Chair Zeinab Badawi introduces the motion ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.
Initial Vote: 678 For, 1102 Against, Undecided 346
Final Vote: 268 For, 1876 Against, Undecided 34
Arguing in favour of the motion are Archbishop John Onaiyekan and the Rt Hon. Ann Widdecombe MP.
Archbishop Onaiyekan begins by insisting that if the Catholic Church were not a force for good, he would not have devoted his entire life to serving it. He says that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church exists because of its 1.6 billion members worldwide, rather than in spite of them. He points not only to the spiritual assistance that his Church provides, but also to the tangible aid that is given internationally through Catholic projects. Finally, he admits that Catholics are not infallible, but are by necessity sinners trying to improve themselves through their faith.
Ann Widdecombe suggests that in trawling all the way back to the Crusades to find something to blame the Catholic Church for, Christopher Hitchens merely demonstrates how flimsy his argument really is. Why would the Pope have hidden 3,000 Jews in his summer palace during the Second World War if the Catholic Church was an antisemitic organisation? Admittedly, the New Testament does blame a Jew for the death of Christ; but it also blames a Roman, Pontius Pilate. Are we to infer then that Catholicism is anti-Italian as well as antisemitic? Widdecombe insists that the actions of the Catholic Church in the past should be judged with a degree of historical relativism; they were not the only people to murder and torture those deemed guilty of wrongdoing. She entreats us to imagine a world without the benefits of the Catholic Church, which provides hope, education and medical relief all over the globe.
Arguing against the motion are Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.
Christopher Hitchens asserts that any argument trying to identify the merits of the Catholic Church must begin with a long list of sincere apologies for its past crimes, including but not limited to: the Crusades; the Spanish inquisition; the persecution of Jews and the forced conversion of peoples to Catholicism, especially in South America. He illustrates the vacuity of recent Catholic apologies by drawing on the case of Cardinal Bernard Law – shamed out of office in the US for his part in covering up the institutionalised sexual abuse of children – whose punishment from the Vatican was to be appointed a supreme vicar in Rome, and who was among those assembled in the 2005 Papal Conclave to choose the next Pope. Hitchens concludes by reminding the Archbishop that his own Church has been responsible for the death of millions of his African brothers and sisters, citing the Church’s disastrous stance on Aids prevention, as well as the ongoing trials in Rwanda in which Catholic priests stand accused of inciting massacre during the 1994 genocide.
Stephen Fry concedes that his opposition to the motion is a deeply personal and emotional one. He criticises the Catholic Church not only for the horrors it has perpetrated in the past, but also for its ideology, and for its sinister temerity to preach that there is no salvation outside of the Church. With two words he refutes Anne Widdecombe’s suggestion that the Catholic Church does not have the powers of a nation state: “The Vatican”. As a homosexual, Fry reflects how bizarre it is to be accused of being “immoral” and “a pervert” by an institution that has persistently hushed up the rape and abuse of children under its care, and whose leading members, abstentious nuns and priests, all share an attitude towards sex that is utterly unnatural and dysfunctional. He concludes by questioning whether Jesus, as a humble Jewish carpenter, would have approved of all the pomp and excess of the Catholic Church, and whether he would even have been accepted by such an arrogant organisation.