Stephen Fry vs Ann Widdecombe
Catholic Church
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ANN: When we ask whether the Catholic Church is a force for good, let’s just try to imagine a world today without, for example, the billions of pounds that are poured into overseas aid by the Catholic Church, contributing year on year more than any single nation. Imagine the developing world had been left without the input of the medicine and the education that was brought to it by the missions…

It isn’t only about the physical relief of the poor, it isn’t only about the work it does on Earth, but it is the message that it preaches. And that message is one of hope, that message is one of salvation. And it is all very well for some people to say in an intellectual arrogance to say, “We can do without that”, but actually billions of people across the world live by that message of hope and of salvation. They try to live by the commandments, and also by the interpretation of those commandments by Christ… I say to you tonight with no apology whatever, that a world without the Catholic Church would be poorer, would be more hopeless, and would be a worse place in which to live.

STEPHEN: There are cases, as Gwendolyn remarked in The Importance of Being Earnest, when “It becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind; it becomes a pleasure." …I want to read you some of the words of Ratzinger, the current Pope; [it] staggers me to admit that he is the head of state of a country. Incidentally Ann Widdecombe said “We didn't have the power of a nation state”; yes you do. You are a nation state- yes, I wrote it down you mentioned that. You are a nation state, and it is no accident that the Cairo- UN/Cairo population conference - when they were trying to do something about the world's population spinning out of control- Vatican City, as a nation-state represented at that conference, made a joint statement with the Islamic countries of the world - notably the most extreme Islamic countries of the world, led by Saudi Arabia - and it began “On behalf of the revealed religions of the world…” And what it did was essentially hobble and veto any possibility of women's sexual freedom in the world; because as we know, the Islamic religion and the Catholic Church have never been anything other than implacably opposed to women's choice in their own bodies and their destinies.

It's a little hard for me to know that I am disordered - or again to quote Ratzinger, that I am “guilty of a moral evil” simply by fulfilling my sexual destiny as I see it…In order to achieve and and receive love, it's a struggle; it's not one that needs a Pope to tell you how to do it, and it certainly isn't one who needs a Pope to tell you that you're evil. With six percent of all teenage suicides being gay teen suicides we certainly don't need the stigmatisation, the victimisation, that leads to the playground bullying when people say you're a disordered morally evil individual. That's not nice, it isn't nice.

ANN: If you are going to judge the Catholic Church at any given stage in history, then you have to judge it against the standards that were prevailing at the time; and condemning the Inquisition - which was a horrible thing - condemning the Inquisition in isolation, from condemning just about a whole - in fact, the whole of European society, which at that time rejoiced in punishment and torture as a means of dealing with criminality and with treason and with wrongdoing - to try and divorce the Catholic Church from that and say that it was uniquely guilty under the Inquisition, is simply trying to look back at centuries gone past and apply a standard that nobody applied at the time.

STEPHEN: Now all this is in the past and is irrelevant; I accede to Ann Widdecombe how irrelevant it is, except in one thing; this church is founded on the principle of intercession. Only through the apostolic succession - only through the laying on of hands from this Galilean carpenter, whom we can all admire - only from the laying on of hands to his apostles- to St Peter, to the other bishops, all the way down to everyone consecrated in this room- any one ordained here will know they are- they have this extraordinary power to change the molecules of wine into blood, literally; to change the molecules of paste bread into flesh, literally; and to forgive the sins of the peasants and the poor, whom they routinely exploit around the planet. Only this church has this extraordinary principle; that it is through these male priests - and only male priests - that this is given. It is a doctrinal fact; it is more than a doctrinal fact, it is a dogma. “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus”: outside the church there is no salvation.

ANN: Well no, the specific question was ‘Why is it not alright for a woman to be a priest, but it is for a woman to be an MP?' That's the specific question right; and I have to say to you, that really does betray a vast ignorance. A member of parliament, male or female, does not stand in Persona Christi at the point of consecration. The church is not about careers; the church is about vacations and about theology.

STEPHEN: Do you know who would be the last person ever to be accepted as a prince of the church? The Galilean carpenter, that Jew. They would pick him out before he tried to cross the threshold; he would be so ill at ease in the church. That simple and remarkable man; if he said the things that he was said to have said, what would he think? What would he think of St Peter’s? What would he think of the wealth, and the power, and the self-justification and the wheedling apologies?

It seems so tedious and so silly, and one of those little UNCLEAR games that Thomists and others play. Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo both proposed this extraordinary idea that babies who were unbaptised would not know heaven. They also proposed the idea of Purgatory, which doesn't exist in the Bible; there's absolutely no evidence for it. However, what an extraordinary brilliant coup to imagine such a thing as purgatory; that a soul needs to be prayed for in order to go to heaven - in order to turn left when he enters the aeroplane of heaven and get a first-class seat - that he needs to be prayed for. And for many hundreds - indeed, over a thousand years - you'll be amazed what generous terms those prayers came at. Sometimes as little or as two-thirds of a year's salary could ensure that a dead loved one would go to heaven; and money could ensure that your baby - your dead child, your dead uncle, your dead mother - could go to heaven; and if you were rich enough, you could have a chantry built, and monks would permanently sing prayers so that that existence in heaven for the child would go up and up and up, until they were at the table of the Lord themselves.

ANN: I think it is high time - I didn't want to get into too much theology tonight, but I think it's high time - that this interpretation of limbo by Stephen Fry was questioned. Now, I actually went to a Catholic school, I absorbed Catholic doctrine; I was certainly talked about limbo, and I don't actually recognise Stephen’s description of it. Because it wasn't for all eternity; what limbo was was simply - and I do appreciate that to most people this won't matter, but it just needs answering - what limbo was was straightforwardly a place where they waited for the second coming. That is all.

STEPHEN: (LAUGHS)

CHRIS: Long wait.

ANN: Yeah, a long wait.

STEPHEN: We must remember - as the point that was made - is that the church is very loose on moral evils, because although they try to accuse people like me - who believe in empiricism and the Enlightenment- of somehow what they call ‘moral relativism’; as if it's some appalling sin, when what it actually means is ‘thought’. They for example thought that slavery was perfectly fine-

ANN: And so did all (UNCLEAR)

STEPHEN: Absolutely okay; and then they didn’t. They thought until the year 2000 that a baby went to limbo - causing unbelievable distress to parents whose child died, unbelievable distress - and then with the wave of the hand and a stamp of a seal, it was no longer true. Something that had been eternally - or at least, true for 2,000 years - suddenly wasn’t; because the truth is complicated, it's hard, and what is the point of the Catholic Church of it says “Well, we couldn't know better because nobody else did." Then what are you for?!

 

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