Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Fry & Hitch v the Catholic Church

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Last night, I went along to the Intelligence Squared debate on whether "the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world" at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. It was a fairly grand affair, not least because of the impressive venue, and Intelligence Squared had assembled quite a panel to thrash out the issue. Speaking for the motion were Archbishop John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria and Anne Widdecombe, the Conservative MP and outspoken Catholic convert. Speaking against the motion were Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, and Stephen Fry, who is well known for his humanist views (in fact, Laurie Taylor interviewed him about this in New Humanist a few years ago). The debate was chaired by the journalist Zeinab Badawi.

First to speak was Archbishop Onaiyekan, who told the 2,000-strong crowd that the Church is indeed a force for good in the world. It provides hope and salvation to hundreds of millions, even billions, around the world, especially in the developing world where it is one of the major sources of humanitarian aid. And it plays a vital role, the Archbishop told us, in the fight against the global AIDS epidemic - 26 per cent of its humanitarian work is concerned with AIDS.

Sadly for the Archbishop, you could see Hitchens and Fry scribbling down notes as he reeled of what essentially amounted to a series of platitudes about how lovely the Catholic Church is, especially when he told us about all its great work in fighting AIDS. Because, as Hitchens demonstrated as he followed the Archbishop to the mircophone, anyone aruguing against the idea that the Catholic Church is a good thing holds a series of trump cards with which they can swiftly end the debate. After a few introductory pleasantries, Hitchens launched into a full list of the Catholic Church's historical crimes against humanity, framing them as either things it has already apologised for, or things it ought to apologise for in the future. Here's the list, as jotted down in my notes: The Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-semitism, treatment of women, missionaries (especially the knock-on wiping out of native American populations), slavery, the treatment of Gallileo, child abuse, collusion with the Nazis, collusion with Mussolini, collusion with the Croatian Ustasi, collusion with Franco, the sale of indulgences, the treatment of homosexuals, and, of course, the policy on the use of condoms and their "inability" to prevent the spread of HIV.

Quite a list, of course, and I'm sure you can spot the major trump cards. And as if all that wasn't enough, Hitchens rounded off with what has to go down as the sound bite of night, referring to the hierarchy of the Church as a "small band of sinister virgins". If it had been a boxing match, the referee would have stepped in at this point and stopped the fight, but instead we were treated to the spectacle of Anne Widdecombe trying to defend the record of the Church, beginning with her view that Hitchens had just reeled off the longest list of misrepresentations she had ever heard. Focussing in particular on Hitchens' accusations that the Church colluded with the Nazis, she said that he ignored the 1,000s of Jews rescued by the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. She then tried to argue that recourse to examples from history is misleading, as we "have to measure against the standards prevailing at the time". So you can't blame the Church for the Inquitisition, because torture was pretty popular back then. And, even better, Widdecombe asserted that, while paedophilia is one of the worst crimes a person can commit, Hicthens seemed to think the Catholic Church should have had some kind of "unique insight". Quite the contrary, Anne suggests – until the 1990s, child abuse wasn't frowned upon by society as heavily as it is today, and so we have to judge the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in that context. Don't, Anne told us, "expect the Catholic Church to have acted uniquely". Widdecombe then went on to remind us of the billions of pounds in aid that the Church pours into Africa, and stated that the Catholic Church is the sum of all its members, not just the hierarchy (the Archbishop had said that too). Anne also took the opportunity to make an ill-advised point that, while listening to Hitchens, she had hoped that we could get through the whole thing without mentioning condoms, but, oh no, he couldn't help mentioning condoms. Unsurprisingly, this provoked plenty of jeers from the audience.

Finally, Stephen Fry took the floor and, in characteristically polite and erudite fashion, he proceeded to kick the life out of the Catholic case (can you do this in polite and erudite fashion?). Naturally, he started with a line from Oscar Wilde, telling us that "on an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure." The reason for this, he said, is because he genuinely believes that the Catholic Church is not a force for good. He did, however, point out that his problem is not with the individual believers, whose freedom of belief he holds as "sacrosanct as any article of faith", but with the organisation. There's an interesting point here, because as I mentioned, both Widdecombe and the Archbishop made the argument that the issue is not about whether the hierarchy of the Church is a force for good, because the Church is not just an organisation, but the sum of all its followers. On this point, the religious and secular are arguing from completely different angles. Most secularists don't have any problem with religious people per se, but rather with organised religion. So for secularists a debate over the issue of whether the Catholic Church is a force for good has to be about the Catholic Church as an organisation, and this is precisely what Fry and Hitchens focussed on. For the pro-Church side to argue that it's not about the organisation, but it's members, is to sidestep the issue of the organisation's many crimes.

Picking up where Hitchens left off, Fry resumed the attack on the historic crimes of the Church, saying that the essential message it preaches – that outside the Church there is nothing – has been used to excuse it from all its crimes. He focussed on the current Pope's protection of child abusers in his previous guise as Cardinal Ratzinger, as well as the fact that he is not just content with saying condoms are forbidden, but chooses to go further and spread the clear lie that they actually make the AIDS epidemic worse. And moving on to the Church's views on homosexuality, Fry noted that "the strange thing about the Church is that it is obsessed with sex", adding that he finds it bizarre for him, as a gay man, "to be called a pervert by these extraordinarily sexually dysfunctional people." With that, all that was left was for Fry to deliver a fitting final knock-out blow, asking what Jesus himself would make of "the wealth, power and self-justification of the Catholic Church".

A Q&A session followed the main debate but, as sadly is so often the case, they didn't really add a great deal (I really wish the people who scramble for the chair's attention would actually ask questions, rather than taking the opportunity to make their own points). They did lead to some wonderfully muddled attempts to explain theology from Widdecombe ("It is no more possible for a women to represent Christ at consecration as it is for a man to represent the Virgin Mary"), but what was really needed was for someone to confront the Archbishop with the condoms issue, which unfortunately didn't happen.

So, it was a comprehensive defeat for the Catholic side, which even lost the audience vote heavily. At the beginning of the night 678 people voted for the motion (Catholic Church is a force for good) and 1,102 against it, and this got even worse as a result of the debate itself – at the end of the night 268 voted for and 1,876 against. As I said earlier in this post, there are just certain trump points that can't be disputed, particularly in my view the Catholic stance on condoms. One of the main points the Archbishop and Widdecombe used to defend the Church was that it pumps billions in aid into Africa. Unfortunately for them, no amount of money can outweigh the destructive effects of discouraging Africans from using condoms in the face of a catastrophic AIDS epidemic. And the fact that the Church adds to this by spreading the lie that condoms make AIDS worse renders its position completely indefensible.

Having said all this, while the atheist side really had its "A" team on show in the form of Fry and Hitchens, I really don't think the Archbishop and Widdecombe represented the best defenders the Catholic Church could have offered, and they did a poor job in the face of some exemplary debating by their opponents. I'd have liked to have seen a real Catholic heavyweight on show – couldn't they have invited the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols (we were in Westminster, after all)? At least he could have put up a fight.


SamTronik said...

Is a video / audio recording available?

dogonaut said...

The Roman Senate was forever colluding, decimating, assimilating, corrupting, mistreating women, enslaving, sexually engaging children... the list goes on. That weren't Catholic. At varying periods, some of the senate would endorse, others would oppose. In context, very much how the CC have acted over their time (similar in length to the Romans).

So how do we evaluate the Romans? Evil? I doubt it. It seems Hitchens & Fry are the Caeser & Pompey of our time - populists.

I'm not religious; in fact, I subscribe to a Humanist view. But throwing stones at the CC needs to be a little more in depth than just the usual (lazy) subject matter.

Richard said...

"He did, however, point out that his problem is not with the individual believers, whose freedom of belief he holds as "sacrosanct as any article of faith", but with the organisation. There's an interesting point here, because as I mentioned, both Widdecombe and the Archbishop made the argument that the issue is not about whether the hierarchy of the Church is a force for good, because the Church is not just an organisation, but the sum of all its followers... Most secularists don't have any problem with religious people per se, but rather with organised religion."

Hmm, that does seem like an over-simplification. The church as an institution may well implement actions and policies that would not be congenial to individual believers but that can easily cut in either direction - in some contexts it may well be that the church hierarchy is more moderate than some of its adherents or that some of those policies chime precisely with their views. The church as an institution is after all comprised of individual believers and the question of the character of those beliefs is surely far from being irrelevant.

SamTronik said...

Good point Richard. A case for that is Evolution. Most from the Vatican would probably have no problem with Evolution = fact. More rural churches might tend to disagree - and even more so with the church goers.

Richard Eis said...

Funny how the church follows society morals when it suits them (torture and persecution), yet not when it comes to the ghey or sexual health.

Followers generally follow the beliefs that they are told to. The church is not a democracy.

The church's stance on evolution has been deeply wishywashy at best.

Even taking into account that the church and it's followers don't always see eye to eye, the church is not a force for good. It is a force for propagating a myth. Which it thinks is a good thing.

edthemanicstreetpreacher said...

I was there myself. It was an embarrassment for the parties of God.

Here’s my write-up:


Elaine said...

In relation to both historical and recent atrocities committed by or even in the name of the Catholic Church, did Anne Widdecombe really suggest that those within the Church are as prone to misdemeanour as those outside, and that the Church in fact has no special knowledge of right and wrong...?!

Paul Sims said...

Indeed she did, Elaine. Indeed she did.

Elaine said...

Ha! I think she maybe forgot that she was supposed to be wearing her religion hat, not her politics one!

Dwight Jones said...

Hitchings, Fry, the BHA are not Humanists, they are simple atheists who have hijacked a noble philosophy; carpetbaggers and social climbers selling books to intellectual novitiates.

Here is Humanism scholar Robert Grudin's sketch of Humanism in the Britannica, note how little it has to do with religion or atheism whatsoever:

"Humanitas meant the development of human virtue, in all its forms, to its fullest extent. The term thus implied not only such qualities as are associated with the modern word humanity—understanding, benevolence, compassion, mercy—but also such more aggressive characteristics as fortitude, judgment, prudence, eloquence, and even love of honour.

Consequently, the possessor of humanitas could not be merely a sedentary and isolated philosopher or man of letters but was of necessity a participant in active life. Just as action without insight was held to be aimless and barbaric, insight without action was rejected as barren and imperfect. Humanitas called for a fine balance of action and contemplation, a balance born not of compromise but of complementarity.

The goal of such fulfilled and balanced virtue was political, in the broadest sense of the word. The purview of Renaissance humanism included not only the education of the young but also the guidance of adults (including rulers) via philosophical poetry and strategic rhetoric. It included not only realistic social criticism but also utopian hypotheses, not only painstaking reassessments of history but also bold reshapings of the future.

In short, humanism called for the comprehensive reform of culture, the transfiguration of what humanists termed the passive and ignorant society of the “dark” ages into a new order that would reflect and encourage the grandest human potentialities. Humanism had an evangelical dimension: it sought to project humanitas from the individual into the state at large."

Beat your atheist chest if you must, like a schoolboy but please don't call yourself a Humanist unless you can add something to justify your passage.

Humanism is an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet, and lives. Religion is a private matter.

Elaine said...

Language evolves.

AT said...

Not sure I get your point, Dwight. Humanism isn't atheism at all - it certainly doesn't ever purport to be here. But bashing the Catholic Church at its most basic doesn't have to be anti-God or even anti-religious, thought it can be. It's anti-pure, batshit crazy, man. A lot of religions fall into the pure, batshit crazy category, but few have the kind of purchase Catholicism does.

'Simple atheists' is hardly a good description of Hitchens, Fry or a large organization, either. Hell, Fry's about as non-committed and traditionally humanist as they come.

Richard Eis said...

-Humanism is an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet, and lives. Religion is a private matter.-

When religious organisations are helping to destroy the planet and it's people in it's myriad of cruel ways I would see it as a humanists duty to stop this.

Anonymous said...

The first part of a more realisitic account of the debate can be found here: http://christopherhitchenswatch.blogspot.com/
Whether self-described freethinkers will be interested in grappling with the issues remains to be seen.

dom said...

Had this debate been a part of a series of debates...."...v Judaism", "...v Islam", "...v Hinduism"...etc. perhaps the message ( that RELIGION itself is not a "force for good" ) would have been less of an ego flexing, intellectual exercise in the Hitchens mould & more of a "force for good" in the debating mould.

Catholicism is a FAITH, not a set of prescribed laws asserting its followers to hate gays & jews and promote genocide & torture as Hitchens & Fry seemed intent on stating as fact.

As a baptised Catholic, I no more grew up hating gays & jews as the African Bishop grew up longing to be an American loving muck raking jug artist. It is not a catholic bishop's job to debate his faith...it is his job to practice it.

Hitchens & Fry are incapable of understanding or knowing a world absent of religious faith...none of us are...anymore than a soldier, politician or teacher are capable of understanding a world absent of war, inequality or falsehood.

You do not debate religion...you either believe or cease to believe. When we all cease to believe, the debate ceases WITH THE BELIEF.