manicstreetpreacher witnesses first-hand a rhetorical massacre of Vatican hench(wo)men by the cream of British intellectualism.
On Monday, 19 October 2009 I attended a debate at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, London featuring “New Atheist” and author of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens and actor, writer and broadcaster, Stephen Fry, to argue against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world” with Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Conservative MP, Ann Widdecombe proposing.
The debate was filmed by BBC TV cameras and the debate moderator, Zeinab Badawi, told us that it would be broadcast to 70 million people throughout the world on 7 and 8 November 2009. The full video of the debate can be viewed below:
Each of the four speakers were allowed 15 minutes for an opening statement, then there was about 30 minutes of the audience’s questions and comments and then the panel were given a final five minutes to sum up. The whole event lasted a shade under two hours from 7:00 – 9:00pm. The only disappointment is that Hitchens wasn’t signing books afterwards, but apart from that it was very well put together by the organisers, Intelligence Squared.
Exactly as I predicted before the event, this was an utterly one-sided affair. Hitch and Fry wiped the floor with their papist opponents. It was an embarrassment for the parties of God. The two men had everything on their side. They had the arguments, they had the historical facts, they had the present day facts, they had the rhetoric, they had the wit and most importantly they had the audience, although it has to be said that most of them were dead against the motion from the start.
Blow-by-blow: Archbishop John Onaiyekan
Archbishop John Onaiyekan opened the motion for the proposition. He seemed an amiable enough fellow; I’m sure you’d like to have him round for dinner. Unfortunately he was encumbered with a thick Nigerian accent, which made it difficult to understand what he was saying. Not that it would have made too much difference. From what I could pick up, his opening statement was a wishy-washy apologia that cited few factual examples and even less ideology.
The Archbishop said that from his Catholic upbringing to the present day as a 65 year old adult, he had no regrets and devoutly believed in the motion, otherwise he would not be a member of the Catholic Church in the first place. The Church has stood the test of time over the last two thousand years ranging from the good ordinary folk of the world to the leaders of the world. He cited the 2008 papal encyclical, Caritas In Veritate, “Charity in Truth”, as a good example of what the Church stood for.
Noises were made about the Church’s syllabus of errors, but the Archbishop stressed the need to keep perspective and be careful when judging others. After all, the late pontiff, John Paul II apologised for many of the Church’s “misjudgements” throughout history.
The Archbishop argued that true good of the Catholic Church can be attested by its 1.2 billion members and we really ought to go and speak to some of them to realise that the world needs more people linking arms and striving for a future of justice. The Archbishop also stated that the Church has a hand in setting up many schools and hospitals and contrary to the public perception of its stance on condom use, had worked closely with the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS.
It was a well-meaning and consolatory opening. The Archbishop finished with plenty of his allotted time to spare and asked with a dash of irony whether there now could be anyone in the audience who didn’t think that the Catholic Church was a force for good. Bless him, he must have hoped that his two opponents would be willing to search for common ground.
What planet has he been living on?
OK, let’s face it. This is why the majority of the audience paid their admissions fee. To witness arguably the world’s most outspoken atheist and opponent of religion take aim at the easiest target he could have wished for. We were not disappointed.
After the usual warm-up quips about the moderator admiring his shirt, Hitch went at the Holy See like a rabid dog.
WHAM! The statement delivered by Pope John Paul II’s spokesmen on 12 March 2000 apologising for everything from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the oppression of women (who after all comprise half the human race), to the forced conversion of the indigenous peoples of South America by the Conquistadors.
BLAM! The 94 public recognitions of the Church’s crimes against humanity from apologising for the African slave trade in 1995 to the admission in 1992 that Galileo was actually right when he said that the sun was the centre of our solar system and the earth and the other planets were in orbit around it.
KA-ZAAM!!! Hitchens’ demanded that apologies were long overdue for the crimes of the Croatian Utashe lead by Ante Pavelić in the Second World War which received the full blessing of the clergy, to the rape and torture and cover-up of children in Catholic schools and care homes from “Ireland to Australia”, to the hideous preaching of Augustine’s doctrine of limbo which had countless parents in agony over the destination of the souls of their un-baptised children.
BIFF! There were a few more sins for the Holy See to atone for: the 1933 Reich Concordat with Nazi Germany which dissolved the Catholic Centre Party and removed all opposition to the rise of Hitler while ensuring that the Church maintained control of state education. Come to think of it, wasn’t the first treaty that Mussolini put his name to the 1929 Lateran Treaty with the Vatican. Wasn’t Jozef Tiso, the despot who governed Slovakia an ordained priest? Wasn’t every other fascist dictator from Franco to Salazar raised as a Catholic with the public blessing of St Peter’s Basilica? Wasn’t Adolf Hitler’s birthday celebrated from the pulpits every year right up until his death?
NO MORE, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!!!!!!
Well alright, then perhaps a little bit more. This is getting kinda fun.
THWACK!!! Hitch declared that none of this could be laughed off with gestures to the charitable. After all, didn’t Pope Ratzinger qualify the apology to the South American Indians by saying while on a visit to Brazil in 2007 that they were “silently longing” for the arrival of Christianity? The sex abuse scandal culminating in the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Massachusetts, only for the same Cardinal to show up at the 2005 conclave to elect the new pontiff doesn’t exactly enhance the Vatican’s claim to moral superiority either. Neither does the doctrine of anti-Semitism for the Jews’ complicity for the death of Christ preached until 1964, nearly 20 years after the judgment of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.
POW!!! Hitch then proceeded to tear the moral relativism that has engulfed the Church in recent years (and would certainly engulf the arguments of its apologists this night) a new one. He stated that the rape and torture of children is something that cannot be relativised. It cannot be shrugged off as something that would not happen if “queers had not been allowed into the Church.” If any “normal” person were accused of child rape, they would want to die. If they were found guilty, they would commit suicide.
ZAP!!! More suggested topics to apologise for? How about the re-inauguration of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson, who effectively said, “Genocide? No. Deicide? Yes!”? Ratzinger invited Williamson back into the fold because Church unity was more important than moral integrity. And how about the genocide in Rwanda, the most Catholic country in Africa where priests and nuns were guilty of inciting the massacres and indeed, many are now standing trial for taking part in it themselves. No proper apology has ever been issued.
Hitch then stood up for his friend, Stephen Fry, who is “not like other girls” and cannot be a member of the Church for being a “fag”. The Church’s condescending stance to “hate the sin, love the sinner” means that a substantial portion of the world’s population is excluded from the sacraments.
Hitch ended by saying that he did not wish harm on anybody, but he looked forward to the death of Ratzinger for one reason and one reason only. In the intervening weeks and months between one pope dying and another being elected by the College of Cardinals, there is a period when no one on earth claims to be infallible. Our species must be rid of its faith the certainty from above if it is to progress.
The crowd loved every minute of it. Hitch’s address was punctuated by applause and cheers several times. The biggest cheer came when he faced the Archbishop and asked him for a public apology for the Church’s policy of delivering false information about the effectiveness of condom use, effectively saying that “AIDS is bad, but condoms are worse”.
In case you couldn’t tell, Hitchens is a personal hero of mine. I’m well on the way to having read all of his books. I’ve seen him lecture and debate as many times as I’ve been able to find on YouTube. I’ve referenced him more times than I care to remember on this blog and in my appearances on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? and I have come in for some stick from commenters and listeners for being a mouthpiece for the Four Horsemen in general and Hitchens in particular. This was the first time that I have seen him speak live and it was worth 10 times the admission price.
It was orgasmic!
The Conservative MP and Catholic convert was announced to have left the Church of England in 1992 when it decided to ordain women priests. In answer to a question from the audience, she explained that a woman can be an MP because it is a profession, but there is no theological basis for a woman to be a priest because they cannot lead the confession before Christ. Apparently a woman can no more stand in for JC than a man for the Virgin Mary. Right.
Out of the two papists, it has to be said that Widdecombe put up by far the better fight. She raised rapturous applause from the Catholic supporters in the audience (all five of them) by starting off demanding that Hitchens give an apology for the caricature he had presented of the Church’s history, saying that members of the Waffen SS had to renounce their Christianity before entering the organisation, and Ratzinger made Bishop Richard Williamson renounce his views on the Holocaust before once again granting him the sacraments. She also tried to deflect his remarks saying that he had to delve into history and go back to the Crusades and the Inquisition for the core of his arguments.
I was in dire need of a sick bucket at one point when Widdecombe indulged in the worst kind of relativism in defending the Church’s stance on slavery since it was simply in line with the opinions of the rest of the world! Hitchens later pointed out that if slavery had to be considered in context, what could be more relative than that? What happened; did God change his mind?
As if slavery wasn’t bad enough, Widdecombe went on to say that it has only been in recent years that the courts and the Samaritans have tackled the problem of child sex abuse and there has been a Sex Offenders Register.
Special pleading and calls for clemency do not convincing arguments make, Miss Widdecombe.
The worst offence Widdecombe committed was recommending the work of historian Michael Burleigh who, along with Martin Gilbert, has praised the efforts of the wartime pope, Pius XII, in rescuing many thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by giving them refuge in Castel Gandolfo. I wonder how many people realised that in fact Burleigh re-prints a bogus statement purporting to be from Albert Einstein praising the Church’s response to Hitler in his 2006 book Sacred Causes, the questionable authenticity of which Hitchens debunks in God Is Not Great.
While Hitch didn’t nail her for that point in his closing remarks, he did stand by his views on the Church preaching the doctrine of deicide against the Jewish people as likely to have provided a well of anti-Semitism throughout Europe which facilitated the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
It wasn’t all bad, however. Widdecombe at least pointed out that the Church does much in the way of charitable giving and as a politician, she relied on them as much local government.
The address finished off with a call for the Church’s offer of hope and salvation, which the two nasty heretics at the other side of the table simply could not offer. Hitch’s retort in the closing section was to agree whole heartedly that absolution was not forthcoming from him and Fry, but Catholics still had to live with their conscience and good luck to them.
As good as Hitchens was, the revelation of the evening was Stephen Fry. Here was a man who I previously did not think capable of saying boo to a goose coming out (if you’ll excuse the pun) in full force against the forces of theocratic sexual repression.
Fry started off quoting Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest, saying that speaking one’s mind was quite often not just a moral duty, but a pleasure! This was a subject he felt strongly about, not because he objected to people being religious, but because he felt passionately about the Enlightenment, which the Church has never tired of attacking. Straightaway, Fry sarcastically rubbished Widdecombe’s dismissal of history, saying that history “quivers down all of us”.
Fry then went on to attack the appalling doctrine of purgatory and the hideous idea that a soul needs to be prayed for by us mortals here on earth in order to “take the first left when getting on the plane and getting a first class seat to heaven.” He lambasted the tradition of people giving money to ensure the safe delivery of the soul and questioned why it should be a privilege that only men could enjoy.
The next target was the Church’s exploitation of poor people, citing Thomas More who burned people at the stake for reading English translations of the Bible during the Reformation yet was made the patron saint of politicians by Pope John Paul II! Then there was the disgraceful joint statement on contraception with Saudi Arabia (!) in 2003 that began, “On behalf of the revealed religions of the world…”
However, the real meat came with Fry’s attacks on the Church’s stance on homosexuality. As a gay man, Fry could not possibly be a member of an institution that thought him evil. On the contrary, Fry announced that he was a man who was full of love and certainly had no need of the pope’s permission to tell him to practise it. Fry compared sex to food. It’s jolly and it’s fun. But frankly, the Catholic Church is anorexic.
Fry has made a series of TV documentaries about HIV in Africa, HIV and Me, and attacked the Church’s stance on preaching misinformation about contraception. “Yes, abstinence and being faithful help prevent the spread of AIDS, BUT SO DO CONDOMS!!!” It was not the last time the mild-mannered British comic would raise his voice.
This wonderful opening speech was topped off by speculation as to what Jesus would think. Fry is clearly one of those atheists who at least think that Christ was a great moral teacher (unlike Hitchens who questions both the man’s existence as well as his morality), and asked what the Nazarene would think of the opulence of St Peters and the male-dominated hierarchy. Of course he would be horrified and would be the last person to become a member of his own church!
In his closing statement, Fry answered Widdecombe’s protests that he just had to bring up condoms and sexuality was rather like a criminal in the dock saying to the judge, “Do you have to bring up that burglary?”! The second time he raised his voice was in reply again to Widdecombe’s relativist defence of the Church not condemning slavery because it was a socially acceptable normal with, “WELL, WHAT ARE YOU FOR?!” Magic.
Democracy in action
After the main speeches, the debate moved to comments and questions from the house. The atheists were in full force in both numbers and words. The moderator eventually had to ask for Catholic supporters to ask questions to balance things out!
Several gay men and women took the mikes and made their feelings known on the Church’s interference with what they do behind their bedroom doors. One man asked the Archbishop what current policy of the Church he was most ashamed of!
Hitchens answered supporters’ objections to the Church’s charitable work and fundraising with his stock reply that Hamas do much of the same in Gaza, but is anyone going to say a word in defence of them for that reason? He also showed his feminist colours by attacking the Ten Commandments as suppressing women and that the one proven way of bringing a society off its knees was to bring about the emancipation and the empowerment of women as opposed to having them as field hands, pack horses and baby producers.
Hitch also quite happily admitted to being sexually obsessed after Widdecombe accused Fry in her closing remarks of saying the evening’s only piece of “unpleasantness” by mocking the Archbishop’s vow of celibacy. Hitch’s retort to this piece of prudishness was that from the day he first discovered that his God-given male member would give him no peace, he decided to give it no rest in return. He also pronounced that homosexuality was not just a form of sex, it was a form of love. Stephen Fry was a good friend of his and he would allow him to baby-sit his children any day of the week. If, on the other hand, a clergyman showed up to look after his children, he would first call a taxi and then call the police!
The audience polls before and after the debate said it all:
Before the debate:
For the motion: 678
Don’t know: 346
After the debate:
Don’t know: 34
Therefore, the number of people in the audience who opposed the motion increased by 774.
Andrew M Brown, on his Daily Telegraph blog, summed up the problem for the parties of God rather well:
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…
Even if you didn’t agree with him you’d have to concede Hitchens especially was spectacular and hyper-articulate… Hitchens drank bottled water mostly, and plenty of it, though from time to time when he was sitting down he raised a glass of amber fluid from out of sight, down on the floor somewhere, and took a slug from that. I don’t know why he kept a drink under the table like that, perhaps because the debate was filmed for broadcast. He sweated profusely and dabbed his shiny forehead, eyes and cheeks with a handkerchief. But his diction was clear and he was in control, like a revivalist tent preacher, building the volume to a crescendo at the end, to applause and roars from the audience.
Amen to that, brother.
In conclusion – more and more are wearing their scarlet letter with pride
Aside from the superb showing by Stephen Fry and the utter annihilation of the apologists at the hands of the heretics, the evening was notable for one other reason: the number of people willing to announce their atheist colours with pride and make their feelings known about what they really feel about the most oppressive, hypocritical institution that our mammalian primate species has ever concocted.
The books by the “New Atheists”: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and of course, Christopher Hitchens have instilled the non-believers around the world with the motivation and the confidence to speak out. This is no mere flash in the pan. As Winston Churchill had it, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Sorry to all the bishops, priests, nuns and mullahs, but we are not going away in a hurry. All we need now is the confidence not to pick on such a soft target next time and debate whether Islam is a force for good in the world…
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