Is the the Catholic church a force for good in the world? That was the question posed in an Intelligence Squared debate a few years back between Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry on one side and Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe on the other.
The debate sticks out in my mind for two reasons. One is that at about forty-three minutes in the YouTube video of it, Ann Widdecombe says what I thought should have ended the entire debate.
She asked the audience to imagine a world without the Catholic Church. Imagine it without all the charities, hospitals, toiling religious in poverty, all of it, then ask yourself if the church is a force for good. The Catholic Church gives more in these areas than any single nation.
The second reason this debate strikes me is that her point did not resonate at all with the audience or those who watched the video. Scrolling through the comments below, I saw person after person saying the good Archbishop and Ms. Widdecombe were completely slaughtered.
Why does her point not carry? Why do so many see the church as an institution that needs to go the way of the dinosaur?
Behind every action is a motivation. Those who hate the church seem to think that without the motivation of Heaven and Hell and everything else that comes with Catholicism, we could just as easily have all the hospitals, educational institutions, medical work, and charity the church provides.
That thinking is ridiculous. (I have stronger words I’d like to use, but this is a Catholic blog). Secularists imagine this utopian world they think we’d be living in with no religion. It is a place where we all hold hands and get along with each other.
In the real world, we know that we would not have the educational and medical system we have today if centuries ago the Catholic Church, inspired by her faith, had not set them up. We know the values we have in Western culture today would not exist without the Catholic Church.
The Good Catholic Church Today
What of the church’s work now? Even just a few years ago, the atheist Matthew Parris had this to say about charity work in Africa.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.Matthew Parris
Matthew Parris does lament all the religious baggage that comes with the charity. If only these Christians did good things to help people without the superstition!
But this, again, is a point on which I think secularists are naive. Fear is not the most glamorous motivation, but often it’s the only thing that inspires us to do great things.
It was fear of a Biden or Trump presidency that created the highest voter turnout ever in American history, and it is the fear that humanity could become extinct if we don’t become an inter-planetary society that inspires Elon Musk to do what he is doing with SpaceX and Tesla.
Imagine No Religion
You can knock that motivation. And to a certain extent, I knock it with you, but again, let’s bring this back to the real world.
How many poor people would be forgotten and ignored today without this fear?
How many hospitals and schools would not have been started?
How many monks and nuns would not be toiling away, making the world a better place, without this motivation?
Don’t talk to me about utopia and what you imagine people would be like without religion. Look at the world as it is today and the way people actually are.
The Weird but Good Catholic Church
If people think the church has strange rituals, I get that, and if they think we are superstitious, I get that, too.
What I don’t get is that people think the Catholic Church, on the whole, is not a force for good.
Every institution and movement has its dark spots. But with all due respect to Hitchens and Fry, to say the world would be a better place without all the Catholic parish community work, hospitals, St. Vincent de Paul groups, missionary activity, social teaching and advocacy requires a blindness and ignorance I find unpardonable.
Call us strange, and call us weird. Even so, you must admit, we are a force for good.
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