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.