The Catholic Church: more sinned against than sinner?

Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Henry Moore Gallery

When it was announced that the Pope would make a controversial state visit to Britain, atheist campaigners Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens threatened to get him arrested for ‘crimes against humanity’. Support for the stunt has come from commentators as diverse as environmentalist George Monbiot and cradle Catholic Libby Purves. While the focus of ire against the Catholic church is the alleged cover-up of clerical sexual abuse, there is an increasingly shrill chorus of critics of Catholicism more generally. The mildly bemused scoffing of secularists about the church’s old-fashioned attitudes to sex before marriage and contraception, let alone its quaint faith in miracles and saints, has given way to thinly veiled hatred among some detractors in recent years. Recent popes stand accused of: the deaths of millions of people from AIDS in developing countries because of their anti-condom dogma; encouraging an unsustainable population time-bomb by preaching against birth control; inhumanity to the terminally ill for opposing voluntary assisted suicide; homophobia for banning gay couples from adopting children in their care; being the enemy of science and women for pronouncements on embryo research and abortion. Is all this really an assertion of Enlightenment values over backward superstition? Should we welcoms the new mood as the triumph of rationalism and liberal social values over backwardness and misogyny? Or is something else going on here?

The Roman Catholic Church may well offend contemporary sensibilities less for what it believes, and more for what it represents. Perhaps it stands as an affront to today’s obsessions with accountability and transparency? Here is an institution that claims to be accountable to God and conscience rather than standards boards and ombudsmen, that demands obedience from its nuns and priests, and protects the secrecy of the confessional and the cloister. Fashionable anti-hierarchical attitudes clash with a church claiming to embody absolute authority; relativism seems affronted by unwavering faith. Might elements of Catholicism, including the sacrifice and discipline of celibacy, the rare sense of life-long vocation, and the willingness to defend beliefs despite their unpopularity, actually be worth defending? Might true humanists have more in common with Catholics than those those who see human beings as no more than mammals? What should we make of the modern day anti-Catholic crusades?

Listen to session audio:


Peter Cave
chair, Humanist Philosophers of Great Britain; lecturer in philosophy, Open University; author and broadcaster

John Fitzpatrick
professor of law and director, Kent Law Clinic, University of Kent, Canterbury

Dr Austen Ivereigh
Catholic commentator; joint co-ordinator, Catholic Voices

Wendy Kaminer
US-based writer on law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture; author, Worst Instincts: cowardice, conformity and the ACLU

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Produced by
Kevin Rooney politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?
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