The one billion plus Catholics in the world would presumably say “yes”- but what about the rest of the world?
Is the Catholic Church a force for good?
That was the motion for an Intelligence Squared debate , held recently in London, which was broadcast on BBC World News last weekend.
Arguing in favour of the motion the Archbishop of Abuja, John Onaiyekan, and Anne Widdecombe, a Catholic convert and former British Conservative Minister, had their work cut out.
A poll of the audience on their way into the debate was, as Anne Widdecombe put it, ‘slightly discouraging’. 1102 people said they were against the motion, 678 were in favour and 346 were undecided.
Could she and the Archbishop swing enough of the anti’s their way to win the debate?
Their adversaries – Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry – didn’t pull their punches. The crusades, the inquisition, the Church’s history of anti-Semitism all got a mention.
Their more up-to-date charge sheet included the child abuse scandals and the Church’s failure early on to report the perpetrators to the authorities; the categorisation of homosexual sex as a ‘moral evil’; and the fact that the Church teaches that condoms are wrong.
Christopher Hitchens , with the Archbishop in his sights, argued that the latter policy had hindered the fight to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa:
“I say it in the presence of His Grace and I say it to his face. The preachings of his church are responsible for the death and suffering and misery of millions of his brother and sister Africans, and he should apologise for it, he should show some shame.”
In response, Anne Widdecombe quoted a non-Catholic, Dr Edward Green of the Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies: “Twenty years into the pandemic there is no evidence that more condoms leads to less AIDS. We’re simply not seeing what we expected.”
She and the Archbishop cited the billions of dollars spent on the poor by Catholic charities; the fact that it championed the oppressed; that Catholics had been prominent in their opposition to the Nazis; and that the Vatican had apologised for and learnt from the mistakes of the past.
The Church they argued gave more than a billion Catholics in the world a message of hope and salvation and a set of moral absolutes that equipped them to make a positive contribution to society.
“If I didn’t believe that the Catholic Church is a force for good,” said the Archbishop, “ I would not devote my whole life to working in that institution.”
The debate did change a lot of minds. When the audience was polled again at the end more than 700 people voted differently.
To find out how, watch BBC World News this coming weekend. And because we think it’s important to get a world view tell us what you think about the modern Catholic Church in a special World Have Your Say on Friday 13th November.
Trailer here .