Catholics lose BBC debate

Ann Widdecombe

Ann Widdecombe

After the end of a debate on Wednesday night over  whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world, an elderly irate member of the audience was heard haranguing one of the stewards. She moaned how the event had been hijacked by the 'gay mafia' and how the panel were very rude to Archbishop John Onaiyekan. Her comments were wildly over-the-top, but I could not help feeling that after over ninety minutes of hearing the Catholic church being pulped, only someone with such extreme views would dare raise his or her head above the parapet.

The debate at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster was organised by Intelligence Squared and pitted Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja and Ann Widdecombe against Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. It was filmed for TV and was to be broadcast on BBC World.

As might be expected, Hitchens bombarded the audience with facts, but they were better organised than might be expected by anyone who read the ramshackle God is not Great. He castigated the Catholic church's history of violence, it's collusion with fascism, its cover-ups of child abuse and its attitude to homosexuality and AIDS. The latter point was reinforced by Stephen Fry - arguably the strongest speaker and definitely the most passionate - who implored the Catholic church to change its attitude to condom use.

Part of his strength as a speaker was that unlike Hitchens he did not appear hostile to Christianity. His objection to Catholicism was that it bore no resemblance to Christianity or to Jesus's teachings.

Against such firepower Ann Widdecombe argued that it is unfair to judge the past by present day standards. She appeared to argue that women could not be priests as they could no more enter the mindset of Jesus than a man can enter the mindset of the Virgin Mary. She cited scientific evidence that condoms are not the answer to problems in Africa but did not acknowledge that unprotected sex is inevitably more risky than protected sex. As for Archbishop John Onaiyekan, his contribution was woefully negligible and from the outset he seemed out of his depth.

In fairness,  a good chunk of the audience were not open to persuasion. The National Secular Society appeared to have rounded up its troops, as witnessed not just by the rapturous applause that greeted Christopher Hitchens but after the debate and before
closing remarks when audience members were invited to question the panel. The bias of questioning was so heavily biased against the Catholic church that chair Zeinab Badawi intervened to invite questions from members who supported the debate's contention.

Yet even with these provisos in place, the debate was still a resounding failure for Archbishop Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe. At the start of the debate, audiences were required to cast an anonymous vote on the motion and while 678 people supported the
motion and 346 were undecided, 1,102 argued against it. At the end of the debate, the same anonymous vote was cast and this time only 268 people voted in favour of the argument with 1,876 voting against it and 34 people being undecided.

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