queers hadn’t been allowed into the church.”

“The church can apologise, too, for condemning my friend Steven Fry, for his nature. For saying he couldn’t be a member of your church even if he wanted to. (They)Don’t condemn him for what he does, condemn him for what he is! This is obscene, disgraceful and inhumane, and it comes from hysterical, sinister virgins who have already betrayed their charge of children.”

He showed the hypocrisy of this exclusion, by comparing it the to the willingness of the pope to accept back into the church Richard Williamson, a bishop from an extreme right-wing sect, which denies the Holocaust happened.

Hitchens also gave a list of evils committed by the church over the centuries, including the Crusades, the sacking of Constantinople, the Inquisition, and the torture and murder of scientists and protestants. He laid the responsibility for the Holocaust at the Church’s door, which he claims was made possible by role in inciting hatred of Jews over the centuries: “That the church taught that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Christ until 1964, twenty years after the Nuremberg trials, may or may not have had something to do with the availability of a reservoir of hate to tap into in Germany, Poland, Austria, Spain, Italy and elsewhere.”

Widdecombe gave a spirited defence, protesting at Hitchens’s exaggerations about the Church’s responsibility for inciting genocide in Rwanda, and highlighting the great risks taken by Catholic priests and nuns across Europe in protecting the Jews during the war.

She stated that, because so little was known about paedophilia even until a few decades ago, when magistrates awarded sentences of a few months in prison until as late as the 1990s. It was thought people who abused would simply stop, she claimed. On charity, she added: “Billions of pounds each year are poured into overseas aid by Catholics, more than any other single nation for medicine and education. Imagine the absence of those collections.”

Irritated by the focus of the debate on sex and condoms, she claimed: “The church is about hope and salvation. And it is intellectual arrogance to say people around the world can simply live without that. People are trying their hardest to live by Christ’s message; by the commandments, by the interpretation of those commandments. Sometimes they don’t quite manage. It would be a poorer, more hopeless place without it for many.”

She maintained that it was the church’s critics who were obsessed with sex, and that condoms have been ineffective in tackling AIDS in Africa.

While forthright in his condemnation for the church, Stephen Fry first emphasised the importance of showing solidarity with the religious believer: “I do not want to express any contempt towards any individuals of that church. They are welcome to their sacraments to their faith and the importance and the joy they receive from it. This joy is sacrosanct to anyone, of any church in the world. It is important as I also happen to have my own beliefs, in the eternal nature of trying to discover more truth in the world. It is an empirical fight that began with the Enlightenment, and there is nothing the Catholic Church likes to do more, than attack it.”

The latter was a reference to the torture of Galileo, who was famously forced to recant his beliefs about the Earth revolving around the sun, to avoid being burned at the stake. The Vatican finally decided he was right after all, in 1992.

On homosexuality, Fry said: “It’s a little hard to believe I am disordered or guilty of a moral evil simply for fulfilling my sexual destiny. It’s hard to be told I am full of evil. I think of myself full of love, whose only purpose in life was to achieve love, and who feels love so much from nature and everywhere else. In order to achieve and receive love, you don’t need a priest to tell you how you do it. You certainly don’t need a pope to tell you, you are evil. And the many LGBT teenagers who attempt suicide certainly don’t need the stigmatisation and victimisation that leads to playground bullying, that comes from saying you are a disordered morally evil individual.”

In contrast, Fry went on to describe the priesthood as being full of ‘extraordinarily sexually dysfunctional people’, since celibacy was neither natural nor normal.

He attacked the church for using its power as a nation, siding with extremist Islamic states in the UN to veto any resolution on women’s sexual freedoms as well as LGBT rights.
But most of his venom was reserved for the consequences of the Church’s position on contraception. He highlighted his experience of Uganda, where AIDS was once successfully tackled by the ‘ABC’ policy of Abstinence – Be Faithful – Correct use of Condoms. Now, this is jeopardised by reverting to abstinence only approaches. “I don’t deny abstinence is a good way of not getting AIDS. It really works. But so do condoms!" he thundered. "[The Pope] spreads the lie that condoms increase the incidence of aids. He actually makes sure that aid is conditional on saying no to condoms. The pain and suffering you see as a result is appalling.”

Fry asked the audience to consider if the Catholic Church reflected Jesus’s message of love: “One person who would be the least to be accepted, would be the Galilean carpenter. That simple and remarkable man, would be so ill at ease in the church. You do not need this palace of marble and gold. What would he think of any of that, and someone who dared to lecture others on family values? He would be horrified! There is redemption for all of us, including the church. It has to get rid of this power, the wealth, the hierarchy, sell all the loot off, and concentrate on the essence of its beliefs. Then I would stand and say it is a force for good. But until they do, it is not.”

One would feel sorry for the unfortunate Archbishop Onaiyekan, who lacked the fiery oratory skills of his opponents. Repeatedly referring to his co-defendant as ‘Miss Weatherman’ did nothing for his cause, either. But he lost his argument due to his evasiveness in the face of such severe accusations and, in particular, by his refusal to apologise for the church’s handling of child abuse.

During the Q&A session, many in the audience vented their anger at the church’s homophobia. It was a reminder that this was not just any old intellectual debate. For some, it was as if their personal integrity were on trial. The chairwoman, BBC World broadcaster Zeinab Badawi, turned to the Archbishop to ask what Jesus said about homosexuality.

"That’s not the right question," his Grace retorted, to hoots of derision from the audience. He then went on to claim that (the Church) said that those engaging in sexual acts aren’t automatically condemned for it afterwards, as "each has his own story to tell".

This seemed a bizarre assertion, given the funding provided by the Catholic Church for campaigns aimed at banning gay marriage in California and Maine. Hitchens mocked this: “The Archbishop is completely wrong. It doesn’t just say homosexuality is wrong, in the same sense as divorce and contraception. Wherever it can, [the church] bans these things and punishes them. Homosexuality is not sex, it is a form of love and I am proud to have Stephen as my friend, and when my children were young, as babysitter also. If anyone had turned up to babysit in holy orders, I’d first call a cab and then call the police.”

He had no patience either for Widdecombe’s plea not to judge the church by today’s standards, wondering why God decided not to reveal slavery was wrong until the 19th century, decades after humanists such as Thomas Paine came to that conclusion. For the defenders of the faith, this was a rout. The audience overwhelmingly opposed the motion, 1862 against, to 268 votes for.


This link will take you to the Utube excerpts of the debate. They are broken down into nine and 10 minute segments. Stephen Fry was heads and shoulders above the other three in audience appreciation. His segment alone is well worth watching. Anne Widdecombe was also spirited in her defense of the Church and made the same distinction that Stephen Fry did between the Church in it's lay face and the Church in it's heirarchical institutional phase. The defense of the Institutional Church was left up to Archbishop Onaiyekan and he failed miserably because he seemed incapable of actually addressing any of the points brought up by Hithchens, Fry or the audience. If the force of Widdecombe's defense. as juxtaposed against Onaiyeken's equivicating proved anything, it's that the hierarchy is incapable of defending itself.

Archbishop Oneyaiken started the debate off and it becomes apparent quite quickly that he had misjudged his audience. His speech is given as if he is in front of a class at Stuebenville or Ave Maria University in that he assumes audience agreement with what he says. He acts like he's either preaching to the crowd, or preaching to those who will be easily swayed once he's given them "the truth". Very big mistake on his part.

Two thoughts from this debate. Archbishop Onaiyekan did not further his cause as a future pope. He displayed the strange thinking of a hierarchy which expects automatic respect and agreement because of their personal ranking in the Church. The second thought is that there is a real force working in the world to separate in people's minds the hierarchy and institutional church from it's lay adherents. This thought says Catholicism is not represented by the institution but by the everyday lay person and religious working in the Lord's fields. Widdecombe may not have intended to foster this separation, but she most certainly did.

In the end these viewers did not vote so much against the People of God as they did it's institutional leadership.


  1. Colleen, wonderful summary.

    I love your line about Bishop Onaiyekan's presentation,

    "His speech is given as if he is in front of a class at Stuebenville or Ave Maria University in that he assumes audience agreement with what he says."

    True. And eminently sad. Sad because that's precisely what the leaders of the church want right now: a church of docile automatons who receive bits of dogma, input them, and then spit them out again in precisely the same language that was put into the automated system.

    A church clean of thought. And devoid of integrity, coherence, and the ability to engage the world around it in any but a combative, unenlightened way.

    And we have Papa Ratzi to thank for that, in all the years he has had such influence at the center.

  2. "a church of docile automatons who receive bits of dogma, input them, and then spit them out again in precisely the same language that was put into the automated system." (Dr. Lindsey)

    We used to call that Catechism. Recitation - on demand. By kids who had no choice in the matter. (And hardly knew what they were parroting anyway.)

    Yes, very sad view of human persons, I'd say!

  3. TheraP, you're right. What the catechetical approach (as it's now practiced) implies about human nature is sad. It implies that we are little more than robots, as we receive and respond to faith.

    It robs us of humanity.

    I was very surprised today to read one of the leaders of the Anglican movement to reunite with Rome saying that his movement takes all its doctrine from the catechism.

    What a reductionistic understanding of the transmission of doctrine to the Christian community.

  4. I don't know Bill, maybe what it really says is that certain Anglican Bishops are just flat lazy.

    As a kid I actually thought that about religion teachers. It was just plain laziness on their part to force us to memorize and regurgitate. I refused to do that when I taught high school formation clases. My classes were loved by the kids who liked to think and hated by the few who wanted the easy way out of memorizing and regurgitating. Thank God most of the kids loved it.

  5. Could be you're right about the laziness, Colleen.

    I'm glad that you have chosen to keep on teaching, and that you're continuing to do so by provoking people to think.

  6. I'm no fan of Hitchens, but I think the Church lost this debate.

  7. Khughes, I'm no fan of Hitchens either. Stephen Fry was the voice that changed most minds in my opinion. He was devastating when he recounted his own personal work and experience in Uganda.

  8. Yes, the present Pope had a big say in the appointment of bishops, and along with his predecessor is responsible for the depletion of the world episcopate. If a Council were summoned today, it would be an assembly of zombies.

  9. For several years, I have heard rumors of a "Great Council of the People of God," one run by the laity with the invitation of a few Bishops and priests, but the main actors would be lay Theologians. I hope this is not just a rumor as it is precisely what is needed. Perhaps there would be mass excommunications but it would be a true council of the Universal Church. It could be much like Vatican II with its invitations to theologians, philosophers and scientists of all religions. In fact, it would have as much moral authority as any of the other great councils. I hope this is just not a dream!

    R. Dennis Porch

  10. A classic case of sheep being eaten by wolves --- and then blaming the wolves when the shepherd was amiss.

    Hitchens and Fry are formidable wolves!

    Jim McCrea