A London public debate eighteen months ago considered the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. That was some time back, but some observations by Bart in his post this morning (“Caught in the Crossfire”) reminded me of it, and I went to the reports at the time. (Proposing the motion were Archbishop Onaiyekan (of Abuja, Nigeria) and Ann Widdecombe, opposed by Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.
The fascinating thing to me was not the result of the vote, which will have been influenced by the composition of the audience, or even the the extent to which those present were persuaded to change their views, although that was dramatic enough. Before the debate, votes for the motion were 678, against 1102 and “Don’t know”, 346. Afterwards, this changed to only 268 in favour, . 1876 against, and Don’t know just 34. After hearing the speakers, the number of people in the audience supporting the motion dropped by nearly two thirds, and those opposing the motion increased by 774. This is remarkable, but reflects the skills of the speakers, not necessarily the merits of the case.
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.
No, this is what was jaw-dropping, as reported by Brown:
Then they talked about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. When Zeinab Badawi in the chair asked the archbishop whether Christ himself ever actually said anything about homosexuality, he replied by saying “that’s not the point” or words to that effect, and sounded slippery.
That might not be the point to the Archbishop, but it most certainly is to gay men themselves. Is anybody surprised that many LGBT people refuse to take seriously a church that claims to be promoting Christianity, but declares that the words of Christ himself are “not the point”?
“Reluctant Sinner” lambasted me at his blog last month for not having criticised the “Hunky Jesus” competition (which Bart referred to in his post, and which saddens us both). As I see it though, simply criticizing them will not achieve anything at all. The only way to counter the hostility to religion by some people in the queer community is not to attack them, but to counter their disaffection by showing them that there is indeed a valued place for all in faith, and that the practice of faith can bring great spiritual riches and blessings to their lives.