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Christopher Hitchens’ Opening: Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the world?

Well, Your Grace, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, and Zainab, who paid me a compliment on my shirt before we came on tonight, which is something I almost never experience. So, I was able to return the compliment by pointing to hers, which you are feasting your eyes on now, and saying that I once saw Norman Sinjin Stevens, now Lord Stephen, wearing a shirt just like that on television. He was asked by his interviewer, “Gosh, what a lovely shirt! Where did you get it?” Lord Stephen replied, “Do you really like it?” He said, “I call it sort of crushed cardinal.” In the spirit of fraternity, which I’m sure will inform this entire soiree, I might add that the mere existence of Lord C. Versafoli is testimony to the breadth of the church.

Now, I’m sorry to have to begin by disagreeing with His Grace. If you’re going to be a serious, grown-up person and appear to defend the Catholic Church in public, in front of an educated and literate audience, you simply have to start by making a great number of heartfelt apologies and requests for contrition and forgiveness. You might ask, “Who am I to say that?” Well, in the Jubilee Millennium year of 2000, the Vatican spokesman, Bishop Piorlo Marini, said, explaining a whole sermon of apology given by His Holiness the Pope that was supposed to cover the entire history of the church in its Jubilee year, that, “Given the number of sins we’ve committed in the course of 20th centuries, reference to them must necessarily be rather summary.” When I think Bishop Marini had that just about right, I’ll have to be summary too. But I think he said just about the least of it. His Holiness, on that occasion, March 12th, 2000, if you wish to look it up, begged forgiveness for, among some other things, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jewish people, injustice towards women (that’s half the human race right there), and the forced conversion of indigenous peoples, especially in South America.

That followed a whole series of preceding apologies, or apologies, I would say, of a kind, made by the late Pope John Paul, who, it troubles me not at all to say, was a very impressive and serious human being. It followed no less than 94 public recognitions on his part of appalling crime and error and cruelty and stupidity and offences to the free intelligence, ranging from the African slave trade apologized for in 1995, the admission that Galileo was right about the relationship between the Sun and the Earth and other orbs, which came in 1992 (one might add, “better late than never” here), said it to violence and torture. Legalized torture was legalized and institutionalized by the Roman pontiff during the counter-reformation, that came in 1995. For silence during Hitler’s final solution or shower, as well as in 1999, coming in just under the Millennium Jubilee wire, an apology for the burning alive in the main square of Prague of the great Czech Protestant Janhurst.

Since that big fiesta of forgiveness that began in, well, culminated, I might say, in 2000, the papacy has also asked to be forgiven for the sack of Constantinople and the massacre of Byzantine Christianity in April 1204. As part of The Fourth Crusade, the anathema on all Eastern Orthodox Christians as unbelievers, heretics, and people dwelling outside the health of the church was lifted only in 1964. I call your attention to that. He also expressed sorrow about the murder and forced conversion of Serbian Orthodox Christians in the Balkans during the Second World War. And it doesn’t end there. There are smaller but significant, equally significant, vowels of a very bad conscience. These have included regret for the rape and torture of orphans and other children in church-run schools in almost every country on Earth, from Ireland to Australia. And I’m pleased to see that reconsideration is now being given, and may, in fact, have been given to the hellish (I’ll choose the word carefully) doctrine of limbo. Saint Augustine’s cruel and stupid disposal problem solution to a non-existent problem, that is to say, the destination of the souls of unbaptized children. Up until now, Catholic parents have been taught that’s where their unbaptized children went, a form of torture that’s sometimes worse than the physical. Now, it seems that this piece of Augustinian sadism is undergoing reconsideration as well.

But remember, this is from a church that, on the whole, Canada, we should wait for a more directed mission. For example, I give some suggestions of my own. While we’re at it, I would like them to take back the Concordia made with Adolf Hitler, the first treaty he ever signed, giving the church a monopoly over education in Germany in exchange for the dissolution of the Catholic Center party to give the Nazi party a clear run. I’d apologize for the latter and pact with Mussolini myself, also the first treaty ever signed by that fascist dictator. I would also think I’d want to reconsider the fact that Father Tizo, head of the Nazi puppet state in Slovakia, was a priest in early orders, that the Croatian fascist puppet state, the Australian state of anti-devilish, was also operating under full clerical protection and disguise, as was the regime of General Franco and the dictator Antonio Salazar. And I’d also want, I really think I would beg forgiveness for this, I don’t think the German church should have asked Hitler’s birthday to be celebrated from the pulpit every year until he died. These are very serious matters, and they’re not to be laughed off by references to the occasional work of Catholic Charities. But I draw your attention not just to the apologies, ladies and gentlemen, but to the evasive and euphemistic form that they take. Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope considered by some Catholics to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth, says of Indians who have been massacred in the course of conversion in Brazil after the apology had been made to them, he said, “Nonetheless, it must be remembered that before we came to convert them, they were silently awaiting the arrival of the church.” I don’t think that’s a very genuine kind of apology to you. In his comment, one of the few he’s made on the institutionalization of rape and torture and maltreatment of children in Catholic institutions, he said, “It’s a very severe crisis which involves us,” he said, “in the following, in the need for applying to these victims the most loving pastoral care.” Well, I’m sorry, they’ve already had that, and to say that this is the responsibility laid upon you by the horrific admission that you’ve already had to make is not accepting responsibility in any adult sense.

When I say child abuse was institutional, how dare I say so? How can I prove it? Well, I’ll ask his grace and Anne Whitakam, where is Cardinal Bernard Law now? Where is he? Where is the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, whose resignation was indignantly demanded finally by 50 members of the church and by the whole laity of Massachusetts, who also demanded his prosecution for the promotion and protection and covering up and apology for and defence of people whose crimes against children are too revolting to specify? And he’s not in the jurisdiction of Massachusetts now. As perhaps you know, he’s the Supreme Vicar of the Church of Santa Maria Marjorie in Rome, personally appointed by the pope to that, as well as many other important synecdoches. And in 2005, this man, a fugitive from justice and from complicity in the filthiest crime that it’s possible for a human being to imagine, was one of those voting in conclave to decide who the next speaker of Christ on Earth will be. I don’t know, I think I’d like to hear a bit more shame about this. I think I’d like to see a bit more confrontation with the reality of the business. Now, this is a serious question, as I’ve said, and Widow can very often rightly, in my opinion, attack the climate of moral relativism and anything goes that can very well be the handmaiden of post-modernist hedonistic culture. I’m glad that she points these things out, but the rape and torture of children is not something to be relativized. It’s not something to be excused as a few bad priests. It’s certainly not to be excused by the hideously false claim made by some Catholic conservatives that this wouldn’t have happened if queers hadn’t been allowed into the church. Sorry to say that queered him in the church is an old story too, and it’s worse. It’s much worse than pornography, and it’s much worse than bad language on TV, and it’s the crime that cries out for punishment. It’s the thing that, if we were accused of on this side of the house, we would die rather than admit it, and if we were guilty of it, we’d kill ourselves.

And it is the one thing the church has decided to excuse itself for under this papacy. The same euphemism comes in the term “some Christians,” which is used in all the apologies about the Crusades, the inquisitions, the anti-Semitic pogroms, and all the rest of it. They said some Christians fell into error, some Christians allowed themselves to be deceived in this way and to act against the gospel. Well, anti-Semitism was preached as an official doctrine of the church until 1964. Do you think that might have something to do with public opinion in Austria, Bavaria, Poland, and Lithuania that the Jewish people were accused collectively as a people of deicide, of the crime of the murder of God in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and that that anathema on them was not lifted until ’64, well after the perpetrators of the Holocaust had stood trial in secular courts and been rightly punished for their actions? How can this church say it has any moral superiority? It has difficulty catching up to what ordinary people regard as common moral and ethical sense, and it still can’t make itself apologise properly. And I’ll tell you why. Because, and I’ll quote again from the encyclicals, it is said of the Crusades, of the complicity with the Holocaust, of the political and diplomatic alliance with fascism, of all of these things, it is said, “Well, violence was committed, but I’ll stress this, I’ll underline it, I’ll quote directly, in the service of the truth.” So how is an apology possible? How is any understanding or undertaking or firm purpose of amendment to be allowed when the original sin, so to say, the radix malorum, the fons et origo, the problem in the first place, is the belief on the part of this church that it does possess a truth that we don’t have, and it does have a god-given right, a warrant, a mandate of heaven to tell other people what to do, not just in their public but in their private lives? And until that has changed, until that fantastic and sinister and non-founded claim is changed, these crimes will go on repeating themselves, being partially denied, partially admitted when it’s too late to do anything else, and covered up behind all these crimes and miseries is the denial of what we on this side of the house affirm, which is that the only little candle of hope that our species does possess is our poor, bare-fought primate mammalian species, of whom you have two such splendid examples on this side of the house, and not bad on the other tonight. It is the unfettered intelligence, the method of free inquiry and philosophy and in science, and the refusal to admit that any one person can tell you not to do that. It’s the one thing I might say I think is, if not sacrosanct or sacred, is, shall we say, essential, and the church has always stood and still stands against it. Now, in the little time remaining to me, I’ll just propose a few more apologies that we might hope to hear in the immediate future because it will come a time when the church will issue apologies and explanations and half-baked appeals for forgiveness for things it’s still doing. The readmission as a bishop of Roger Williamson, a member of Marcel Lefevre’s fanatical, hysterical breakaway sect, the so-called Society of Saint Pius X. Roger Williamson, found hiding in a reactionary, quasi-fascistic establishment in Argentina, has long been a believer that, I’ll put this shortly, that the Holocaust did not occur, but the Jews did kill Christ. In other words, genocide, no. Deicide, yes. He was quite rightly excommunicated some years ago, along with several other members of his rap bag organization, but Joseph Ratzik has invited him back into the communion because to him, having this man, this liar, this fraud, this racist in the church is more important because it’s church unity than the things that he said and done and continues to stand for. Is this not a crying scandal? I think that there will be an apology for what happened in Rwanda, the most Catholic country in Africa, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, where priests and nuns and bishops are on trial for inciting from their pulpits and on the church’s radio stations and newspapers the massacre of their brothers and sisters, and the papacy was silent on this appalling occasion.

Everyone in Rwanda knows it, and there hasn’t yet been a properly written apology for that disgrace. Staying in Africa, I think it will one day be admitted with shame that it might have been in error to say that AIDS is as bad as a disease. It’s very bad, but not quite as bad as condoms are bad or as immoral in the same way. I say in the presence of His Grace and I say it to his face: the preachings of his church are responsible for the death, suffering, and misery of millions of his brother and sister Africans, and he should apologize for it. He should show some shame for condemning my friend Stephen Fry for his nature. If I say, ‘For saying you couldn’t be a member of our church, you’re born in sin,’ there’s a revolting piece of Casio Street that’s sometimes offered on this point. Yeah, we hate the sin, only we love the sinner. Stephen is, I’m sorry to say, not quite like other girls. It’s his nature. Actually, he is like other girls in that he’s, when I last checked, absolutely boy mad. He’s not being condemned for what he does; he’s being condemned for what he is. ‘You’re a child made in the image of God.’ Oh no, you’re not. You’re a… and you can’t join your church, and you can’t go to heaven. This is disgraceful, inhuman, and obscene, and it comes from a clutch of hysterical, sinister virgins who’ve already betrayed their charge in the children of their own church. For shame, for shame. And finally, under this Pope, as if it wasn’t bad enough to try and restore the Latin Mass to gratify the mad, fascistic followers of Archbishop Lefevre, but to begin again to offer remission of sin as Colonel as Bishop Rat Singer, the Pope (I’ll call him the Pope for the sake of argument) wants to do. If you come to a Catholic Youth Festival in Sydney, Australia, where I just was, you’ll get a certain remission from purgatory or hell. It may be temporary. If you come a lot and you give a lot, you’ll get possibly permanent remission from the eternal punishment that they don’t know any more about than I do. This is the sale of indulgences, blatantly and openly. It’s the same temptation that was offered to those who set off on that Fourth Crusade that’s just been apologized for and killed all the Jews of Europe on their way. Sat Bismarck Christianity when they got to Constantinople and then went on to massacre the Arabs and Muslims. They were offered paradise if they died committing these terrible crimes against humanity. But the, if you see what I mean, therefore the stimulus, it’s a crime. The impetus to crime, the belief in certainty, the belief that a divine warrant entails you to do whatever you like is the sin that must be canceled. There must be an apology that must somehow be made. Now, I don’t wish any ill on any fellow primate or mammal of mine, even if this primatal mammal claims to be a prime age in possession of a secret that’s denied to me. I can forgive even that because I live in a country where their reign doesn’t run, their writ doesn’t apply, and they can’t burn me and silence me in the sense of me or anyone. They can tell my wife she can’t use contraception or anyone. They can really tell Stephen that he’s a beast. So, I’m not at all looking forward to the death of Joseph Ratzinger or any other Pope, not really, except for one tiny reason which I ought to confess and share with you. When he dies, there’s quite a long interval till the conclave can meet. Maybe Cardinal Law will still be on it, so pick another Pope. Sometimes it goes on for months till they get the white smoke, and for that whole time, that whole interval, it’s a delicious, lucid interlude. There isn’t anyone on Earth who claims to be infallible. Isn’t that nice? All I think all I want to propose in closing is this: if the human species is to rise to the full height that’s demanded by its dignity and by its intelligence, we must all of us move to a state of affairs where that condition is permanent. And I think we should get on with it. Okay, thank you for having me.

Stephen Fry’s Opening: Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the world?

As Gwendolyn remarked in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” when it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind, it becomes a pleasure. This is one such occasion. With my trusty Hitch by my side, I am very proud to be here, but also very nervous. I’d be nervous all day, and the reason I’d be nervous is quite simple, and that is that this motion matters to me. It matters to me greatly. It’s not a joke, it’s not a game, it’s not just a debate. I genuinely believe that the Catholic Church is not, to put it at its mildest, a force for good in the world. Therefore, it is important for me to try and marshal my facts as well as I can to explain why I think that. But I want, first of all, to say that I have no quarrel, no argument, and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of that church. They are welcome to their sacraments, to their reliquaries, and to their Blessed Virgin Mary. They’re welcome to their faith, to the importance they place in it, to the comfort and the joy that they receive from it. All of that is absolutely fine by me. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That, to me, is sacrosanct, as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or any faith in the world. It’s very important. It’s also very important to me, as it happens, that I have my own beliefs, and they are a belief in the Enlightenment. They’re a belief in the eternal adventure of trying to discover moral truth in the world. “Discover” is a terribly important word to which we might return. It’s a fight, it’s an empirical fight, it’s one that was begun in the middle of the last millennium. It’s given the name the Enlightenment, and there is nothing, sadly, that the Catholic Church and its hierarchs like to do more than to attack the Enlightenment. It did so at the time reference was made to Galileo and the fact that he was tortured for trying to explain the Copernican theory of the universe. That’s history. History, as Miss Whiticam has reminded us, is irrelevant. It’s not important. All that matters now is that billions of pounds go out of this extraordinary institution to relieve the poor around the world and make the world a better place. History is of no importance whatsoever. Well, I beg to differ. History winces and quivers and vibrates in all of us in this hall, in this square mile. Let’s think about this square mile. I’ll come back to it in a moment, but first, Christopher made mention of limbo. It seems so tedious and so silly, one of those little casuistic games that Thomists and others play. Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo both proposed this extraordinary idea that babies who were unbaptized would not know heaven. They also proposed the idea of purgatory, which doesn’t exist in the Bible. There’s absolutely no evidence for it. However, what an extraordinary, brilliant coup to imagine such a thing as purgatory, that a soul needs to be prayed for in order to go to heaven, in order to turn left when he enters the aeroplane of heaven and get a first-class seat, that he needs to be prayed for. And for many hundreds, indeed over a thousand years, you’ll be amazed what generous terms those prayers came at. Sometimes as little or as two-thirds of a year’s salary could ensure that a dead loved one would go to heaven, and money could ensure that your baby, your dead child, your dead uncle, or your dead mother could go to heaven. And if you were rich enough, you could have a chantry built, and monks would permanently sing prayers so that that existence in heaven for the child would go up and up and up until they were at the table of the Lord themselves. Now, all this is in the past and is irrelevant. I concede to Anne Widicum how irrelevant it is, except for one thing. This church is founded on the principle of intercession. Only through the apostolic succession, only through the laying on of hands from this Galilean Carpenter whom we can all admire, only from the laying on of hands to his apostles, to Saint Peter, to the other bishops all the way down to everyone consecrated in this room. Anyone ordained here will know they have this extraordinary power to change the molecules of wine into blood, literally, to change the molecules of paste bread into flesh, literally, and to forgive the sins of the peasants and the poor whom they routinely exploit around the planet.

This church has a principle that only male priests can give salvation, which is not just a doctrinal fact but a dogma of the church. This dogma has been used to justify the atrocities committed by missionaries in South America, Africa, the Philippines, and other parts of the world. However, this sin is not unique to the Catholic Church, and other churches and cultures have also committed similar acts. The exploitation of the poor, vulnerable, and young is particularly concerning. While some priests may seem charming and worldly, the Catholic Church has a history of suppressing the poor and ignorant. For example, in this square mile alone, many people were burned for reading the Bible in English, and Thomas More, who tortured people for owning a Bible in their own language, was made a saint in the last century and the patron saint of politicians in the year 2000. The Catholic Church claims to disseminate the word of the Lord, but it is the only owner of the truth for the billions of uneducated and poor people it likes to boast about. The issue of child abuse is also concerning, and the current pope, Ratzinger, has made statements that hobbled women’s sexual freedom. As prefect of the congregation of the doctrine of the faith in 2003, Ratzinger ordered Catholic Bishops not to talk to the police or anyone else about the child abuse scandal on pain of ex-communication.

The Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ movement, Maciel de Goyardo, was protected from his own catalogue of child abuse, which is horrific and cannot be put on trial. “So close a friend of the Pope,” said Ratzinger, “when the allegations could no longer be denied.” Massiel was eventually sentenced to a life of prayer and penitence. Ratzinger described the whole affair, as well as that of Bernard Law of Boston, which my colleague also referred to, as causing suffering for the church and for him personally. He also said that the answer would be to stop homosexuals from being allowed into the church.

Now, it’s perhaps unfair of me as a gay man to moan about this enormous institution, which is the largest and most powerful church on Earth, with over a billion members, each one of whom is under strict instructions to believe the dogmas of the church but may wrestle with them personally. Of course, it’s a little hard for me to know that I am disordered or, again to quote Ratzinger, that I am guilty of a moral evil simply by fulfilling my sexual destiny as I see it. It’s hard for me to be told that I’m evil because I think of myself as someone who is filled with love, whose only purpose in life was to achieve love and to feel love for so much of nature and the world and for everything else. And, as anyone decent and of an education realizes, in order to achieve and receive love, it’s a struggle. It’s not one that needs a pope to tell you how to do it. It certainly isn’t one that needs a pope to tell you that you’re evil.

With six percent of all teenage suicides being related to bullying, we certainly don’t need the stigmatization and victimization that leads to playground bullying when people say you’re a disordered, morally evil individual. That’s not nice. It isn’t nice.

The kind of cruelty in Catholic education, the kind of child rape that went on systematically for so long, let’s imagine that we can overlook this and say it has nothing to do with the structure and nature of the Catholic church and the twisted and neurotic and hysterical way that its leaders are chosen, the celibacy, the nuns, the monks, the priesthood. This is not natural and normal, ladies and gentlemen, in 2009. It really isn’t. I’m sorry for me to be called a pervert by these extraordinarily sexually dysfunctional people. I don’t think human history has ever had more.

I have to say this is not a problem that necessarily is permanent. I like to believe that in 10 years’ time, I could come back and argue the opposite. Even though I’ve talked about the history and the structural problems of this benighted institution and the cruelty and the unpleasantness it has caused around the world, I have yet to approach one of the subjects dearest to my heart. I’ve made three documentary films on the subject of AIDS in Africa. My particular love is the country of Uganda. It is one of the countries I love most in the world. I’ve been there many times. I’ve interviewed Joseph to Euro in the ’70s and his wife Janet before, unfortunately, she suddenly saw God. There was a period when Uganda had the worst incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world. I went to Rakai, the village where it was first spotted, but through an amazing initiative called ABC (abstinence, be faithful, correct use of condoms), those three. I am not denying that abstinence is a very good way of not getting AIDS. It really is. It works. So does being faithful. But so do condoms, and I do not deny it.

This Pope, not satisfied with saying condoms are against our religion, spreads the lie that condoms actually increase the incidence of AIDS. He actually makes sure that AIDS is conditional on saying no to condoms. I have been to a hospital in Burundi in the west of Uganda where I do quite a lot of work. It is unbelievable the pain and suffering you see. Now, yes, it is true that abstinence will stop it. It’s the strange thing about this church. It is obsessed with sex, absolutely obsessed. Now, they will say they all say we, with our permissive society and our rude jokes, are obsessed. No, we have a healthy attitude. We like it. It’s fun. It’s jolly. Because it’s a primary impulse, it can be dangerous and dark and difficult. It’s a bit like food in that respect, I mean even more exciting. The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese, and that in erotic terms is the Catholic church in a nutshell.

So, all I want to say is that we’re here in the Methodist Hall. I’m not trying to argue against religion on this occasion. I’m not saying this, and I understand the desire of anybody to seek spiritual rewards in a complex and difficult-to-understand world. We don’t know why we’re here, or where we’re going, we want answers, we love the idea of answers. How marvellous it would be! But there are other choices. There are Quakers who could possibly quarrel with a Quaker with their pacifism, with their openness, with their ease, with their simplicity, their refusal to tell anybody what dogma is and what isn’t, even with Methodists. Also, I’m not saying Protestantism is the answer against Catholicism. I am merely saying there are all kinds of ways we can search for the truth. You do not need this imperial panoply of marble and gold. Do you know who would be the last person ever to be accepted as a prince of the church? The Galilean Carpenter, that Jew. They would kick him out before he tried to cross the threshold. He would be so ill at ease in the church, that simple and remarkable man. If he said the things that he was said to have said, what would he think? What would he think of Saint Peter’s? What would you think of the wealth and the power and the self-justification and the wheeling apologies? What would he think of a man who calls himself the father, a celibate who dared to lecture people on what family values are? What would you think of any of that? He would be horrified. But there is a solution, there is an answer, there is redemption available for all of us and anyone of us and for the Catholic Church, funnily enough. I think it’s a novel by Morris West. The pope could decide that all this power, all this wealth, this hierarchy of princes and bishops and archbishops and priests and monks and nuns could be sent out in the world with money and art treasures to put them back in the countries that they once raped and violated, whose original systems of animism and belief and simplicity they told would tell them to take them straight to hell. They could give that money away and they could concentrate on the apparent essence of their belief. And then I would stand here and say the Catholic Church may well be a force for good in the world. But until that day, it is not. Thank you.

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