There was a debate yesterday, on the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. On the affirmative side, the Catholics had Anne Widdecombe, a conservative British politician, and Archbishop Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria. On the godless side…Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens.
Just look at that lineup and you can predict how it went. It was a complete rout.
The problem (from the Catholic point of view) was that the speakers arguing for the Church as a force for good were hopelessly outclassed by two hugely popular, professional performers. The archbishop had obviously decided that it would work best if he stuck to facts and figures and presented the Church as a sort of vast charitable or “social welfare” organisation. He emphasised how many Catholics there were in the world, and that even included “heads of state”, he said, as if that was a clincher. But he said virtually nothing of a religious or spiritual nature as far as I could tell, and non-Catholics would have been none the wiser about what you might call the transcendent aspects of the Church. Then later when challenged he became painfully hesitant. In the end he mumbled and spluttered and retreated into embarrassing excuses and evasions. He repeatedly got Ann Widdecombe’s name wrong. The hostility of both the audience and his opponents seemed to have discomfited him.
So it was left to Ann Widdecombe to defend the Church single-handedly. She did well, showed a light touch and took Hitchens to task for exaggerations and so on. But in the end Hitchens and Fry were able to persuade decisively by simply listing one after another the wicked things that have been done in the Church’s name over the centuries. More than anything they focused on the “institutionalisation of the rape and torture and maltreatment of children”. That’s what Hitchens called it – that’s pretty much what it was – and Fry returned to it. I don’t blame them for harping on about these unspeakable crimes, because there is no answer to them. Then they talked about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. When Zeinab Badawi in the chair asked the archbishop whether Christ himself ever actually said anything about homosexuality, he replied by saying “that’s not the point” or words to that effect, and sounded slippery.
Ah, fish in a barrel, defended from a pair of professional big game hunters and explosives experts by a pair of ditherers. That’s entertainment!