Debate – The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World

I’m going to start this post by going off topic…

I love Stephen Fry. Until recently I didn’t know who he was, and then I started watching his In America series and was captivated by his curiosity and enthusiasm for everything. I was so sad once the series ended, but maybe he’ll do In Canada next!

stephenfry

Enough gushing…I heard that Fry was in this debate on the topic of whether or not the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world (pfft!), and I couldn’t wait to see it because I’m such a big fan of him, as well as of Christopher Hitchens, who would both be debating against the motion that the Catholic Church is a force for good…and also Stephen Fry tweeted this adorable tweet right before the debate:

Nervous as a kitten. Got to take part in a debate on the RC Church. Me and C Hitchens facing Anne Widdecombe +1 Don’t know why I’m so nervy.10:48 AM Oct 19th from Tweetie

(follow him @stephenfry or me @EnlightningLinZ)

The debate was on October 19th, but it was just recently put on YouTube so now you can watch it here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

You can read my thoughts on the debate after the jump (spoiler alert!)…But first, the opening vote from the people in attendance:

Motion: The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World
For: 678
Against: 1,102
Undecided:  346

First up on the Catholic side was Nigerian Archbishop John Onaiyekan. His opening comments were shockingly (though perhaps not surprisingly) unimpressive. He took forever to get to making an actual argument, instead resorting to wishy-washy statements about how the Catholic Church is a community blah blah blah…here are his main points:

  • The message of the Church guides people
  • There are lots of Catholics…1.2 billion (I fear, since I was baptized and confirmed in a Roman Catholic Church, that I’m included in that number…in spite of the fact that I haven’t gone to Church in years)
  • Catholics run lots of charities that help people with AIDS
  • The Catholic Church makes mistakes, but they apologize and apologies are rare

He ended by saying “Is there anybody here who still doubts that the Catholic Church is a force for good?”…the audience responded with laughter. I laughed also.

Weak! I would expect that someone who has risen to the level of Archbishop, and who was described by the moderator as “one of Africa’s best known, most respected commentators of the [Catholic] Church” would be able to come up with some better arguments than that…

Next up, Hitchens:

  • To defend the Catholic Church, you have to start by making a number of apologies: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jewish people, injustice towards women, the forced conversion of indigenous people, the African slave trade, the admission that Gallileo was right, silence during Hitler’s Final Solution, the rape and torture of children…all not to be laughed off by the occasional work of charities
  • Antisemitism was preached as official doctrine of the Church until 1964
  • There will come a time when the Church will issue apologies for things it’s currently doing
  • The Church’s position on condoms, responsible for the death and misery of millions of the Archbishop’s fellow Africans
  • The Church’s anti-homosexual stance

He kind of went off on a rant, but his point was clear: the Catholic Church does a lot of shameful and horrible things.

Back to the Catholic side, Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe, who started off by saying that Hitchens owed the Church an apology for listing off all of those misrepresentations…to which Hitchens somewhat conceded with a laugh. It’s Christopher Hitchens, okay, he tends to exaggerate!

Her arguments:

  • Churches & monasteries secreted Jews during the Holocaust.
  • The Pope gave refuge to Jews in his summer palace (SUMMER PALACE?!?! Seriously? Do you think Jesus would have had a summer palace? Is the Vatican not enough of an extravagance? What a sacrifice, giving up his summer vacation home.)
  • The Catholic Church makes mistakes, but so does everyone.
  • The Church pours billions of pounds into international aid, and plays a vital role.
  • She brushes off the mention of child abuse and condoms by saying that that’s not what the Catholic Church is about, it’s about the message that it preaches: a message of hope and salvation.
The Pope at his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo

The Pope at his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo

I find it pathetic how both Catholic spokespeople refused to acknowledge the current problems, namely its anti-homosexual stance, priestly child abuse, and its position on condom use, and instead resort to “sure, they make mistakes, but who doesn’t?” Ugh…Stephen Fry gets to that point (in his closing statements), and he’s up next:

  • He believes in the enlightenment, but the Catholic Church attacks the enlightenment. He then tells an interesting story about Thomas More (a Saint). If you aren’t planning on watching the full debate, at least watch this part at about 3:45 of Part 3.
  • AIDS in Africa – Abstinence and Being Faithful are important, but so are condoms, the Pope spreads the lie that condoms increase the incidence of AIDS. Mentions how the Church is obsessed with sex, like anorexics and the morbidly obese are obsessed with food.
  • Closes by saying that Jesus would be ill at ease in the Catholic Church. What would Jesus think of the wealth, the power, the self-justification, the hierarchy?

There’s a brief question period, starting at about 2:15 in Part 4. Highlights from this section:

  • The Archbishop accidentally makes the point that the Ten Commandments aren’t necessary for a moral code because people knew not to do those bad things before they were in the Bible.
  • An audience member asks Anne Widdecombe why she thinks it’s okay for a woman to be an MP, but not a priest. Widdecombe converted to Catholocism when her previous Church (Church of England, I think) allowed women to become priests. She gives some lame, doctrinal answer, saying that women can’t represent Christ.
  • Stephen Fry: “the Church is very loose on moral evils, because although they try to accuse people like me who believe in empiricism and the enlightenment of somehow what they call moral relativism as if it’s some appalling sin, where what it actually means is thought, they, for example, thought that slavery was perfectly fine, absolutely okay, and then they didn’t. And what is the point of the Catholic Church if it says “Oh well we couldn’t know better because nobody else did,” then what are you for? [directed at the Catholic side of the table].
  • A woman who does charity work in Africa begs the Catholic side to reverse the ruling on contraception.

Closing Statements:

Stephen Fry gives the best line of the night (in response to Widdecombe’s whining about the mention of condoms and child abuse):

It’s a bit like a burglar in court saying “oh you would bring up that burglary and that manslaughter, you never mention the fact that I give my father a birthday present.”

Brilliant!

Widdecombe ignores what Fry JUST SAID, and continues to whine about them bringing up the terrible things that the Church says. Horrible.

Hitchens points out how the Catholics evaded the difficult issues, and closes with “when my children were young I would have been proud to have Stephen [who is gay] as their babysitter…and if anyone came to my door as a babysitter wearing holy orders, I’d have called first a cab and then the police!” Typical Hitchens wit!

The Archbishop closes by just repeating over and over that the Church is a force for good, and reminds us that he is still ignoring the arguments that the Church does a lot of horrible, inexcusable shit.

The final vote:

Motion: The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World
For: 268 (down by 410)
Against: 1,876 (up by 774)
Undecided:  34

I think this screen cap says it all:

Hitchens and Fry, upon hearing the results of the Intelligence Squared debate on whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.

Hitchens and Fry, upon hearing the results of the Intelligence Squared debate on whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.

One final off topic note, if you’re now as charmed by Stephen Fry as I am, he has a fun podcast series on iTunes called Stephen Fry’s Podgrams. It’s worth downloading!

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8 Responses to “Debate – The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World”


  1. 1 Global Villager November 11, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Good post – I also watched this debate. A few comments:

    I felt that Archbishop Onaiyekan was very reasonable in everything he said. The only reason that his argument was so weak was exactly for that reason. He did not make any extraoridinary claims, he just shared what he felt and what he knows as a member of the RC church (there are many of us and we do our best according to our scripture and tradition). Unfortunately for Onaiyekan we know that their scripture and tradition is baseless and false. He didn’t stand a chance! I don’t think he admitted that we do not need the Ten Commandments to know that certain things are wrong, he was just being honest!

    I felt Widdecombe was far more staunch in her refusal to accept the things that Fry and Hitchens were saying. She had her script and she was sticking to it.

    Fry was brilliant as you allude to. I was thinking this all along and was delighten when he said that if the Church is fallible and makes mistakes etc etc etc then what are they for???? Are they not supposed to be a divine moral compass?

    I like Hitchens but I felt he went too far. I felt his comment about calling the police if a man in clergy attire wanted to babysit was not appropriate for the setting. Funny yes, but in a serious debate such over generalization lends ammunition to people like Widdecombe. We all know that most clergy are not pedophiles. The issue is that the Church protects these people and does not offer serious apologies etc.

    Anyways, thanks for the post, keep it up!

  2. 2 EnlightningLinZ November 11, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    I agree that Onaiyekan stayed away from making more extraordinary claims, but it was pathetic how he and Widdecombe just ignored and brushed off the bad things that the Church does. I think that’s what the Catholic Church does best. They suppress criticism rather than accepting it and using it to improve the institution.

    Hitchens was a little over the top, but it’s Hitchens, it’s expected! I wouldn’t want a clergyman babysitting my children, not that I immediately think “pedophile” when I see a priest, but I wouldn’t want them indoctrinating my kids. I wouldn’t call the cops, but I’d call a cab!

  3. 3 Alaya April 18, 2010 at 1:09 am

    “If so-called religious people have truly lost God, then the responsibility for finding him rests solely with atheists.”

  4. 4 EnlightningLinZ April 22, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Alaya – I’m not sure what you’re trying to say with this quote, could you clarify?

  5. 5 Mom May 1, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Just read this post today for the first time. Sorry I indoctrinated you into the Catholic Church Lindsay. However, when you were a baby, none of this type of information was available to the average Joe/Josephine.

    I have to admit that Gramma had a huge influence on my decision to baptize all of you into the Catholic Church. Had it not been for her influence, I probably would never have gone back to the church…I had strayed away as an older teen and young adult. I strayed away again in my early thirties after a crisis which led me to read a book called Jung and Christianity. From then on I was drawn to and steered away from the church for a variety of reasons.

    Once you and your siblings had made your own choices, I no longer felt compelled to attend any longer. I want to be clear that had I known what you know and what you have made me aware of now, I never would have attended or indoctrinated any of you.

  6. 6 EnlightningLinZ May 2, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Hi Mom,

    You don’t need to apologize for bringing me up in the Church, because I don’t regret it!

    I don’t look back at it with any kind of bitternes…at first when I was becoming an atheist I think I did have feelings that I wished I hadn’t wasted so much time believing untrue things, but now I don’t have any regrets about my religious history.

    For one thing I’m able to have that insider’s perspective on what it’s like to be part of a religion, so now that religion has become a big interest of mine I’m glad that I can think back about my own mindset when I was one of those people that I’m so puzzled by nowadays.

    But also I had fun with the Church…I loved hanging out after the service and having juice and cookies, I have some fond memories of the youth group activities and some friends we made at Church. I also really enjoyed Christmas and Easter services, I sometimes feel like going to Church nowadays because I remember the peaceful feeling of those ceremonies. Of course there was plenty I didn’t like about it, but I don’t hold any hard feelings at all about my whole experience with religion.

    One thing that I do regret, though, is that my name is still on the roster of Catholics, and now that I’m so deadset against the institution it bothers me that they boast immense numbers for their membership, but many people like you and me are probably counted in that number because we were baptized, even though we no longer participate in Catholocism. It seems like a silly thing to be annoyed about, what’s one person in a billion? But that’s the one thing I wish I could change about my Church history. I had fun at my confirmation and everything, but I’m not a Catholic anymore so I don’t want to be counted as one.

    I don’t feel indoctrinated though, although the Church may have taught to believe rather than think, us kids were always encouraged by you to be curious, ask questions, and learn. And I expressed my issues with Church to you when I was young, so obviously I wasn’t afraid to show doubts! (I wonder if you still have that letter I wrote to you, I’d love to post it on my blog).

  7. 7 Mom May 3, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Wow, thanks for sharing your memories Lindsay! They reflect everything I had hoped you’d experience while bringing you and your sibs to church. I’m glad you had some good times.
    As far as being counted in the numbers, I wonder if there is a way to withdraw as a member. It might be interesting to look into that. Let me know if you do find a way.
    I suspect though, that once you are baptized you are always a catholic.
    I’ll look for that letter, I came across it once so I’m sure I’ll be able to dig it up.
    Love you.

  8. 8 NIRMALA MONTEIRO July 6, 2010 at 4:50 am

    IT DOES NOT BOTHER ME IF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IS A FORCE FOR GOOD IN THE WORLD OR NOT.

    BUT ALL I WOULD LIKE TO POINT THE BENIFITS FROM BEING A CATHOLIC.

    1) BEFORE GOD CAME ON EARTH TO SACRIFICE HIM SELF HE GAVE POWER TO A STICK (HE GAVE MOSES) TO SPLIT THE SEA AND LET THE JEWS CROSS OVER TO THE PROMISED LAND.

    2) AFTER GOD CAME DOWN ON EARTH AS MAN IN THE WOUMB OF MOTHER MARY HIS BLOOD MINGLED WITH HIS MOTHER GIVING HER THE POWER TO BRING US TO THE PROMISED LAND OF JOY ie HEAVEN ON EARTH.

    POINTING OUT TO THE FAULTS OF OTHERS WILL NOT HELP. INSTEAD AS YOU SOW SO YOU SHALL REAP. SO THE ULTIMATE JUDGE IS GOD. ALL WE GOT TO DO IS GOOD TO OBATIN GOOD.

    A LITTLE PRAY EVERY MINUTE OF THE DAY TO BE GUIDED BY GOD AND BLESSED AS I DO IS.

    BLOOD OF JESUS I TRUST IN THEE. MOTHER MARY PRAY FOR ME (US).

    IF THE WORLD RECOGNIZE THIS WE WILL SURELY FIND HEAVEN ON EARTH SOON.


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