A BoingBoing blog post links to an animated video (really, its more like a moving illustration than an animation) of a debate between Stephen Fry and Ann Widdecomb on whether or not the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. BoingBoing is hardly sympathetic to the Catholic Church (although it is almost always ready to defend Islam as a misunderstood religion), but I tolerate their more intolerant moments because they sometimes have interesting tech and geek culture posts.
Anyway, the debate is unfortunate. It appears to be heavily edited, so I don't always know what the context is for individual statements...and it's unfortunate that Ann Widdicombe's voice comes off sounding a bit screechy whereas Fry sounds relaxed and mellow.
Widdicombe's first point is salient, worthwhile, and goes pretty much completely ignored for the rest of the video...both by Fry and herself. She starts by stating how much charity work the Church does in the world today. She also described the hope that the Church brings to the poor today. But it seems to me she should have kept using this as her retort throughout the whole debate. Maybe she did, and it was just cut out.
Fry's counterargument, for the most part, seems to revolve around only a few modern issues, and dwells repetitively on history.
The modern issues that appear to nullify the Church's widespread and generous charity work: 1) the Church (or, rather, he says just the pope in particular) tell him that it is not his "sexual destiny" (his term) to have physical relationships with other men, 2) the Church made a statement to the U.N. that hindered birth control, and 3) women can't be priests.
Really? These issues weigh more heavily than the good the Church does?
Other than that, Fry whines about Church abuses in history -- Inquisitions, indulgences, yaddayaddayadda. Widdicombe attempts to put these in historical context, but it comes off flimsy. She says we'd have to condemn all of history, and I bet Fry would be willing to do so. Rather, I would have preferred if she had shown how the Church was generally a force of progress and improvement.
Many modern historians believe that while the Inquisitions certainly got out of hand and could be abused, they also brought order to an even more abusive and even more superstitious system of jurisprudence. Issues like slavery also have a historic context. While we could pat ourselves on the back if the Church had expressed 19th Century abolitionist sentiments back in the 15th Century, the fact is that our ability to perceive the humanity of the slave is largely due to Christian morality. Even the complaint about indulgences is a bit old now. It's not like the Church forced people to buy them, which is less than we can say about the environmentalist movement. But if we eradicate institutions because scam artists prey upon people, then we're going to have to shut down the Internet on account of all of those Nigerian princes.
In any event, we aren't burning people at the stake anymore, and Chaucer's pardoner has been long dead...or at least he's swapped his relics for a laptop.
Perhaps the most original argument Fry uses is that Jesus Christ would be deeply offended by the Vatican and all of its ostentatious displays of wealth.
But this is a weak argument. Jesus has a tendency to surprise us with his responses. Remember, it is Judas who complains when Jesus lets the woman waste perfume on him that could have been spent on the poor. (But maybe Fry will say that passage was inserted into the Gospel by greedy prelates.) It always boggles my mind when people assume that the Pope lives like Scrooge McDuck...swimming in mounds of gold...as if the modern day Vatican is the Pope's personal playground and not a living museum of Church history.
What both bugs me and comforts me the most, though, is that Fry uses standards for the Church that he wouldn't use for any other institution. It's obnoxious, because it seems like bad rhetoric. It's comforting, though, because it means that Fry still somehow recognizes that the Church is on a higher order than other institutions. He demands nothing short of perfection from the Church and its members...which is more than God demands. God invites perfection, but He anticipates our failings.
Analogy: People like Fry perceive the Church in the way that children perceive heroic figures like their parents. They build up these huge enormous expectations and are utterly and completely devastated when they find out their former heroes have flaws...so they lash out and condemn them as frauds.