Who was asked to defend the Church against Hitchens and Fry?
Catholics in this country continue to be troubled by the intensity and forcefulness of the anger directed towards the Church at the Intelligence Squared debate “The Catholic Church is a force for Good” held at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster some weeks ago. The debate was disastrous for the Catholic side, despite valiant efforts from both the MP Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria.
One question I keep hearing from Catholics who were there was: “Could they find no one else to defend the Church?”
Fr Dermot Power, former chaplain to St Mary’s Ascot and spiritual director at the Allen Hall seminary was “deeply disturbed by the fact that Archbishop Onaiyekan was so unprotected in the face of relentless innuendo and personal and sometimes cruel, attack in a cultural milieu of which he would have prior knowledge or experience”.
Writing in the Tablet, Fr Power said: “Subsequently I have heard from a high-ranking cleric that the bishops’ conference [of England and Wales] had been invited to take part in the debate. They apparently declined because they knew it would be a full frontal and polemic attack on the Church.”
A quick phone call to Hannah Kaye at Intelligence Squared cleared that point. She said that the organisers had not asked the bishops’ conference. So who did they ask?
Nick Pisani–the former BBC Question Time editor and one of the brains behind Intelligence Squared–had done the inviting, Kaye said. While Kaye couldn’t remember all the people that Pisani had invited onto the panel defending the Church position, she said that they included Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Cherie Blair and George Weigel, who all declined.
The organisers invited Archbishop Onaiyekan after Pisani met him in Abuja and thought that the archbishop would be a good person to have on the panel. He was considered especially appropriate because the debate will be broadcast to the developing world (see below). They asked Miss Widdecombe because they needed a woman on the panel.
One of our readers wrote the following letter, suggesting that losing the debate could serve as a source of inspiration for Catholics.
Losing the debate could inspire Catholics to be a force for good
From Mr Christopher Koe
SIR– “Is the Church a force for good?” (Report, October 23). This was precisely the motion debated at the university in Paris in the early 1830s, which was also defeated.
Among those present was one Frédéric Ozanam, a law student. He thought he ought to do something about it. But he was unsuccessful until he met a Daughter of Charity of St Vincent de Paul who invited Frédéric to join her at her soup kitchen. The result was the founding of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP). The SVP’s motto is that “no work of charity shall be foreign to the society”.
Vincentians, as we are known, are simply men and women who are trying to be Christians, (ie a “force for good”); to be a Christian you have to do your very best to follow Christ; that means “love one another as I have loved you”, even if it costs you your life. Maybe the Church that Mr Fry knows is not a force for good; perhaps he has never met the SVP, although all the brother and sister Vincentians that I have met would readily admit that we are failures – we fail to love “as Christ has loved us”.
Is there not a Catholic among Mr Fry’s or Mr Hitchens’s circle who could invite them to come and see the good works that are being done in every parish and all over the world?