Feisty debates between Catholics and secularists before pope visit to Britain
If you like debates about religion but were turned off by the uproar in the United States over Koran-burning and the New York Islamic centre, take a look at the rhetorical duelling that’s been going on in Britain ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit there starting on Thursday. For the past few weeks, the leading lights of secularist and atheist thought have been hammering away at the Catholic Church, playing up its sins like the sexual abuse crisis and arguing that the pope doesn’t deserve the honour of a state visit. A quick Google search digs out plenty of them.
(Click on the screen grab for video on British group’s proposal to arrest Pope Benedict during his visit/MSNBC via YouTube)
On the other side, a group of lay Catholics has formed a speakers’ bureau ready to face off with the critics and defend the pope and the Church. They’re a kind of rapid reaction force, ready to appear anywhere to refute the secularists and atheists. The result has been a feisty in-your-face exchange providing the pro and contra arguments for many current disputes over the Catholic Church. Some arguments could be criticised as too emotional or even irrational, but boring they’re not.
Catholic Voices, the speakers’ bureau that’s been putting up sparring partners for the Church’s critics, must already rank as one of the big innovations of this papal tour. Popes are no strangers to protests when they visit foreign countries, but the Vatican and the local Church hierarchy usually ignore the critics or give cautious responses. Under Pope Benedict, Vatican public relations has been so badly organised that both he and his aides have often provided even more fuel for criticism. Given the strong and mostly critical interest the media would show in the pope’s visit, these speakers – journalists, lawyers, students and a few clergy – decided the Church needed a more professional operation if it was to get its message across.
Catholic Voices coordinator Austen Ivereigh (photo at far right in screengrab from Sky TV debate, click on image for video), a former deputy editor of The Tablet and spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, gave me his thoughts about the project and how it’s been doing:
“We thought that our model of a ‘media-friendly, studio-ready, ego-free’ speakers would work well for both the Church and the 24-hours news media, but we’ve been amazed at its success. A big part of the success, we think, is that we making ourselves available to talk about absolutely anything –authoritatively, but in straightforward human language. I think the media have been really impressed that ‘ordinary’ Catholics have been standing up and rebutting these critiques – rather than polemicists or professional talking heads (or indeed bishops). We haven’t replaced those, of course, but have offered another kind of “voice” – deliberately non-expert, but very well briefed – alongside the usual commentators and spokespeople.
“It’s the fruit of six months of intensive briefings on hot topics, and media skills training. It’s been enormously satisfying to see a group of 20-odd ‘ordinary’ Catholics – not leaders of Church organisations, but people with jobs, generally in their 20s and 30s – appear in studios and carry off an effective 3-minute live broadcast interview. I think we’ve presented a much more ‘real’ face of the Church than the media are used to.
“The ferocity of the criticism directed at the Pope and the state nature of the visit – a lot of it deeply irrational, and clumsy in its allegations – has kept us in demand; journalists have been looking for responses that are straightforward and human, and which reflect attitudes in the Catholic community.”
Catholic Voices also runs a Media Monitor blog, tracking the debate in the media and talking back to its critics. There are plenty of links there to video clips showing their appearances on British television or articles in print. One interesting post that shows it’s drawn some blood recounts how a leading critic, the prominent lawyer Sir Geoffrey Robertson, pulled out of a Sky TV interview with Ivereigh and refused to debate him on Al Jazeera. Robertson argued in a new book “The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse” that the Vatican did not deserve a state visit because it was not really a state – despite the fact the Holy See is recognised as a sovereign state in international law, as Ivereigh has been telling anyone ready to listen.
It’s hard to say if either side is “winning” the overall debate – how would you judge it? The general tone in the British media is critical, so the Catholic Voices speakers seem outnumbered. They’ve held lively public debates before large audiences (see the YouTube video below) and been interviewed on TV and radio. The interesting thing is that a lay group, working with the approval of the local Church hierarchy but not on its initiative, has stepped forward to defend a pope and a Church that often has a hard time defending itself.
Just how badly the Catholic Church handles its communications is the subject of a new book I’ve just read by two sharp observers of the Vatican, journalists Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale and Paolo Rodari of Il Foglio. “Attacco a Ratzinger” (Attack on Ratzinger) recounts some of Benedict’s worst PR disasters such as the Regensburg speech denigrating Islam, the readmission of an excommunicated Holocaust-denying bishop and the recent series of clerical sex abuse scandals. It’s a sobering account of how cut off this five-year-long papacy is from the culture that most Catholics in developed countries live in. The pope and his aides seem to live in a bubble oblivious to the impact their words and actions will have outside the Vatican walls. Their communications strategy is defensive, reactive and ill-prepared, which often only adds to their problems. Marcello Foa, an Italian journalist quoted in the book, says Benedict’s Vatican “is like a city that’s often bombed from the sky but refuses to equip itself with anti-aircraft artillery, an efficient air force and sophisticated radars to spot incoming aircraft.”
John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter has already run a list of some of the issues, so let me just repeat it here with thanks to him:
- A September 2006 speech in Regensburg which triggered Muslim protest by appearing to link Muhammad with violence;
- The appointment, followed by the swift fall from grace, of a new Archbishop of Warsaw who turned out to have had an ambiguous relationship with the Soviet-era secret police;
- Reviving the old Latin Mass, including a controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews;
- Lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one who has denied that the Nazis used gas chambers;
- Comments aboard the papal plane to Africa to the effect that condoms make the problem of AIDS worse;
- Criticism from the Catholic right of Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate;
- Open conflicts among cardinals, most notably Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, and Angelo Sodano of Italy, the Secretary of State under John Paul II;
- Ecumenical tensions related to the creation of new “ordinariates” to welcome traditionalist Anglican converts.
As John notes, “It’s a measure of how bad things have been that this is actually far from a complete list … the series of disasters surveyed in Attacco a Ratzinger has unquestionably eclipsed Benedict’s priorities and message for a broad swath of the world. In a sound-bite, the tragedy of Benedict’s papacy is that this is a great teaching pope, whose classroom is all but empty because his schoolhouse is burning down.”
The book is only available in Italian so far, but I hope it will be translated into English and other languages soon. Then the next time I’m asked why the Vatican can’t get its PR straight, I could just tell people to read this book.