Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?

There was a debate in 2009, hosted by Intelligence Squared UK, and available in full on YouTube. The topic was “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?” and the debaters were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry (against) and Ann Widdecombe, M.P. and John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja (for). It can’t have surprised anyone that Hitchens and Fry (and arguably mostly Fry) completely overwhelmed the opposition, resulting in a landslide against the proposition. To be fair, the opening survey was pretty overwhelmingly against anyway, but the closing survey was even more strongly polarized.

Still, I was disappointed with some of the arguments put forward, and thought I would chip in with a few “moves” that should have been made, and which would have resulted in a much more interesting debate. Now, obviously, I’m coming to this a bit late, but I somehow missed this one … maybe 2009 was especially busy or something.

Hitchens and Fry both took the traditional and obvious route of recounting the horrible mis-steps and failures the Catholic Church has made in the past (sexual abuse, supporting or at least not strongly denouncing the Holocaust, building enormous churches on the metaphorical backs of the poor, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and so forth). None of this was a surprise, and wasn’t informative either. There can’t have been anyone in the audience (live or via the interwebs) who didn’t know all this going in.

More than that, and to bring up the first move I would have hoped to see, the question is in the present tense (“Is the Catholic Church”). It would have been easy for Hitchens (who led off) to emphasize this, and to restrict his comments to the present. There is no doubt that the Church has done some horrible things, but they are not strictly relevant to the question. If the debate had been restricted to the present day, it would have avoided a lot of oft-repeated grievance listing, and allowed for the possibility of talking about things that might actually have a direct influence on those attending the debate (in whatever format). Not to say that history isn’t important, or doesn’t inform the current Church, but none of that content was to the point – it was basically a long list of red herrings.

That also isn’t to say that no current issues were discussed – they were. Fry’s points on condoms and aid in Africa, as well as on issues of sexuality and/or sexual preference were well taken. These are almost certainly issues that Church will be forced to apologize for in the future. I am merely pointing out that most of the commentary on the debate (especially from Catholics who found the con arguments impressive) relates to these points – to the present. The past is there, and much of it is pretty ugly, but that can be said for almost any group large enough, and influential enough, to still be around.

The next move is to take note of the final part of the question: “in the World“, assuming we can agree that the idea of being a force for good is pretty self-explanatory. “In the World” would have fixed the debate on the tangible (or dare I say “real”) as opposed to the spiritual activities of the Church. One argument about the institution being a force for good would have been to argue that people’s spiritual health is important (though points about this being a much lower priority in contrast to actual physical health are pretty easy to make). If that is the case – if the Church can argue that money spent this way is just as well-spent as money that does a more tangible “Good” – then the debate gets sidetracked into one about religion in general, and away from our final move – defining what is meant by “the Catholic Church“.

It is incredibly important to distinguish the Catholic Church (the organization) from individuals who belong to the Church. A fair amount of time was lost discussing the fact that individual Catholics donate a great deal of their money, time, effort, and so on to good (and often Church-organized) causes. There is no question that this is true, but it isn’t really relevant. A great number of non-catholics also donate money, time, and so on to causes they find valuable. Charity (or empathy, possibly) is a recognizable human trait (and isn’t even restricted to humanity).

Anyhow, the point is that individual humans are often charitable. The question might have been explicitly pointed in the direction of the Catholic Church as an institution, which would have been really interesting. In this frame, the question would basically be asking how the Church measures up against other charitable organizations. In this frame, the “religious” activities of the Church could be discounted (or rather, be looked at as overhead – costs that secular organizations don’t have to pay) as discussed above in “move 2”. “Regular” charities regularly post figures showing how much of each dollar donated actually get to the targets of those donations (as opposed to being “lost” to administrative costs and so forth). In this sense, and when dealing with the question of the Church as an organization that does “good works”, a great deal of what the Church actually does would have to be considered “lost” – all the wealth, vestments, artworks, the Vatican City, and so on, and so on. I don’t imaging anybody has a figure (or would ever let it see the light of day if they did) but i would be really interested to know how much of the donations of the billions of Catholics around the world actually make it outside the “doors” of the Church.

To sum up:

The debate should have led off with an examination of the exact question being asked (strange – that sounds like something a little to obvious to be pointing out). The question clearly deals with the present, but con arguments would have been much stronger if they were also targeted directly at tangible benefits and at the the institution. In this context, I think it would be relatively easy to convince almost any thinking audience that donations to the Catholic Church – assuming the donator wants to actually help people who need charity, to be a “force for good” in other words – would be much more effective if given to some other organization without the institutional baggage the Church supports. Many secular charities manage to get by with sub-5% admin costs. It would surprise me, to say the least, if the Catholic Church could match that performance.

Now, there is no question that Catholics give money to the Church to do with as it pleases, and that they merely hope that the money will do something useful (as opposed to buying funny hats or whatever). I am not arguing that the Church is ripping off its parishioners, but rather that if they want to really do some good, maybe they should look at how their money, time, and efforts are being used – maybe there’s somewhere else where they could get more bang for their buck.