Stephen Fry and author/journalist Christopher Hitchens opposed the motion, while Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, supported it.
During the two-hour showdown, organised by Intelligence Squared at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, Hitchens and Fry mercilessly and articulately lambasted the church for its record of homophobia, child abuse and anti-semitism, as well as its stance on contraception.
Christopher Hitchens wasted no time in living up to his reputation as a bulldog debater: “On the institutionalisation of rape and torture, the maltreatment of children in their care, [the current pope] Joseph Ratzinger said: ‘It is a very serious crisis which demands us in the need for applying to the victims, the most loving pastoral care.’ Well, I’m sorry, they have already had that.”
Hitchens tore into the Vatican for its refusal to hand over Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Archbishop of Boston, to Massachusetts police for questioning about his role in the child abuse scandals. “Here is a man wanted for the promotion, protection, covering up and defence of people whose crimes against children are too revolting to specify," he fumed.
"Yet he is acting as vicar of the American Catholic Church in Rome, personally appointed by the Pope and in 2005, even joining the Conclave, to decide who the next pope should be.”
This brought him to the topic of homophobia: “The rape is not to be relativised, and certainly not to be excused by the hideously false claims made by some conservatives, that this wouldn’t happen if queers hadn’t been allowed into the church.”
“The church can apologise, too, for condemning my friend Steven Fry, for his nature. For saying he couldn’t be a member of your church even if he wanted to. Don’t condemn him for what he does, condemn him for what he is! This is obscene, disgraceful and inhumane, and it comes from hysterical, sinister virgins who have already betrayed their charge of children.”
He showed the hypocrisy of this exclusion, by comparing it the to the willingness of the pope to accept back into the church Richard Williamson, a bishop from an extreme right-wing sect, which denies the Holocaust happened.
Hitchens also gave a list of evils committed by the church over the centuries, including the Crusades, the sacking of Constantinople, the Inquisition, and the torture and murder of scientists and protestants.
He laid the responsibility for the Holocaust at the Church’s door, which he claims was made possible by role in inciting hatred of Jews over the centuries: “That the church taught that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Christ until 1964, twenty years after the Nuremberg trials, may or may not have had something to do with the availability of a reservoir of hate to tap into in Germany, Poland, Austria, Spain, Italy and elsewhere.”
Widdecombe gave a spirited defence, protesting at Hitchens’s exaggerations about the Church’s responsibility for inciting genocide in Rwanda, and highlighting the great risks taken by Catholic priests and nuns across Europe in protecting the Jews during the war.
She stated that, because so little was known about paedophilia even until a few decades ago, when magistrates awarded sentences of a few months in prison until as late as the 1990s. It was thought people who abused would simply stop, she claimed. On charity, she added: “Billions of pounds each year are poured into overseas aid by Catholics, more than any other single nation for medicine and education. Imagine the absence of those collections.”
Irritated by the focus of the debate on sex and condoms, she claimed: “The church is about hope and salvation. And it is intellectual arrogance to say people around the world can simply live without that. People are trying their hardest to live by Christ’s message; by the commandments, by the interpretation of those commandments. Sometimes they don’t quite manage. It would be a poorer, more hopeless place without it for many.”
She maintained that it was the church’s critics who were obsessed with sex, and that condoms have been ineffective in tackling AIDS in Africa.
While forthright in his condemnation for the church, Stephen Fry first emphasised the importance of showing solidarity with the religious believer: “I do not want to express any contempt towards any individuals of that church. They are welcome to their sacraments to their faith and the importance and the joy they receive from it. This joy is sacrosanct to anyone, of any church in the world. It is important as I also happen to have my own beliefs, in the eternal nature of trying to discover more truth in the world. It is an empirical fight that began with the Enlightenment, and there is nothing the Catholic Church likes to do more, than attack it.”
The latter was a reference to the torture of Galileo, who was famously forced to recant his beliefs about the Earth revolving around the sun, to avoid being burned at the stake. The Vatican finally decided he was right after all, in 1992.
On homosexuality, Fry said: “It’s a little hard to believe I am disordered or guilty of a moral evil simply for fulfilling my sexual destiny. It’s hard to be told I am full of evil. I think of myself full of love, whose only purpose in life was to achieve love, and who feels love so much from nature and everywhere else. In order to achieve and receive love, you don’t need a priest to tell you how you do it. You certainly don’t need a pope to tell you, you are evil. And the many LGBT teenagers who attempt suicide certainly don’t need the stigmatisation and victimisation that leads to playground bullying, that comes from saying you are a disordered morally evil individual.”
In contrast, Fry went on to describe the priesthood as being full of ‘extraordinarily sexually dysfunctional people’, since celibacy was neither natural nor normal.
He attacked the church for using its power as a nation, siding with extremist Islamic states in the UN to veto any resolution on women’s sexual freedoms as well as LGBT rights.
But most of his venom was reserved for the consequences of the Church’s position on contraception. He highlighted his experience of Uganda, where AIDS was once successfully tackled by the ‘ABC’ policy of Abstinence – Be Faithful – Correct use of Condoms. Now, this is jeopardised by reverting to abstinence only approaches.
“I don’t deny abstinence is a good way of not getting AIDS. It really works. But so do condoms!" he thundered.
"[The Pope] spreads the lie that condoms increase the incidence of aids. He actually makes sure that aid is conditional on saying no to condoms. The pain and suffering you see as a result is appalling.”
Fry asked the audience to consider if the Catholic Church reflected Jesus’s message of love: “One person who would be the least to be accepted, would be the Galilean carpenter. That simple and remarkable man, would be so ill at ease in the church. You do not need this palace of marble and gold. What would he think of any of that, and someone who dared to lecture others on family values? He would be horrified! There is redemption for all of us, including the church. It has to get rid of this power, the wealth, the hierarchy, sell all the loot off, and concentrate on the essence of its beliefs. Then I would stand and say it is a force for good. But until they do, it is not.”
One would feel sorry for the unfortunate Archbishop Onaiyekan, who lacked the fiery oratory skills of his opponents. Repeatedly referring to his co-defendant as ‘Miss Weatherman’ did nothing for his cause, either. But he lost his argument due to his evasiveness in the face of such severe accusations and, in particular, by his refusal to apologise for the church’s handling of child abuse.
During the Q&A session, many in the audience vented their anger at the church’s homophobia. It was a reminder that this was not just any old intellectual debate. For some, it was as if their personal integrity were on trial. The chairwoman, BBC World broadcaster Zeinab Badawi, turned to the Archbishop to ask what Jesus said about homosexuality.
"That’s not the right question," his Grace retorted, to hoots of derision from the audience. He then went on to claim that said that those engaging in sexual acts aren’t automatically condemned for it afterwards, as "each has his own story to tell".
This seemed a bizarre assertion, given the funding provided by the Catholic Church for campaigns aimed at banning gay marriage in California and Maine. Hitchens mocked this: “The Archbishop is completely wrong. It doesn’t just say homosexuality is wrong, in the same sense as divorce and contraception. Wherever it can, [the church] bans these things and punishes them. Homosexuality is not sex, it is a form of love and I am proud to have Stephen as my friend, and when my children were young, as babysitter also. If anyone had turned up to babysit in holy orders, I’d first call a cab and then call the police.”
He had no patience either for Widdecombe’s plea not to judge the church by today’s standards, wondering why God decided not to reveal slavery was wrong until the 19th century, decades after humanists such as Thomas Paine came to that conclusion. For the defenders of the faith, this was a rout. The audience overwhelmingly opposed the motion, 1862 against, to 268 votes for.
The full debate will be broadcast on BBC World on November 7th and 8th.
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