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What’s the point of a debate that allows anti-Catholic prejudice to go unchallenged?

Intelligence Squared discussion was nothing more than a ‘provincial talking shop for metropolitan middle-class London liberals’

By on Thursday, 25 April 2013

Pope Francis and the Catholic Church were the subject of an Intelligence Squared debate

Pope Francis and the Catholic Church were the subject of an Intelligence Squared debate

There are some events that, though you enter them with fairly low prospects, go completely contrary to your expectations. The Catholic Church Is Beyond Redemption: Pope Francis Cannot Save It, the latest debate on the Catholic Church organised by Intelligence Squared, was not one of those occasions.

Having been to such events before, I expected a largely secular soft-left audience, and this impression was only confirmed as I walked into the Sadler’s Wells Theatre and sat down.

On the door, IQ2 staff asked attendees what our pre-vote on the motion was to be. Every person around me who answered gave a fairly fervent ‘Yes’. In my seat, the conversations I incidentally overheard took a distinct flavour. Behind me, a lady talked about a colleague of hers who was, mirabile dictu, a Catholic. “He’s Irish, of course”, she said, to which her friend replied, “Well, they all are”. “Not for much longer”, was her grim rejoinder.

The debate itself, chaired by the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, had the secularist human rights lawyer Ronan McCrea and Colm O’Gorman, the anti-clericalist abuse-survivor advocate as proposers of the motion. Opposing were the liberal Catholic journalist Peter Stanford, and the openly same-sex attracted theologian, Fr James Alison, best known for his dissension from the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.

Unsurprisingly, not only did the opposition fail to rebut the familiar litany of anti-Catholic complaints (the Inquisition, opposition to pluralism and liberal democracy, clerical child abuse, and refusal to bring about ‘female equality’, etc.), their natural response was both to explicitly and implicitly accept them.

Stanford said that Pope Francis was significantly different enough from his predecessors to bring about necessary changes, while Alison complained that the Church was incapable of ‘self-criticism’, and attacked its “totally indefensible” sexual ethics.

Ultimately, despite (what I actually think were) the best of intentions of the organisers, all that was achieved was a provincial talking shop amongst metropolitan middle-class London liberals, whose verities and assumptions (and their consequent prejudices against Catholicism) went unchallenged. I, for one, left feeling profoundly glad that I belong to a Church transcending those perspectives, and which will be around preaching the truth entrusted to her long after they pass into the dust-bin of all historical error.

  • $24570317

    He never answers “tricky” questions – he fears the worst!

  • $24570317

    Told you so, major.

  • $24570317

    But I think I received a longer and more waffelier response than you major – with wombles in it too.

  • $24570317

    Here you go again with your coffee-table book pseudo science and the simple ideas it produces.

    I’m not saying God did not create the universe – I believe He did, but you are obviously “sold” on the idea that the current cosmology and cosmogony somehow “support” Christian religious and theological ideas.

    This has always been claimed among some religious apologists (eg. the “images” of the Trinity in creation; the “beasteries”, and so forth) – and even before Christianity. During the Christian period this has been a “continual” source of problems for the Church – and will be again if similar paths are followed.

    The Jesuits (and others) warned the Church not to jump on this bandwagon in the 1960s-70s when radio-astronomy began to show the disparity between local groups of galaxies and quasars and the very distant ones (leading to the assumption that the Steady State idea was fundamentally wrong – it was of course – but perhaps only in the original “special case” put forward by Hoyle).
    Indeed, much earlier, Georges Lemaitre warned the pope about it!

    Even the apparent “exquisite” fine-tuning of the universal constants is questioned increasingly today – in a manner quite separate from the multiverse speculation – superstring resonance(s) in anti-de Sitter space.
    (see also the ideas of the late Prof, John Archibald Wheeler – the “black hole” man).

    I’m sure the questions/problems of the neuroscientists are MUCH more complex than those of the purely physical sciences. Give them a chance, and time – a lot of time will probably be needed.

  • Peter

    Either the universe had a beginning or it didn’t. If it did – which has been proved by WMAP data – then the Church is right, full stop.

    This is especially significant since philosophers and scientists from the time of Plato in 300 BC to Svante Arrhenius in the 20th century have claimed that the universe is eternal. The Church has held doggedly to her doctrine over the centuries while men of “science and reason” opposed it.

    The Church also had to defend her doctrine against gnostics and pagans who held that the universe was of the same substance as its creator (pantheism) and therefore infinite. These too were confounded by the discovery that the universe had a beginning because an expanding universe finite in time cannot be infinite in extent.

    With the sheer range and intensity of the opposition railed against her throughout history, it is nothing short of miraculous that the Church has been proved right. We should rejoice.

  • $24570317

    Some apologists in the Church have always held that the cosmogony of the time supported the basic theological position of creation at some past instant – as you and some others do now.
    As I attempted to explain above this is misguided, and even Georges Lemaitre cautioned the Church against it.

    “If it did – which has been proved by WMAP data”
    There are constraints on this interpretation of these data. It may only apply to a “local” pocket of organisation (LPO), viz. the universe as we presently understand it. – LPOs have always been mistaken for the universe.

    “Either the universe had a beginning or it didn’t.”
    Not true. There are (apparently) several recurring properties or features of mother nature (or possibly of God) in the world: two of them are symmetry and periodicity.

  • $24570317

    I’m sorry my reply to this has been deleted.
    It was a most mild reply and I cannot understand why this happened.
    Perhaps it’s just my name?

  • Julian Lord

    Objectivity versus subjectivity ? You’re limiting your understanding of this question to the English intellectual tradition, if you must know.

    And what is it with these idiotic “trick” questions, that prove nothing ?

    Mathematics is quantitative from the obvious point of view, but it is also qualitative when it is deployed in certain relative or comparative analyses, such as in much software programming.

    Mathematics are used in both qualitative and quantitative research, and it must be realised that the abstract nature of mathematics is not directly quantitative, given that the attribution of mathematical values to these or those realities is independent of the nature of those realities, and of whether they correspond to numerable objects or conventional measurements, or to subjective data provided by impressionistic reports.

    As such, your either/or question is intrinsically flawed, except within certain schools of philosophy that posit such distinctions that you suggest as a part of their doctrines, and within the strict realms of the empirical sciences.

  • Julian Lord

    He never answers “tricky” questions

    CRIPES you’re unbelievable — just because I failed to provide you with either the yes or the no you were fishing for (because both answers are IMO inaccurate), does NOT mean that I have not answered — but your attitude suggests that you failed to understand the answer.

    Honestly — just go out and read some Foucauld.

  • ZuZuLamarr

    You are absolutely right about the ‘backward’ attitude to Roman Catholics in this country.
    You’d think that it was King Henry VIII on the throne and not Queen Elizabeth II, these days – bar the beheading, except they would attempt to ‘behead’ you with their bile and drivel!
    The brain-dead amongst them fail to look around the country to acknowledge the centuries of achievement in arts, culture, architecture, education, healthcare…. etc. that are credited to Roman Catholics!

    No doubt there will be some of these people who would like name, rank, day, date, object etc. etc. of these achievements, but I have better things to do with my time than to substitute their limited skills of doing proper research for themselves!

    Your experiences echo much of those of British born children of Irish parents, too.

    You are spot on with your assessment of today’s Britain. It’s not pleasant but it is – unfortunately for us and for the country at large: very, very true.
    God bless.

  • Julian Lord

    Here you go again with your coffee-table book pseudo science and the simple ideas it produces

    It can’t hold a candle to your misrepresentation of the question of the Origins in the History of Philosophy.

    This has always been claimed among some religious apologists (eg. the “images” of the Trinity in creation; the “beasteries”, and so forth) – and even before Christianity. During the Christian period this has been a “continual” source of problems for the Church – and will be again if similar paths are followed.

    This is a very confused and unclear presentation.

    Various cosmogonic myths have been put forward by various religions and philosophical systems, the Big Bang is just one of the more recent ones, so that your any binary either/or opposition between these or those theories of astronomy and the Biblical narrative is unsatisfying.

    As for “During the Christian period this has been a “continual” source of problems for the Church – and will be again if similar paths are followed”, it seems to be based on some sort of bizarre irrelevance.

    These questions are in fact very, very secondary from an Ecclesial point of view, given that they are of interest essentially to Philosophers and scientists.

    Even so, your presentation seems to be oblivious to the numerous theories put forward by the various mediaeval philosophers of the Western, Jewish, and Arabic schools of thought ; and the multiplicity of propositions and arguments put forward both within these schools, and between them — not to mention the various extra-Mediterranean cosmogonic myths.

    Multiple theories and counter-theories and arguments existed concerning not only the material origins of the cosmos, but also concerning its underlying principles, and the relationship of God with Creation — whereas you seem to be boiling all of this down to a simple binary opposition between creationism (which wasn’t even invented til the 19th century, so you seem to be guilty of a gross anachronism in the first place) and astrophysics.

    Your manifest view that Peter is somehow promoting creationism is based on a false premise that only astrophysics and creationism can explain the question of the Origins.

    The Jesuits (and others) warned the Church not to jump on this bandwagon in the 1960s-70s when radio-astronomy began to show the disparity between local groups of galaxies and quasars and the very distant ones

    I’ve NO idea what “this bandwagon” is supposed to be, as you have not explained it. If you mean Creationism, it’s a Protestant sect.

    Nor why the 1960s and 1970s have any particular relevance, given that the examination of the Question of Origins has been constantly evolving for millennia.

    Nevertheless :

    Peter : The exquisite fine-tuning of the universal constants, leading to the creation of galaxies, stars and planets like ours, suggests a
    transcendental intelligence

    No it doesn’t — it is compatible with the notion of a transcendental creative intelligence, but material Reality as a collection of First and Second Causes, and consequences and phenomena is intrinsically defined by Causality itself, so that it is Causality that is in question, not any tertiary consequences inside material reality, such as galaxies, stars, and planets.

    Peter : And a deeper understanding of neuroscience shows no sign that the human will is governed by physical processes

    The human mind is at least partially governed by material contingencies.

    JB24 : I’m sure the questions/problems of the neuroscientists are MUCH more complex than those of the purely physical sciences

    Not really, there are simply some inherent observational difficulties.

    The actual complexities are in the Linguistics and the Philosophy, the Metaphysics in particular.

    Peter is confused — it seems rather that language itself is provided of some immaterial and/or transcendental qualities. A definition of a word, for example, does not actually exist inside the individual brain, but instead it exists as a non-physical consensus, located nowhere.

    Words themselves, in fact, derive their existence and their nature from conversation — they are a property of conversation, and a consequence of intellective communication, not its building blocks nor its cause ; because a focused human communication is possible in extra-linguistic circumstances.

    More deeply, if language were purely material in nature, it would be impossible to learn a language, as it would need to be physically encoded into the cerebral cortex by the reproductive process ; so that a non-Chinese would therefore be incapable of learning Mandarin. Linguistic shift would also be far FAR slower if language were material in nature.

  • Julian Lord

    Some apologists in the Church have always held that the cosmogony of the time supported the basic theological position of creation at some past instant – as you and some others do now.
    As I attempted to explain above this is misguided

    Rubbish, it’s a perfectly valid understanding.

    circa 3000 years ago (or more, depending on how old the Myth was before first being written down) :

    Genesis : {1:1} In principio creavit Deus cælum, et terram.

    It is ludicrous to claim that this is not supportive of a Creation, given that this is exactly what is described here.

  • $24570317

    I have made no reference at all to “Creationism”, which I regard as palpable nonsense.

    The (excited) bandwagon refers to those in the Church and elsewhere who rejoiced at the apparent death of the Steady State theory at the hands of deep space radio-astronomy.
    During the latter 1960s/70s it became clear that the distant universe (and therefore the earlier universe) differed in important respects (including galactic age and packing and quasars) from the universe closer to our home galaxy (the more recent universe). It was concluded that the universe was therefore evolving from a beginning (as the Bible claims). Certain extrapolations based on speeds of recession of the galaxies permitted a calculation yielding a value for its age.
    We now know that matters are much more complex than this. Please see my reply to Peter’s response in which I hint at some of this: LPOs, symmetry and periodicity – and mug-up on John Archibald Wheeler.

    Regret not able to spend more time on topic – it might crop up again though.

  • $24570317

    You misunderstand.
    Genesis says that God created the universe at some point.

    The question at issue for science was: is it in fact true that the universe had a beginning at some point or did it always exist as it is now (at least more or less)? The radio-astronomy of the late 60s/70s supported Genesis etc.
    But, as I’ve mentioned above, we now understand that the question is probably not so easily answered.

  • $24570317

    It’s not a trick question. I simply said you might think it one.
    PS: you really are hedging your bets and squirting the black ink.

    Her ladyship “Meena” is in bed, asleep and not snoring – so goodnight from England.

  • Julian Lord

    PS: you really are hedging your bets and squirting the black ink.

    Rubbish — when I point out that I think a question is intrinsically meaningless, this is exactly what I mean to say.

    Monetary values attributed to goods — they are numbers and they obey mathematics, but are they qualitative or quantitative in nature ? Is the relationship of the monetary value of the Mona Lisa and that of a pound of sausages of a qualitative or quantitative nature ?

    Meeny’s your wife — well, that figures.

  • Julian Lord

    You misunderstand

    No, I did not.

    “I do not agree with JB24′s faulty analyses” is not the same thing as “I do not understand”.

  • Julian Lord

    It was concluded that the universe was therefore evolving from a beginning (as the Bible claims)

    The Bible claims no such thing — and if you understood the nature of the Question of the Origins in Philosophy, you would understand that the theory of Steady State and the theory of the Big Bang are BOTH compatible with Genesis I:1

  • Peter

    Lemaitre was wary of Pope Pius’ triumphal address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1951 which was in response to the evidence of the big bang:
    “Hence, Creation took place in time. Therefore there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!” (para.51)

    By then, Lemaitre only had Hubble’s observational evidence to back up his theory. However, a couple of decades later came the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation which provided compelling evidence of the big bang, and the CMBR itself was further corroborated more recently by WMAP data. Factor in the discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and no doubt Lematire would have been far less wary of the Pope’s speech with all this evidence which was lacking in 1951.

    But there’s no need to stop there. A greater understanding of quantum mechanics – in its infancy in Lemaitre’s time – suggests that the big bang began not from a point if infinite density, a singularity, but out of nothing at all.

    The last reservation Lemaitre may have had in linking the big bang to Church doctrine would have been the contradiction between a universe emerging from the infinite somethingness of a singularity and the doctrinal position of a universe created out of nothingness. This obstacle has been removed by the relatively recent and increasingly convincing hypothesis that the universe began not from an infinitely dense point but as a quantum fluctuation out of nothing.

    It appears that Pope Pius’ address in 1951 concerning the existence of God was not premature. No doubt had the had the evidence of today, that the universe had a beginning and began from nothing, his speech would have been even stronger!

  • gregoryvii

    Why do you assume there were good intentions on the part of the organizers? I’m not sure I have ever met a liberal who had good intentions.

  • $24570317

    Some have considered the heavens and, like Nikita Khrushchev
    after the launching of sputnik, have “seen” evidence of no God. Others at a higher intellectual level have concluded that the vastness (there isn’t a word in any language that really suits) and indifference of the cosmos shows that it, and its source or origin, has nothing to do with Man. Others say that knowledge of evolution shows that the whole basis of the Abrahamic religions is nonsense.

    Others, like yourself, say that if you use radio-telescopes and specifically include a giant horn antenna (with a super-cooled series of very low-noise amplifiers) and a suitably instrumented satellite together with improved knowledge comprised within the Standard Model of QM, then you can detect traces of the hand of God carrying out His work in the physical universe – in the radio-images and the cooled/Doppler-shifted BR etc.

    These seem like two sides of the same coin.
    People like me (& I know you don’t) think that mankind will never be able to use an instrument, or data from one, that will go ANY way towards supporting either of these two positions (although they will seem to, from time to time).
    Any claim by the Church that early 21st century cosmology supports any of its teachings leaves it open to ridicule in the future. The points you presented in your last post are far from the final word – even now there are signs of this.

    I’ve not addressed specifically any of the points that you raised in your last post, although I have mentioned them previously – believing that the above might suffice. But I will if you wish me to.

  • $24570317

    It’s totally qualitative, Jabby.

  • $20596475

    It is no answer at all. It really doesn’t matter a jot whether you want to try to split hairs again. What is needed is a straightforward answer to a simple question. Has, or has not, science enabled us, as a whole society, to better analyse and understand some questions that previous generations found other answers for? If yes, should this fact not be applied to everything?

  • Julian Lord


    goalpost shift — this is a completely different question as a result, and its answer is obviously yes.

  • $20596475

    It was the question! It was you who decided to split hairs and avoid answering it. Now you have perhaps you would address the point from which it flowed. Which was that just because something has existed for 2000 years we should not re-evaluate it using the benefit of scientific discovery?

  • Peter

    Your belief in an unknown, forever unknowable, mystical and utterly transcendent God is committing the error of fideism.

    God gave us minds and a comprehensible universe so that we could work out our origins and the origins of creation, and in doing so, come to know the Creator.

    God is known through faith and reason, not through faith alone. Fideism is faith without reason. It creates the misunderstanding that religion is incompatible with science and fuels the atheist bandwagon.

    Pope Pius’ 1951 address is an example of reason and faith. His declaration that God exists was based on Lemaitre’s findings but, unlike their author, he had faith that they were correct. His faith of course has paid off. In the decades that followed, all the cosmological discoveries have served to corroborate Lemaitre’s findings, and none have contradicted them.

  • $24570317

    I suggest you do some reading around Membrane (M theory), Black Brane, and Cyclic/Periodic cosmological theory.
    We see in some of these ideas, for the first time, possible explanations of the extraordinary magnitude of gravity fields.

    I have no “beliefs” in science, save perhaps: (1) that no amount of the building of large telescopes and other instruments or mathematical analysis of data will show us proof or disproof of God, and (2) that our view of the universe, and of what actually constitutes the universe, will change radically in the future, just as it has through past ages.

    If these ideas express theological error, I can’t help that. Perhaps the problem lies in the theology.

  • Peter

    Multi-dimensional universes, perpetually colliding branes, cyclic universes, eternal inflation and a naturally-selected landscape of universes from black holes, are all hypotheses.

    The facts are different. No cosmological discovery since 1951 has contradicted Lemaitre’s universe, while all have supported it. According to Prof. John D. Barrow:
    “Lemaitre’s universe has turned out to be the most accurate description of our universe, with a total age of 13.7 billion years and the transition to acceleration occurring about 4.5 billion years ago” (The Book of Universes 2011, p.72)

    Based on what we know, instead of what we think we know or what we would like to know, our understanding of creation is consistent with the centuries-old doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church.

  • $24570317

    removed by author – it was supposed to be the above reply to Jabby.

  • $24570317

    Yes of course. The present state of play is as described (broadly) in your last three paragraphs.
    It too was once an hypothesis.
    But this current model is just that: viz, the current model. Its core concept only some 60 or so years old.
    This is why work is continuing. Already an alternative model can, almost certainly, account for the now well-established phenomenon of QC as well as the order of magnitude of gravity forces.

  • moorhouse

    According to Wikipedia, Pius X allowed the publication of a mildly censored version of Galileo’s Dialogue in 1741. In 1758, the general ban on heliocentric books was removed from the Index. The uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus were removed from the Index in 1835.

  • acero aspiro

    I am not convinced about our Sicilian friend statements. Perhaps he is not aware of the fact that Protestants in Italy were only granted FULL religious freedom in 1982 nor he is aware of the infamous Scelba laws of 1953 (Italian Republic not Mussolinian state) by which anyone who dared to attend a Protestant meeting was questioned by the Carabinieri. Not to mention the cases that the Synod of the Waldensian Church has often represented to the authorities in which the State at the instigation of local clergymen deliberately transgressed human rights. Not even the Italian Constitution for many years after 1946 guaranteed religious freedom.

  • Frank

    I’m not sure that two wrongs make a right.

  • acero aspiro

    I have worked in a Roman Catholic community and I have observed that generations of Italians are welcome and accepted as part of the community I live in. My mentioning of the Italian Protestants is to make aware people of the fact that in Italy a religious minority of just 250.000 has for years been really discriminated. An Italian Protestant was excluded from civil service, diplomacy, university teaching for years when Catholics in England had those privileges for a century. My reply to Nicolo’ is based on the false assumption that Italians in UK are rejected because of their religion. On the contrary the sense of rejection has been fostered by some Scalabrinian fathers – no longer among us – to avoid integration of the Italian community in the area. Italians in Bedford and Peterborough (25.000) are very well respected and many firms have for years preferred Italians employee not only at labourer level but also in management becasue of their work ethics. If Nicolo’ experience is his own as I have experienced discrimination from the other side, we must learn from these. Though I was rejected because I am Protestant, I nonetheless feel my Italian identity to the full.


    Acero I appreciate your comments. Personally I don’t believe any minority should be persecuted, vilified, demonised or discriminated against because of their ethnicity or faith. I have never lived in Sicily so I could never speak from first hand experience as to what daily life there is like. I did live in Bedford for three years and I would never go back there. I got burgled three times and had the most anti social neighbours imaginable. I do not recommend it as a place to live, definitely not on Victoria Road anyway.

    I never stated that I was speaking on behalf of Italians in England, it was purely from my own point of view. My experience growing up in England was not particularly pleasant. But the 1970′s and 80′s were a very different time. Racism was pretty much normal in London. Irish people were targeted; Afro Caribbean people were targeted; Asian people were targeted. So were Greeks and lastly so were my family. I didn’t believe it was normal to live in a society that seemed to be institutionally hostile to me. Most British people would have said ‘If you don’t like it here why don’t you leave?’

    So I left. I have never returned. I live in Prague now and it’s a city that accepts me and lets me live in peace.. I don’t feel British. I don’t feel Sicilian. I work here as an artist which unfortunately isn’t a nationality but if it was that’s what I would choose to be.

  • acero aspiro

    Nicolo’ thank you for shedding more light on your experience. however I must say that in 2013 many English Protestants have greater respect for Catholics in UK whether English or other nationalities. British Protestantism is learning to separate the individual from the ecclesial identity. Whilst there are differences which will remain, the attitude and the approach to the matter is no longer that of 1970′s. There is a better understanding and also a desire to build a platform to launch future constructive debate and discussion aiming at a mutual respect.

  • Tom_mcewen

    You should come to mass at St. Tomas, we have Fr Williams a very good priest and a large english speaking community, spanish, czech, I go on saturday mass at 1800