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Why we decided to interview Stonewall’s Ben Summerskill

Engaging the Church’s most vocal critics is risky, but ultimately worthwhile

By on Thursday, 11 July 2013

Protester prepare placards opposing the papal visit to Britain in 2010 (AP)

Protester prepare placards opposing the papal visit to Britain in 2010 (AP)

In last week’s issue of The Catholic Herald we ran an interview with Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of the gay rights lobby group Stonewall. It was the first of a series of conversations with leading critics of the Church.

We had the idea a while back of interviewing some of the key figures in those organisations that pop up repeatedly in news reports involving conflict between Catholics and secularists. The aim is to inform readers about the views of people who they might not normally engage with and, in turn, tell them our side of the story.

The idea had its genesis in the papal visit to Britain, before which the “debate” seemed to consist of a bunch of extremely angry people shouting at each other about contraception, clerical abuse and Aids in Africa. Paul Sims of New Humanist magazine noted the poor quality of public discourse at the time. After Benedict XVI’s visit, I interviewed him about it. We have different views about the benefits or drawbacks of religion, but it was an interesting and constructive conversation.

I found it similarly worthwhile talking to Ben Summerskill, who has his own passionately held view of what constitutes injustice. Not everyone liked the way the interview turned out. One commenter on this website, Gabriel–syme, wrote: “I do hope the interviewer will challenge the next guests a bit more and ask them to substantiate their views. Summerskill gets away with murder here. It’s not an interview, it’s a stage for him.”

I certainly hope this wasn’t the case. I was aware of that risk when I wrote up the interview, but I was convinced – and still am – that it’s vital for Catholics to truly understand how their political opponents think. Besides, there is the opposite danger: if we pursue our subjects too aggressively then we might end up with something resembling this Onion headline.

The next interview in the series will be with Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association. We welcome suggestions of who we should interview after him.


    The next interview in the series will be with Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association. We welcome suggestions of who we should interview after him.

    Er, William Oddie?

  • Julian Lord

    We welcome suggestions of who we should interview after him

    Monseigneur Fellay ?

  • firstparepidemos

    Perhaps Richard Dawkins?

  • paulpriest

    It was the case…Ben’s a master interviewee…and was a little bit ‘Nick Leason’ with the representation of their not-exactly objective timeline/issues at hand but to be honest nobody could be blamed for not countering that; the issues are complicated; the technicalities, revisionisms, misrepresentations, the pervasive credibility of the propaganda and application of erroneous motives – mixed with reiteration of believable [inadvertent?] barefaced mendacities – are tough to repudiate because it’s always a spun half-truth with an obfuscating gloss – the moment you try to disprove one aspect – like the non-roundness of the square-circle – you end up being drawn on to the next topic…
    You throw a ball – it’s caught and slowly rolled back to you as if it were never thrown in the first place…

    Yeah do your interviews: Copson will claim to have the whole of britain behind him rather than the equivalent membershpi of a large town’s British legion or the Accrington Stanley supporters’ club

    Who next to interview?

    Probably the ACTA/Standup4vatican2 brigade…

    There’s no point trying to interview Dawkins because he is utterly useless – he’ll spend five minutes explaining the intricacies of a fallacy and how science never permits it – then immediately follow up with a direct appeal to the very same fallacy he’s denounced…he is so philosophically illiterate there’s no point even attempting to argue an issue – like trying to prove to a schizophrenic that he’s not napoleon or a tea-cosy…

  • Tom

    Para 1 sounds like he might have been studying the Vatican’s techniques when asked about covering up child abuse…..or alternatively when apologists claim to prove God…….or the Resurrection.

  • $28180339

    How about someone from the entertainment industry whose actions are not entirely emotion-driven?

    I would like to see Stephen Fry interviewed or even Ian McKellan. I wouldn’t want a Sinead O’Connor interviewed because of the abuse she received by the sisters.

  • Kevin

    It is vital to understand how our opponents think.

    One such way, as your Onion link illustrates, is to accuse the “fire and brimstone” Church of not being more good neighbourly with the Nazi Party. Or is it that the good-neighbourly Church should have been more fire and brimstone with heretics (such as the nominally Catholic Hitler) in order to avert the Holocaust?

    Either way it smacks of bigotry.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Could we stand the tedium?

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Not sure how much separates that Onion piece from a typical afternoon on the Catholic Herald website.

    What about someone from the Guardian Women’s Page?

  • Kevin

    Could you interview Giuseppe Dalla Torre, the presiding judge of the Vatican City court?

    According to another article on this site, the Vatican City has, like the European Court of Human Rights has attempted for this country, abolished life imprisonment as a sentence under criminal law.

    Dalla Torre is reported as saying that the change “reflects a growing consensus among criminologists that life imprisonment is an ‘inhumane and useless’ punishment, as well as the Vatican’s view that prison sentences must be motivated by a desire to rehabilitate”.

    Could you interview him exclusively on his theory of punishment? Not rehabilitation. Just punishment. Could you ask him – and press him on this – what punishment, if any, is merited for the hacking to death of an unarmed man in the middle of a street? Don’t let him paint himself as the “good guy” with words like “rehabilitation”. Please get him to say why he would punish the criminal at all. Suggest that any punishment is inhumane. Challenge him on his own sense of goodness.

  • ChrisMorley

    “We welcome suggestions of who we should interview after him.”

    You should explore the community response to HIV and the Church’s considerable role in HIV/AIDS at a global level.

    I suggest Sir Nick Partridge OBE, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust

    Issues to explore include

    - the UK’s significant role in the global response to HIV and

    - the Church and Condoms

    - PSHE (Personal, Health, Social and Economic) education in Catholic Schools, particularly for the parts of our communities most at risk, such as and see

    - Local Authorities in England have just taken over responsibility from the NHS for commissioning Public Health services which includes sexual health, alcohol and drugs

    A useful contact might be the UK organisation ‘Catholics for HIV Prevention and Support’

  • Laura Norder

    Me, neither.

  • NatOns

    But the notion of oecumenical endeavour precludes any treatment of the SSPX as human, worthy of respect or considered important to the understanding of the soul from the perspective of Catholic Truth. As for viewing the SSPX as deserving of any oecumenical favour – should it finally shrink back from embracing Vatican II, repudiate all involved in it from Blessed John XXIII to Blessed John Paul II, and inhabit a limbo of sede absentio rather than Sede Vacante – well that too is unthinkable. So showing the local SSPX community of faithful (if still irregular) Roman Catholics the same honour and welcome and outreach that can be extended – perfectly correctly – to a Christian communion or mere political spokesman is .. well .. it is simply .. politically incorrect .. imagine considering it, tut-tut (and its not just in the exalted heights of the media-minded conversation which is the Catholic Herald that we could learn something this openness, perhaps even the Vatican might give ear instead of a blind eye and heavy heart).

  • ostrava

    Polly Toynbee. I can find a use for the newsprint afterwards.

  • ostrava

    Polly Toynbee. And in the print edition. There will be a use for the newsprint afterwards . . .

  • Julian Lord

    What vitriol !!!

  • ostrava

    Sorry – I thought my post had vanished into the ether.

  • Zelda Terrahawk

    Like lining a gerbil’s cage…

  • Lovat

    I must say I fail to see the merit in interviewing the enemies of the Church. It makes the Church look like a small chicken paying a social visit to the fox’s earth, I think! Besides, we can and already have answered whatever nonsense they can throw at us – the Faith is wholly satisfactory to reason and any new heresies and modern lies can never challenge the infallible truth of the Faith. Hence, I think we only endanger weak souls who might read the ‘Herald’ and be beguiled by the cunning of the enemies of the Church.

  • Laura Norder

    I agree.

  • Guest

    I think he’s being ironic, but it needs redrafting.

  • ostrava

    To the pure all things are pure, Zelda, that’s not quite what I had in mind.


    What on earth are you on?

  • AdEleison

    I vote in favour of your attempt to interview those who are opposed to the church, but I would like to see comparative strength from our side – there are many pre-eminent moral theologians/philosophers (and they need not be Catholic). In keeping with current hot topics could I suggest finding marriage councillors who support SSM and match them up with a moral philosopher or marriage councillor opposing SSM. A similar interesting discussion could be set up between venerologists. Opponents of the church seek to dictate the language of discussions – Kevin seems to have an important point that such tactics need a robust confrontation.

  • Zelda Terrahawk

    Just sharing a mental image …

  • Zelda Terrahawk

    It would be an interesting one with Stephen Fry – well, if I got the chance to interview him, it would be in the style of John Humprhys/Jeremy Paxman – not in the spirit of ‘Hello!’ magazine.

    Sinead O’Connor is the kind of person who would like to be the coffin at the funeral and the cake at the birthday party. If there is a bandwagon coming her way, like the 44 bus, she’d jump on it.

    She infamously tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on television – the CH could ask her the REAL reasons why she did it and cut the cr–!

  • $28180339

    You need to do a little research before posting disrespect to someone you don’t know.

    Try reading this:

    One doesn’t have to interview Sinead to find out why she is so critical of the Catholic Church & for that matter anyone who has been abused by the clerics or sisters. With a very few exceptions, their answers would be rather obvious.

  • Kevin

    “if we pursue our subjects too aggressively then we might end up with something resembling this Onion headline.

    One last comment. In case you feel too placatory towards our political opponents (and too deferential towards the “hilarious” Onion), you might want to consider the risk of this headline:

    Catholic Herald Calls For Greater Understanding Between Secularists, Jailbound”.

  • firstparepidemos

    LOL. Well, as a fundamentalist scientist, he is rather boring, but the CH did ask for suggestions and he popped into my mind as someone who maintains that we don’t listen. We could always offer up the tedium for his conversion!

  • firstparepidemos

    I think it is always good to dialogue with those who oppose us; Christ Himself set us this example by engaging with the scribes and Pharisees, so to behave otherwise would be cowardly on the part of Christians. As for your mention of the Church being a small chicken paying a visit to the fox’s lair, I prefer Christ’s image of lambs being sent out amongst wolves (Luke 10:3) for that is how the Master sends us, yet He is always by our side. Also, rather than being a danger for those you (rather contemptuously) refer to as ‘weak souls’ it may be well be an opportunity for God’s grace to bring about conversion – and isn’t bringing people to Christ part of the mission of the Church?

    As for our enemies, Blessed John XXIII supposedly said, when asked about Communists, “They are the enemies of the Church, but then the Church has no enemies.”

  • Viking

    The Onion headline and its report are a spoof – as should be obvious to any journalist who is even half on the boil. If a journalist cannot spot that it is no wonder that he let Ben Summerskill get away with murder in the interview.

  • Guest

    (I think he knows it’s a spoof, but you’re right about “getting away with murder”.)

  • firstparepidemos

    It is this kind of unchristian answer which gives ammunition to those who ridicule the Church.

  • NatOns

    Ironic (vitriol) indeed, yet – as with the better sort of irony (and the least nasty from of acid) – it is reflective of the sad reality experienced by way too many .. and quite unnecessarily so.

  • Banmeagain

    Here is a shock suggestion for the Catholic Herald. How about, instead of giving yet another media platform to the forces of Anti-Christ to propagandise, you instruct your moderators to STOP deleting the comments of orthodox Catholics on these threads. Giving faithful and practising Catholics an opportunity to have THEIR voices heard……. will “improve the quality of public discourse”. But then that is not really your agenda is it Ed.

    I expect my comment will be deleted yet again in 3,2,1…..

  • Robert Houghton

    Summerskill was guilty of a number of skilful sophistries and fallacies which a serious interviewer should not have let pass.

  • ostrava

    I can’t help thinking that we have different but equally unhealthy minds, Zelda, but good luck anyway!

  • Guest

    Is this the kind of “engaging” you mean:

    “Woe upon you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites that shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces; you will neither enter yourselves, nor let others enter when they would. Woe upon you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites that swallow up the property of widows, under cover of your long prayers; your sentence will be all the heavier for that. Woe upon you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites that encompass sea and land to gain a single proselyte, and then make the proselyte twice as worthy of damnation as yourselves.”

  • Guest

    Three up votes and no substance. What is that about?

  • Guest

    As for enemies, this is part of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar from the 1962 Missal of Blessed John XXIII:

    “why do I go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?”

  • Patrick Doherty

    Zelda – suggest you read your Pope’s sermon of yesterday in which he said this:

    Catholics must “watch their tongues” and resist the temptation to resolve disputes with “insults, slander, and defamation,” Pope Francis has said.

  • Zelda Terrahawk

    Only God Himself will be able to understand Sinead…

  • Robert Houghton

    Summerskill’s fallacies: the question of the sexual morality of Prince Charles and Prince William and their partners has no bearing on the issue of single-sex marriage; it is a sophistical distraction designed to confuse the interlocutor.

  • firstparepidemos

    What on earth are you trying to say in your post? It has no connection to what I wrote, which was about obeying the command of Christ to take the message of the Gospel to everyone – including those who oppose Christianity – which means engaging them in conversation. Ignoring or condemning people solves nothing.

  • firstparepidemos

    I think you would do well to read the whole of the psalm (because that is what it is) rather than quote a line out of context in the manner of certain fundamentalist Protestants.

  • firstparepidemos

    Perhaps it simply means that these people agree with Alexander’s concern that, while professing to be a Christian, Lovat is basically saying to ignore Christ’s command to evangelise; in other words, talking nonsense.

  • Shelagh Deakin

    It is a good idea to interview those names that keep cropping up as the enemies of faith.However, this backfired. The interview was not done skilfully. In the hands of someone who was perhaps less naive and more cunning, the interview with Ben Summerskill could have been a neat expose of Secular Fundamentalism. Disappointing. Many more interviews like this from the CH and I will not renew my subscription…..

  • Nesbyth

    I agree 100%. This was not well done. I rate it as a “soggy” interview, pandering to Summerskill and not challenging him truthfully. It was a walk-over for Ben!
    But there was an excellent letter in this week’s Herald on this point from a Mrs Ann Farmer. Do read it if you have a copy and Ed West please take note!