The London Debate: Why We Lost and What We Must Learn

Editorial FAITH Magazine January-February 2010

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable (2Timothy 4,1-2)

"Intelligence Squared"

In early November last year the international debating event franchise Intelligence Squared organised a televised debate in the central Methodist Hall in London on the motion "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world." Archbishop Onaiyekan, the visiting ordinary of Abuja, Nigeria, and Ann Widdecombe MP were pitted against the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and the popular TV star and writer Stephen Fry.

2100 people of all ages attended, most admitting at the outset that they were against the motion. It is probable that the audience was well stocked with supporters of the British Humanist association, who would have helped to swing the vote. Why it was not advertised more widely among the Catholic community beforehand in order to try to balance the audience is a moot point, but perhaps the initial statistics do pretty much reflect the state of popular opinion in Britain.

The most important thing to note is that over seven hundred people in the audience were won over during the evening to being against the motion, i.e. they became convinced that the Church is not a force for good in the world. That represents about three quarters of those who were initially either undecided or in favour of the Church. There are probably many factors that contributed to this sweeping intellectual defeat for the Catholic cause in England, but the most obvious fact is that the Catholic side fairly and squarely lost the arguments on the day.

Such a prominent defeat for the Church in the public forum is a very significant setback. This was not a minor event. The setting and the motion were subtly but clearly framed effectively to be putting the Church on trial in the popular mind. Thanks to contemporary media, the debate has significance far beyond the hothouse of London society, even far beyond the shores of Britain.

International Influence of The Debate

Via BBC World and YouTube hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, have now witnessed a slick and relentless trouncing of the idea that Catholicism is, all things considered, a force for good in society. The team who opposed the motion were experienced broadcasters and such well-communicated ideas and apparent facts provide a memorable and influential template for the way people interpret the world. Damage has undoubtedly been done.

It would be understandable if ordinary Catholics who watched the proceedings felt embarrassed, confused and somewhat more circumspect about publicly admitting their Catholicism after such an experience. Practising Catholics in Western Europe are already swimming against the ebbing tide of a post-Christian culture. This latest attack will not make their lives any easier, particularly for those who live outside strong Catholic communities of support.

The observer was left with the feeling that Catholics have no real answers to the charges that were being made, only that our intentions are good. One impassioned floor speaker, calling himself an 'ex-Catholic' claimed to have "seen the light" and rejected the "death-dealing, backward, arrogant" activities of Catholics. How many more were silently prompted to agree with him and heard nothing cogent and convincing that night to help counter the diabolic temptation?

Many will have been seriously led astray by the false information so effectively presented on this evening. Many more will not bother to examine the arguments in detail, but simply note the defeat and be further influenced by the anti-Catholic momentum of popular culture. Those in authority in the Church need urgently to examine the causes of this defeat and take remedial action. At the very least our pulpits, parishes and publications should be ringing with the answers and corrective perspectives that should have been given during the debate.

Lack of Qualified Speakers

The most obvious question is why did we not have speakers who were better able to defend the Church from intellectual principle? Let us add immediately that no personal criticism is intended here towards Miss Widdecombe or Archbishop Onaiyekan, who at least had the courage to go into the lion's den and did their best to speak up for Christ with passion and sincerity in very challenging circumstances. May God bless them for their efforts.

However, we needed at least one speaker who could explain in a rigorous but popular way the objective basis of the Church's teaching, constitution and ministry, and properly analyse its salvific effects on human culture over the last two millennia. We needed someone who could answer off the cuff the detailed attacks made on Church history and policy: opposition to the use of condoms to combat AIDS, magisterial teaching about homosexuality; the Church's historical attitude to slavery, involvement in the crusades, relations with the Jewish people; someone who could properly confront and contextualise the evil actions of some members of the Church - in Ireland or Rwanda, for example.

Many might hesitate before responding to such a call. It would seem that many did. With so much negative publicity at the moment, perhaps they thought it best to keep their heads down until the storm passes; but is that the way of the Gospel? In any case, the task was not impossible. It would have been easy enough to predict that these issues would be raised. Given the profile and the foreseeable impact of the event, and given the quality of the opposing speakers, we may ask, were the Catholic parties who did volunteer to stand up for Christ in public given any support, coaching or preparation before the event? If not, why not?

We understand that the organisers of the debate did invite the Archbishop of Westminster, who was unable to make it, but was there really no one else of standing, lay or clerical, in the English church who could have done the job? Who do we have who can defend the Church in a calm and articulate manner on these issues? Perhaps Charles Moore, John Haldane or Ian Ker. We could actually suggest a number of others, perhaps of lesser prominence, but all with the necessary skills, we think.

The fact that there seem to be so few Catholics in our country willing and capable of defending the Church articulately on these issues is a tragic symptom of the crisis we are in. Moreover, where is the Catholic literature to back up the answers and provide the material for the debate? These are not radically new questions. They have been around for decades, some of them for centuries! Now they run largely unanswered and unchecked in the popular media. What precious little is left of Christian belief and values in our society is rapidly being eroded. Even the least educated of people in our pews are aware of these criticisms, but few have heard any answers. It would seem that the long-standing anti-intellectual culture within the local Church has left us unable to counter the attack of amilitant atheist and a bien pensant gay-rights protagonist.

Misinformation and Misunderstanding Unchallenged

The Catholic speakers gave no clear account of the nature and mission of the Church and they were, for the most part, unable to counter the articulate objections and selective propaganda thrown down by the opposition. Hitchens and Fry got away with presenting a patchwork of prejudices and common misconceptions that effectively linked Catholic teaching on sexual morality with sex abuse scandals, claiming that the Church is "obsessed with sex", then attributing it all to the Catholic claim to infallibility. This claim was caricatured and falsified as the Church thinking it is "the only owner of the truth." This is the fairly typical conflation of issues, ignorance, misrepresentation and non-sequitur argumentation that we have come to expect from anti-religious propagandists. It is allanswerable with skill, care, training and presence of mind.

They suggested that sexual abuse by some clergy and the Church's "betrayal [...] of millions of AIDS sufferers in Africa" both flowed from the Catholic Church's "unnatural" approach to sexuality. Fry asserted that "celibacy is simply not normal and natural today". He compared the effects of the Church's supposed "obsession with sex" to the swinging between extremes of those with eating disorders. Celibacy, he suggested, was a form of affective anorexia which creates an equally disordered bulimic type reaction that has directly contributed to cases of child abuse. Again this conflation of issues can be refuted with an informed knowledge of psychology and the facts of the matter. The fact that it was not, leaves a widespread, damaging and uncritical perception unchecked and even more deeplyconfirmed - and our massively anti-life culture's own demonstrable obsession with sex unchallenged.

On the subject of AIDS and the use of condoms, he accused the Pope of perpetuating a lie. "And it is a lie" he insisted with great emphasis and patrician tone, to say that condoms contribute to the AIDS problem rather than helping to prevent it. The point that, among others, the AIDS Professor of Harvard University, not a Catholic, supports the Pope's view is well documented, although little publicised outside Catholic circles. This would have been a perfect opportunity to highlight the fact and explain the reasons. Stephen Fry, who claimed to be a believer in the Enlightenment and a "seeker of moral truth", could have been challenged to withdraw his slanderous calumny in the light of the actual evidence, however counter intuitive it may be to his prejudices. Sadly the opportunity wasmissed during the debate, but the continuing silence of others in the face of this public accusation against the Magisterium is even more disturbing. One can only conclude that those in authority simply do not accept the importance and widespread impact of the event.

Fry then made a number of historical claims designed to undermine the credibility of Catholicism through the ages. He said that Galileo was tortured. There is no historical evidence that this is true. Indeed there are many witnesses that it is not. The details and significance of the Galileo case have been discussed elsewhere (see below), but false claims like this should have been exposed.

He also accused St. Thomas More of personally putting people "on the rack" for reading the Bible in English, showing the desperation of the Church to maintain a monopoly over truth. It is interesting that Fry, who is Jewish of German extraction and an atheist, draws on the standard anti-Catholic propaganda of the English Reformation (Fox's book of Martyrs) to build his case. It seems that any "evidence", no matter how unreliable as history, will do as long as it can be made to count against the Catholic Church. The accusation of torture was made even during More's life-time in an effort to discredit him, but he vigorously protested that any one questioned in his custody never suffered so much as "a flip on the head". No supposed victim ever came forward to confirm the accusation, evenamong his worst enemies.

Again the questionable facts and the blatant prejudice could have been exposed. This would have been important because based on his TV appearances Fry is popularly perceived as an encyclopaedic authority on factual misconceptions and debunking urban myths. The tables could have been turned on him, undermining his own credibility at several points.

Lack of Reasoned Arguments and Clear Answers

In the event, the central thrust of the opposition argument was left unanswered. The Bishop's main case was simply that there were a large number of Catholics who couldn't be all wrong. He mentioned the Church's work in helping the poor and those with AIDS, for example. Ann Widdecombe briefly acknowledged the pain and horror of recent scandals, conceded historic failures and then pointed out that the Church is so much more than its sexual teaching. She bravely tried to make a case that the Church's charitable work and her central message of spiritual salvation outweighs any other considerations.

It was unclear from her input whether the Church's message, particularly on controversial moral issues, can be grounded in reason or not. Given the nature of the attack from Hitchens, this was an important point to miss. Stephen Fry compared her approach to the thief in the dock who says "please ignore that robbery, and the other breaking and entering, my Lord, because I annually give a present to my father". This is not in any way to impugn Miss Widdecombe's faith, but she is not a theologian, and when the attack is intellectual it is necessary to fight fire with fire. Those who sat on their hands while she at least attempted to speak up for the Church she loves are the ones who should examine their consciences.

Neither Catholic speaker critiqued atheist philosophies and the dehumanising consequences they engender, the loss of freedom, hope and social cohesion, and the violence that often characterises not just Marxist atheism but humanist secularism, as in the French Revolution, for example. The Church was not presented as the liberator from ignorance, proclaimer of the truth, and minister of grace that rescued Europe from barbarism, building our systems of justice, education and care for the sick over a thousand years, and so on. Given all of this, it is no surprise that the motion was defeated so convincingly.

However, it is no good going over missed opportunities after the event unless we learn from the debacle.

Voices of Dissent and Despair

Some Catholics might say that the real reason for the poverty of apologetic resources and apparent lack of energy within the ranks to defend the Church's position is simply that the official teaching on some moral questions highlighted by Fry and Hitchens are not actually tenable. Needless to say we disagree. That is nothing but capitulation to the world and loss of faith in the power of Christ to teach through the ages in his Church. However, we do think that the prominence given to such dissenting opinions within the Church is itself an exacerbating cause of the crisis.

Andrew Brown, a Catholic journalist for the Daily Telegraph, suggested on his blog that the Catholic speakers should have gone further than Ann Widdecombe did and "own[ed] up to some of the charges" to avoid being "humiliated". How many other Catholics, prominent or otherwise, agree with Brown and how might they have voted in the debate?

What dissenters in the Church often fail to understand is that, while secular intellectuals may use them to help erode popular support for Christianity, they do not respect them at all. The secularist intelligentsia routinely assume that anyone who truly uses their intellect must realise that the whole religious enterprise is childish superstition in the first place. To be a Christian doctrinal and moral relativist is, in their estimation, merely a staging post towards true "enlightenment" as a full blown secular atheist. They see them at best as stool pigeons for furthering their own agenda, at worst as woolly minded hypocrites who lack the courage to follow the rigorous path of "reason". Certainly the drip feed of dissent from Church teachings in high places lends credence to theperception, especially among the young, that Catholicism as historically understood and lived is a busted flush.

The gay campaigner Peter Tatchell, for example, predictably praised the Bishop of Killaloe for calling on the Church to drop its objection to homosexual activity, along with other moral teachings. In fact the likes of Tatchell want to go far beyond tolerance and acceptance. They want, and are rapidly achieving, a complete rewriting of the meaning of sexual activity altogether, the full consequences of which may prove to be a shocking and somewhat bitter irony. The first few pages of Brave New World are worth re-reading in the light of recent UK Government policy.

Already, last September in the Guardian newspaper and on a Radio 4 discussion programme Tatchell has called for the appropriateness of any sexual relationship to be judged on a purely individual basis, effectively calling for the abolition of any fixed age of consent, ( commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/sep/24/sex-under-16-underage). This is, in fact, the logical drift of the view that sex is just the expression of love divorced from any procreative or familial meaning, coupled with a general relativism of moral principle. The only way to avoid arriving at the final, shocking conclusion to that argument is to reassert the principle that informs Humanae Vitae and the whole tradition of the Church'steachings on the sixth and ninth commandments.

The Need for Clear Vision as well as Courage

Of course, it takes courage and clarity of mind to argue these things in public against the weight of public opinion and misinformation. Courage we must pray for, but clarity of vision must be taught, pondered, grasped and communicated. The argument cannot be won except against the background of a complete and cogent apologetic for the existence of God, the spirituality of man, the necessity of revelation, the literal truth of the Incarnation, and the nature of the Church that flows from this fact of Divine teaching and ministry through the ages. The whole vision must be underpinned with the philosophical re-vindication of objectivity in nature and of the Transcendent as the greater reality within which all that is immanent unfolds - or to put it as St. Paul did to the sceptical andsophisticated intellectuals of Athens: "In Him we live and move and have our being".

It can be done. The tools are to hand. Often over the last few decades we have been told that the apologetic approach to catechesis is outdated and pastorally irrelevant, of purely academic interest. Surely, now, it must be devastatingly obvious that it is in fact most urgently needed. Without it, our people are lambs to the slaughter.

We do not know all the background to the organization and planning of the Intelligence Squared debate. What we do know is that this potential watershed for the perception of Catholicism in modern Britain and beyond was allowed to go ahead with speakers wholly inadequate to the task.

The Church on the ground is left looking as if it is quite unable to respond to the cultural car-wreck that is Western society and the increasing ferocity of its anti-Catholic bias. The situation impresses upon us, yet again, that the roots of our crisis are more of the intellect than of the will. The prophecy made by Cardinal Newman a hundred and sixty years ago is now being all too painfully fulfilled:

"The assailants of dogmatic truth have got the start of its adherents of whatever Creed; philosophy is completing what criticism has begun; and apprehensions are not unreasonably excited lest we should have a new world to conquer before we have weapons for the warfare." (Introduction to The Development of Christian Doctrine)

The specific attacks on the Church could and should have been rebuffed, but there is a more fundamental project that we must all undertake. We need to sharpen the intellectual "weapons for the warfare" against the "assailants of dogmatic truth". This was the real context and spirit of the London debate.

An Intelligent Response to an Intellectual Crisis

A recent letter to the Catholic Herald pointed out that there was a debate on the exact same motion in Paris in 1830, which was also carried against the Church. Yet one good that was drawn out of this evil was that it prompted Frederick Ozanam, who had been present at the debate, to do something positive to bear witness to authentic Catholic action. As a result he started the St Vincent de Paul Society. Even humiliation and defeat can bear fruit in self examination and renewed effort.

We pray that this latest victory for the forces of unbelief will lead to an equally appropriate and fruitful response to God's grace, which must surely be offered in such desperate times. What we need is a coalition of faithful Catholic minds infused with an orthodox and contemporary vision of the Catholic faith, which they can articulate rationally and convincingly in the face of aggressive secularist propaganda.

If the challenge were simply criticism of ourselves in this generation as poor witnesses to the Gospel, excoriating us for failing to live as credible disciples of the standards of goodness we proclaim, then our response should be one of penance, redoubled prayer and renewal as servants of charity in the world. There is, no doubt, need for this too. But the attack is on the Church; on her impact throughout history, on the credibility, relevance, the social outcome and the actual veracity of her teaching. As such it is an attack on Christ.

As never before we need a new witness to the Wisdom Incarnate in Jesus Christ. We must be able to give an account of Catholicism that synthesises the fullness of truth revealed in him and the discoveries made about the world through science. We must be able to offer and argue confidently for a vision of life, love and, yes, the universe that re-vindicates Christ as the answer to the question that is Man.

O Word made Flesh, your Sacred Head is the seat of divine and human Wisdom. You are the Light who has come into the world to enlighten all peoples, a Light the darkness cannot overcome. We beg you, let your Wisdom so illuminate our understanding that we may proclaim You to our world with renewed confidence as the Way, the Truth and the Life through your holy Catholic Church in communion with the successor of St. Peter, who said: "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life".


Humility does not prevent us pointing out that Faith has published numerous articles over recent years which have addressed in detail many of the attacks levelled against the Church in the debate. Below we offer a sample list, in reverse chronological order, with a summary of the main relevant theme of each article in italics. Such material would have been useful in the debate and is still of value in the aftermath or in similar circumstances.

Over the years we have carried many similar articles answering objections to Catholic teaching and exposing the emptiness of relativist thinking in doctrine or morals. Nonetheless, the main thrust of this magazine has always been to offer a positive and constructive synthesis of faith and reason, religion and science through which we may re-evangelise the modern world.

Recent Relevant Articles Key Points

Christian Roots of Modern Society Christian factors in rise of science and democracy in western society July-Aug 2009 (see also our Road from Regensburg column, and Peter Hodgson articles in recent years)

The Failure of Secular Humanism The Catholic Church is the holistic alternative to the visions that are breaking down human civility. Nov-Dec 2007 (numerous articles)

Meditation on Church as a "force for good" "Fighting Slavery through the Sacrifice of Christ"
Jul-Aug 2007

Infallibility of the Church The Magisterium is a profoundly rational and Christian concept.
July-Aug 2006

Specific Issues

AIDS and Condoms Formally giving out condoms is to become party to the basic problem which is promiscuity, thus making overall problem worse. Uganda which has prioritised the promotion of abstinence, has been successful, in contrast to those that don't. May-June 2009 See also review of "The Case for Condoms" Mar-Apr 09

The Role of Women Fashionable feminism has been mainly very bad for women and men. The Church's vision is at the heart of a healthy approach today. Mar-Apr 2009, (two relevant articles). See also July 2009 (on modernity) March 2009 (on husband & wife) and May 2008 (on fatherhood)

The Sinful Priest The Church has always recognised the tragic presence of sin in its midst - but this does not annul the "faithfulness of Christ" in the Church as the source of hope in civilization.
Nov-Dec 2008

The Slave Trade The papal magisterium consistently condemned it from the very beginning, despite high profile opposition inside and outside the Church. July-Aug 2007

Priestly Abuse Some insights into its causes and contexts: Review of 'After Asceticism'
Jan-Feb 2008

Teenagers and Contraception The government's perennial "more of the same" policy makes things even worse. July-Aug 2007

The Inquisition The real sins of some human individuals, sometimes with a certain authority in the Church, need proper contextualization Jan-Feb 2007

The Crusades Some were in principle justified. May-June 2006

Sex The Church has a beautiful and profoundly rational approach to sex. The separation of sex from procreation has been disastrous for our civilization. Mar-Apr 2006 (several articles)

Homosexuality We do not define people by the sexual tendencies and temptations they experience. Nov-Dec 2003

Our pastoral column The Truth Will Set You Free is also dedicated to exploring the practical application of sometimes controversial Church teachings. Past issues and articles can be reviewed on our magazine contents page. See also our latest range of pamphlets.

Faith Magazine