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Abbot and Sister take on ‘bear pit’ of atheists in debate over papal visit

By on Thursday, 2 September 2010

An abbot, a nun and a Catholic journalist defended the Church last night in a debate held by the British Humanist Society over whether the Pope should be granted a state visit to Britain.

Journalist Austen Ivereigh, who runs Catholic Voices, a team of young Catholics trained to speak to the media, and Fr Christopher Jamison, former abbot of Worth Abbey, spoke against the motion “The papal visit should not be a state visit”, but were defeated by a hostile crowd. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell and philosopher A C Grayling spoke for the motion at the event in the South Place Ethical Society building in central London.

The debate, organised by Central London Humanists together with the British Humanist Association, was chaired by Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee.

Alan Palmer, chairman of the Central London Humanists, said before the event: “We know that many people are angry that the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI is going to cost the UK taxpayer a lot of money. Some wonder whether in the current economic circumstances we should be spending millions of pounds to provide a state platform for a religious leader who has already criticised our legislation and condemned the way we organise our society.”

But Dr Ivereigh described the debate as “a bear pit”, saying afterwards: “It was very nasty, there was a lot of shouting, a lot of abuse. It was very hard to make our point. But I was glad we were there. Even if people weren’t listening, and they weren’t, it was important that we were there, and we witnessed what the Catholic Church is about.”

Speaking against the papal visit, A C Grayling said the Pope and the Church were being given a platform that was disproportionate to the size of their membership and being paid for by the UK taxpayer. He also said the Catholic Church was a criminal conspiracy, with members committing crimes and those crimes being protected by the hierarchy higher up.

Peter Tatchell said the Pope should not be invited because he opposes women’s ordination, as well as IVF and embryonic stem cell research, and as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger helped to cover up child sex abuse cases. He also criticised plans to make Pius XII a saint.

Speaking against the motion, Fr Jamison said the Church made huge contributions to civil society through schools, and helped with homelessness and the environment.

Dr Ivereigh, a former spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, said the Pope was right about Aids in Africa, and that the Catholic Church saved more Jews during the Holocaust than any other organisation.

One Catholic, who writes the Claz Coms blog, said many members of the audience wore “anti-Catholic ‘Pope Nope’ T-shirts” and that “right from the start of the debate, there was a lot of shouting from the humanist supporters… I don’t mean civilised shouts of agreement or disagreement, but actually almost barbaric screams of war!”

She wrote on her blog: “As a Catholic, I want to say how pleased I am with the way Catholics behaved, and voiced their opinions. Of the two sides, the reasons for the Pope’s state visit were by far the most succinctly argued, calmly delivered, and least abusive.”

Another member of the audience, Sister Gemma Simmonds of the Congregation of Jesus, said: “As a woman and a British citizen I frequently object to a variety of heads of state”, but that people around the world had to aspire to get on as best as they could. She urged people to welcome him.

  • Ratbag

    I often wonder if these debates are mere excuses by the neo-Atheists to use Catholics as Aunt Sallys for their minnions to throw their muck at them? I'm not surprised these so-called 'debates' are bear pits for any Catholic to take part in. Whether it be in a hall or out there in the field, Catholic opinion is shouted down – literally, shouted down. Not calmly discussed or debated.

    You could even have the cold hard facts with you on the table, especially when it comes to the debate about Pope Pius XII – how many Catholic names are in Yad Vashem as 'Riteous Amongst The Nations' for risking their lives to save those under Nazi persecution? Pope Pius XII's black legend was written so convincingly that people like Peter Tatchell swallow it like an ice cold beer in a heatwave and believe every word of it!

    “As a Catholic, I want to say how pleased I am with the way Catholics behaved and voiced their opinions. Of the two sides, the reasons for the Pope's state visit were by far the most succinctly argued, calmly delivered and least abusive”.

    As for the other side of the 'debate' – proof positive that empty vessels do indeed make the loudest noise.

    Unless the other side of the debate's case is delivered in a civilised manner instead of immature name calling, falsehoods and downright abuse, then maybe we'll get somewhere. Somehow, for the loud-mouths, that is too much effort. They speak only for themselves and precious few others…

    Aren't there some hard-working British Catholics who give billions to the national coffers, too? Aren't there hard-up Catholics who have given their Widow's Mite to pay the other half of the cost of His Holiness' visit and are still giving?

    Oh, the selective bellyaching about credit crunch this and credit crunch that, taxpayers this and taxpayers that! Sheesh!!! My give-a-damn's well and truly busted!

  • Jkutchinsky

    I wasn't at the debate but the comment being made in the video seems to have been both lengthy, well made and listened to very politely. Human beings are emotional creatures and some of the issues involved can understandably result in people becoming angry. It is no defence against a well made argument to criticise its supporters as emotional.

  • Kevin Greenan

    Of course the cost of security for the visit of Pope Benedict is too high – here I agree with the humanists. The reality is that the high cost of security is BECAUSE of the opposition to the Holy Fathers visit. If people respected that the Pope has been invited by the State and did not threaten to disrupt the visit then the high security costswould not be required. Sadly the humanists have damaged their honourable opposition by sharing the stage with the likes of Peter Tatchell who has a life long record of disrupting Christian ceremonies – his self appointed position as a gay activist and lately a human rights spokesman, is evidence that the Pope will need security – so blame those creating the cost, not the Pope!

  • andrewarmitage

    I profoundly disagree with Ratzinger's visit here, but those opposing him and his evil ought at least to have given the others a chance to speak. It smacks of impoliteness. It was a debate, after all, and, if they didn't want to hear the other side, they perhaps shouldn't have gone along. As for the visit itself, I hope that, without recourse to violence or incitement, protestors manage to stall it completely, and put as many obstacles in the way of Ratzinger as possible. It's appalling that our government invites him here on a state visit when he's criticised our own country's policies on gay rights (and possibly other stuff too). The Vatican is not truly a state: it was created as such by a Fascist dictator called Benito Mussolini. It's a make-believe world lived in by very privileged people who believe in fairies. Sorry, but I cannot condone this visit. A pastoral visit, fine; a state visit, nope.

  • Ericpconway

    The extent of the intellectual infantilisation of British society ( alas, the same numerically tiny but loud mouthed knuckle heads are apparent in Ireland ) is perfectly illustrated by the intolerant/bigoted humanist mob. They are absolutely in fear of reason/rationality/truth ( hence the success of charlatans like Dawkins & co.). Because he consistently articulates these values, Pope Benedict incurrs their irrational hatred. Polly Toynbee as chairman – say's it all !.

  • Ratbag

    Oh, for heaven's sake, andrewarmitage! A debate????? Do me a favour!!!!! We've heard more than enough from your side of the debate by your lot ever since Pope Benedict XVI's visit became official. Pope Benedict has as much right to have his say as anyone about several important issues; perhaps you can't stand the truth. It's worrying that, before he even opens his mouth here, he is criticised.

    To disrupt the visit would be most impolite, dear. Most impolite. The ones who will be causing incitement will not be those who welcome His Holiness. We'll be too busy cheering him on whilst protestors spout their bile and try their best to intimidate. The Vatican State IS a state. Like it or not. Deal with it. Your lot belive in fairies…the ones who write such miserable, badly written comedy like 'The God Delusion'.

  • andrewarmitage

    Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?

  • Ratbag

    What sort of statement is that, andrewarmitage?

    Let me make one thing crystal clear. The Pope DID NOT invite himself to England and Scotland.

    Anyone would think that The Holy Father rang up the Foreign Office to tell the country to expect him when you see him, no expense spared etc. etc.

    In fact, he was invited here by two Labour prime ministers – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown- for a state visit. It's ironic, isn't it, that their governments signed into the statute books lots of laws that go against the grain of Catholic teaching yet please the hard-line seculars. And people like you spit the dummy because someone who expresses a different view, and IS a spiritual world leader, is coming over for a visit!

    Tony Blair's spin doctors famously said 'they didn't do God'. Gordon Brown described the Catholic Church as 'the conscience of the nation' , his own religious background being that his father was a church minister. Hmmmmmm….

  • Barry Lyons

    Funny. It's the religionists of the world (not just Catholics) who are in fear of reason, rationality, and truth. “Prayer”? There's no evidence for telepathy. “Holy water”? Water is water. Risen corpses? The finality of death (for all organisms) is a fact of life for all creatures that have ever flew, walked or slithered on the earth. A certain uninseminated woman giving birth? Didn't happen, can't happen, will never happen. Because…, well, if Catholics had any regard for how the world works (of that which we know and, yes, there's plenty we don't know), they would know that a “virgin” birth (a hilarious misreading of the real meaning of “virgin”) is a hoot and a lie. Face it, Christianity is a cult. Always has been, always will be. In the meantime, “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Comte-Sponville is a damn fine read.

  • AngieRS

    A bear pit? The first speaker was applauded, listened to pretty much in silence and then applauded as she ended. The heckler was put down by the chairperson. It's a shame the first speaker forgot about the demos in London when the Chinese President made a state visit. It's a pity she forgot about the arrests of those demonstrators.The Chinese president, invited, I might add, by the same discredited Prime Minister who invited the Pope. It's a shame she forgot about Peter Tatchell, beaten unconscious by the security guards of Mugabe after trying to arrest Mugabe for crimes against humanity and who still suffers from the side effects of that beating. Where was christianity when those two were visiting that country?
    As for other posters on here blaming the huge security bill on the presence of Atheists is just downright shameful and wrong. It wasn't an Atheist who shot the last Pope as I recall. It's not Atheists who present any threat of violence wherever the pope travels. Perhaps if the present pope didn't have a problem with Jews and Muslims he might be able to do away with so-called pope mobiles.
    No, blame everyone else but the pope, blame the Gay community for Paedophilia within the church, blame Transsexuals for being as big a threat to the world as climate change and blame condoms for helping the spread of HIV. If it wasn't so pathetic it would laughable. It is no wonder that when faced with the disagreeable and dishonest face of the church and christianity as a whole that populations around the world turn away from religion and seek a better, more truthful and honest way to live.

  • andrewarmitage

    Thanks, Ratbag. Believe it or not, I do appreciate a considered reply. But I think I'm bowing outta this one now after saying only that the idea that Ratzinger is a monster has been rehearsed so many times: the cover-ups over paedophile priests; the proscription against possibly life-saving prophilactics; condoning excommunication of people who aid and abet abortion (one case I blogged on the Pink Triangle blog – on Blogspot – concerned a nine-year-old girl, raped, expecting twins, and she had an abortion, and one of Ratzinger's lieutenants, a bishop, I think, said her mother and the doctors would be excommunicated), helping to cause suicides by telling gay kids their unchosen state is an intrinsic moral evil. You're a sympathiser. I don't expect you to agree that he's a monster. But those facts speak for themselves. He abuses power, just as popes before him have done. He may commit these crimes against humanity out of total sincerity. But, then, so did Hitler. Now some people don't care much about excommunication, but to others it means they'll believe they'll burn in hell for ever or at the very least be cut off from friends and other support; not very nice.. Is that a humane thing to let people believe? Kids are told this, too. Is that not child abuse? OK, you know where I'm coming from.

    Who invited whom isn't that important, although I did say the government done the inviting. What Gordon Brown says is irrelevant to any argument and was said by a politician, so therefore, ipso facto, possibly a lie (and we cannot know). I believe Ratzinger shouldn't be here on a state visit. Pastoral, OK. Let him pay, then, for his own security in these straitened financial times for us in the UK (I gather a lot of police jobs are going to be lost, because police forces are going to lose tens of millions). And let him move about without disrupting life for those who want nothing to do with him, which is most people. You must admit, it's an imposition, but presumably you believe he's an important enough fella. Well he isn't. He encourages belief in virgin births and resurrections (to be found in so many other belief systems, too) and six impossible things before breakfast, which makes him a bit of a nutcase, too, educated though he may be (not denying that).

    I did expect a hard time on a forum like this, where most people are going to be of a similar mindset to “his holiness”, who no doubt refers often to the Beatitudes in Matthew and Luke and talks of how blessed the poor and meek are; and can parade around costing people jobs and money, causing disruption, preaching hatred, and all because he himself believes himself so important and is about as meek as a deranged dictator and as poor as Bill Gates, as far as his creature comforts go (even if he doesn't use cash).

    Anyway, thanks for the chat. I may dare to venture back one day, but I don't know whether my nerves will stand it.

  • Ian Logan

    Calm down, AngieRS and look at the facts. As a Christian who opposes the atheist Chinese government and Mugabe's regime, I don't quite understand insinuation that Christians are somehow to be castigated for their being invited to this country. The popemobile was introduced after the attempt on the pope's life orchestrated by the KGB and Bulgarian intelligence services. The fact is that atheists have threatened the pope: including threats to blow him up on blogs in this country. I reported one of these threats which was made by a crazed atheist on Richard Dawkins own website. The virulent hatred of Catholics exhibited by atheists who attend events like the one reported and who publish their disgusting and hysterical views on the internet is sufficient evidence that security concerns have to be taken during the pope's state visit to the UK. Given that the 20th century was characterised by the wholesale murder of populations by atheist regimes, I think we can do without your preaching to Christians on the errors of their ways. Remove the beam from your own eye, before you worry about the moat in mine.

  • louella

    Catholics are more in tune with reason than atheists. All successful societies have been religious – and no atheist civilisation has ever endured. Nor will the atheist West.

    A Virgin birth is totally plausible once you realise that God can and did overide HIS biological laws for His own purpose. The power to do so is His. Christianity is logical – and true!

  • Ratbag

    Actually, andrewarmitage, I really don't know why you bother your nerves writing to a Roman Catholic webpage, knowing full well where the Church stands on many things that go against your grain. It's not discussion you are after – it's confrontation. We've fielded pot-shots about our faith for a hell of a lot longer than your lot and blood curdling pot-shots at that! We can take it! So, what is another helping of spleen venting?

    Don't you DARE call me a sympathiser! I find that term an affront and a slur. I am a practising Christian who is obedient to the Law of God and His Vicar, The Pope. I'm not a fly-by-night following the latest trendy trains of thought whenever the mood takes me – unlike some!

    … and you're not sure whether your nerves will be able to stand another browse on this website? We'll what can I say???

    Once again – my give-a-damn's broken beyond repair!

  • AngieRS

    Sorry, but try as I might I can see no evidence of a rant in my post. What I do see is your reply full of the usual christian efforts to denigrate the person without attempting to answer the issues raised. “Virulent hatred, crazed atheists, disgusting and hysterical views.” Typical language of the christians in this country and elsewhere trying to defend the indefensible. Make your critics out to be semi terrorists, use scare tactics to try and lead the press into a campaign against them. Distort what they say to support your own baseless arguments. That's a pretty poor do for such a community full of so-called loving brethren.
    I did not say the christians were to be castigated for the leaders of those countries for being invited here, though markedly they were invited by a Prime Minister, a self declared devout christian and now catholic convert, I merely asked where they were when these men were in the country, where were the cries of outrage from church leaders, indeed, where were the cries of outrage when a christian African MP recently tried to bring a law in which called for the death sentence on LGBT people. Nothing from the likes of Widdecombe, nothing from Rome and too little too late from the Protestant church. Pitiful!

    Show me where Atheists in this country or anywhere else have threatened to blow up or otherwise assassinate the pope. Before you start talking about peoples vision being obstructed by the undergrowth, you might want to take a more reasoned look around you.

    If you must insist on hawking around the tired old arguments of so called atheist regimes participating in mass murders, perhaps you could explain to me why the pope at the time of the second world war stood by and let the Jews be slaughtered. One public speech, just one against the Nazi onslaught would have done much to stop it in its tracks, yet the catholic church stood silent. Tell me why the German Army uniform was embellished with the words “god is with us”. Stalin? What a good little altar boy he must have been. Like it so much he even joined the church to become a priest. What made him leave, I wonder? Maybe he thought he could do a much better job of controlling the masses than the church. It's true some regime leaders weren't religious but that's in the last fifty odd years of the twentieth century as opposed to 2000 years of slaughter in your gods name. I think Stalin, Pol Pot and others have still got some catching up to do.

    No, there's nothing wrong with my eyesight, motes, moats or otherwise.

  • Stan M Horszowski

    I am genuinely interested in people who differ from me , a Catholic and a scientist . I listen to their opinions , partly because I like to understand how people's minds work . I try to listen calmly and politely , because this is what my Christianity demands , but also because , if I am not calm and polite , people are less inclined to listen to my opinions . This way of thinking cannot be obvious to people who are angry and insulting : They should realise that the persuasiveness of their arguments and their ability to think both suffer .

  • Ericpconway

    For the especially dumb/dumber atheist contributors. Simple maths. Atheisms contribution to the 20th century ?. Answer 1 = gulags ; death camps & killing fields. Answer 2 = Stalin ; Hitler ; Mao ; Pol Pot ; Ceaucescu, etc., etc. i.e megalomaniacal mass murderers, one & all. QED. Atheism's contribution to science ?. When asked to explain the concept of free will, Dawkins replied – ” scientists are still working on it “. Presumably a piece of free will is presently being subject to microscopic examination. Beyond parody !.

  • James H/

    If atheism was such sweetness and light, why have all atheist societies been such nightmares?

    Your post has more blind faith in it than I've heard in a month of sermons.

  • jng

    There is a virulent anti-Catholic element in this country, encouraged to some extent by the TV media, evidence, to some extent that humanism, depending as the philosophy does, on empicism, has lost the argument and is descending into a morass of pleasure pain morality and cherry picked Christian principles. Sensible debate is impossible. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to turn attention to the negative representation of Catholic teaching and history which seems to be part of the culture of national TV., and which seems to be having an effect on attitudes to the Church.

  • RJ

    You seem to know even less about Stalin than I do. A couple of things I do know: firstly, he was never a Catholic. Second, he did attend an (Orthodox – i.e. not a Catholic) seminary but was already rebelling against religious ideas. I don't see how that shows religious faith to have influenced his later crimes: he obviously rejected any kind of religion from an early age.

    German Army Uniform: God with us. Explanation seems fairly simple: politicians try to use religion to legitimise their actions. This doesn't say much about religion.

    Pius XII is credited with saving maybe 800,000 Jews through what he actually did, rather than what he said. What did others do at the time? He genuinely believed that a public statement would have been counterproductive. Even if he was mistaken in that belief, I think you have to give him credit for doing what he thought was right in a situation where his judgement is at least as valid as your own, if not more so. How do you know it would have made any difference to a man like Hitler? A protest by the Dutch bishops against the treatment of Jews led to the round-up and murder of Jewish converts to the Christian faith. Here's some evidence for you:

  • Robinleslie

    It is always necessary to enter the lion's den and witness in situations like this. However, if there was any doubt before as to the real, and not concealed or camouflaged, nature of this 'protest', there can be little doubt now that these events are characteristically a scapegoating of the Pope, and of course the Church too. Most devout Catholics will tell you that you cannot be the Church without the Pope, it is a totally embodied entity without schism or division, whatever differences of 'opinion' there may be within it.

    Humanists are representative of the materialist and liberal individualist society in which we live, they embody the 'exclusive humanism' of which Charles taylor, the Catholic philosopher speaks in his book

    A Secular Age. The thrust of this society which has found itself mired in external wars across the world as well as in deep seated internal conflicts among its people is totalitarian. This can be seen in employment recruitment, work discipline, political surveillance and social control and in incarceration practices.

    These punitive and cruel attitudes betray a hardness of heart and a low level of intelligence that is in the final analysis prepared to kill in order to keep its wealth and privilege.

    We know your humanism and you cannot hide your own violent proclivities behind a smokescreen of scapegoating, it simply will not wash. If there is any collective violence against the pope then we know where to look.

  • AngieRS

    What I do know, is that Stalin was taught in a religious setting from a very early childhood and came very close to receiving holy orders. Do you insist that his upbringing had no bearing on his later behaviour? Whether it was catholic or not is immaterial. German Army Uniform? Take a look at this page,, the original is in the German History Museum, someone was with them alright. As I understand it, Hitler also described himself as the creator's main man on earth as the tool for settling the worlds problems, both in Mein Kampf and in one of his speeches.

    I do not believe for a moment that pius saved thousands of Jews, though I would believe that he took credit for what his underlings did.

    How can someone with the political clout of the then pope believe that words from him condemning Fascist ambitions would not have had a positive affect? Even if he just spoke to the overwhelmingly catholic population of the Vatican host country, do you really think that Mussolini would have joined Nazi Germany in the Axis alliance? If you are so sure of pius's innocence, get the Vatican to open up the archives of that time. Then we'll see. And no, I will not give him credit for doing what he may have thought was right any more than I would give Chamberlain credit for appeasing Hitler.

    I'm sure that right now you'll be watching the spectacle of your popes progress through the UK. Brazenly comparing secularism to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. Despite all the evidence against such stupid and ridiculous remarks. Lecturing the leaders of this country on how we should run the nation. If there is such a thing as good and evil, then the evil is in your religion and in the old duffers who are appointed to run it.

    Can you really expect me and others like me, to believe that the evidence against your religion, the Paedophilia and attempted masking of it, denying human rights to so many people in the LGBT community on this planet, decrying the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, human rights abuse against unmarried mothers in its care, not to mention that of the children, even alleged financial irregularities is untrue? Your pope has even rehabilitated a Holocaust denier. How can you and others like you, christians, of a so-called religion of love and tolerance defend the indefensible.

    Instead of waving flags of the Vatican, you should be waving banners asking where did it all go wrong. But you're not are you? You're watching the pope, behind his bullet and bomb proof car, lowering the windows down for staged blessings of some poor little kid being bundled over the heads of his security detail and going all warm and soft inside at the sight of it. And that condemns you and all the others. And for that, you deserve nothing but contempt for not even questioning your church.