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.