Catholicism on trial: Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry attack church’s record on gay rights

(This article originally appeared on Pink News)

The Catholic Church is not a force for good in the world: that was the overwhelming verdict after a heated debate this week. Stephen Fry and author/journalist Christopher Hitchens opposed the motion, while Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, supported it.

During the two-hour showdown, organised by Intelligence Squared at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, Hitchens and Fry mercilessly and articulately lambasted the church for its record of homophobia, child abuse and anti-semitism, as well as its stance on contraception.

Christopher Hitchens wasted no time in living up to his reputation as a bulldog debater: “On the institutionalisation of rape and torture, the maltreatment of children in their care, [the current pope] Joseph Ratzinger said: ‘It is a very serious crisis which demands us in the need for applying to the victims, the most loving pastoral care.’ Well, I’m sorry, they have already had that.”

Hitchens tore into the Vatican for its refusal to hand over Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Archbishop of Boston, to Massachusetts police for questioning about his role in the child abuse scandals. “Here is a man wanted for the promotion, protection, covering up and defence of people whose crimes against children are too revolting to specify,” he fumed. “Yet he is acting as vicar of the American Catholic Church in Rome, personally appointed by the Pope and in 2005, even joining the Conclave, to decide who the next pope should be.”

This brought him to the topic of homophobia: “The rape is not to be relativised, and certainly not to be excused by the hideously false claims made by some conservatives, that this wouldn’t happen if queers hadn’t been allowed into the church.”

“The church can apologise, too, for condemning my friend Stephen Fry, for his nature. For saying he couldn’t be a member of your church even if he wanted to. Don’t condemn him for what he does, condemn him for what he is! This is obscene, disgraceful and inhumane, and it comes from hysterical, sinister virgins who have already betrayed their charge of children.”

He showed the hypocrisy of this exclusion, by comparing it the to the willingness of the pope to accept back into the church Richard Williamson, a bishop from an extreme right-wing sect, which denies the Holocaust happened.

Hitchens also gave a list of evils committed by the church over the centuries, including the Crusades, the sacking of Constantinople, the Inquisition, and the torture and murder of scientists and protestants. He laid the responsibility for the Holocaust at the Church’s door, which he claims was made possible by role in inciting hatred of Jews over the centuries: “That the church taught that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Christ until 1964, twenty years after the Nuremberg trials, may or may not have had something to do with the availability of a reservoir of hate to tap into in Germany, Poland, Austria, Spain, Italy and elsewhere.”

Widdecombe gave a spirited defence, protesting at Hitchens’s exaggerations about the Church’s responsibility for inciting genocide in Rwanda, and highlighting the great risks taken by Catholic priests and nuns across Europe in protecting the Jews during the war.

She stated that, because so little was known about paedophilia even until a few decades ago, when magistrates awarded sentences of a few months in prison until as late as the 1990s. It was thought people who abused would simply stop, she claimed. On charity, she added: “Billions of pounds each year are poured into overseas aid by Catholics, more than any other single nation for medicine and education. Imagine the absence of those collections.”

Irritated by the focus of the debate on sex and condoms, she claimed: “The church is about hope and salvation. And it is intellectual arrogance to say people around the world can simply live without that. People are trying their hardest to live by Christ’s message; by the commandments, by the interpretation of those commandments. Sometimes they don’t quite manage. It would be a poorer, more hopeless place without it for many.”

She maintained that it was the church’s critics who were obsessed with sex, and that condoms have been ineffective in tackling AIDS in Africa.

While forthright in his condemnation for the church, Stephen Fry first emphasised the importance of showing solidarity with the religious believer: “I do not want to express any contempt towards any individuals of that church. They are welcome to their sacraments to their faith and the importance and the joy they receive from it. This joy is sacrosanct to anyone, of any church in the world. It is important as I also happen to have my own beliefs, in the eternal nature of trying to discover more truth in the world. It is an empirical fight that began with the Enlightenment, and there is nothing the Catholic Church likes to do more, than attack it.”

The latter was a reference to the torture of Galileo, who was famously forced to recant his beliefs about the Earth revolving around the sun, to avoid being burned at the stake. The Vatican finally decided he was right after all, in 1992.

On homosexuality, Fry said: “It’s a little hard to believe I am disordered or guilty of a moral evil simply for fulfilling my sexual destiny. It’s hard to be told I am full of evil. I think of myself full of love, whose only purpose in life was to achieve love, and who feels love so much from nature and everywhere else. In order to achieve and receive love, you don’t need a priest to tell you how you do it. You certainly don’t need a pope to tell you, you are evil. And the many LGBT teenagers who attempt suicide certainly don’t need the stigmatisation and victimisation that leads to playground bullying, that comes from saying you are a disordered morally evil individual.”

In contrast, Fry went on to describe the priesthood as being full of ‘extraordinarily sexually dysfunctional people’, since celibacy was neither natural nor normal.

He attacked the church for using its power as a nation, siding with extremist Islamic states in the UN to veto any resolution on women’s sexual freedoms as well as LGBT rights.

But most of his venom was reserved for the consequences of the Church’s position on contraception. He highlighted his experience of Uganda, where AIDS was once successfully tackled by the ‘ABC’ policy of Abstinence – Be Faithful – Correct use of Condoms. Now, this is jeopardised by reverting to abstinence only approaches. “I don’t deny abstinence is a good way of not getting AIDS. It really works. But so do condoms!” he thundered. “[The Pope] spreads the lie that condoms increase the incidence of aids. He actually makes sure that aid is conditional on saying no to condoms. The pain and suffering you see as a result is appalling.”

Fry asked the audience to consider if the Catholic Church reflected Jesus’s message of love: “One person who would be the least to be accepted, would be the Galilean carpenter. That simple and remarkable man, would be so ill at ease in the church. You do not need this palace of marble and gold. What would he think of any of that, and someone who dared to lecture others on family values? He would be horrified! There is redemption for all of us, including the church. It has to get rid of this power, the wealth, the hierarchy, sell all the loot off, and concentrate on the essence of its beliefs. Then I would stand and say it is a force for good. But until they do, it is not.”

One would feel sorry for the unfortunate Archbishop Onaiyekan, who lacked the fiery oratory skills of his opponents. Repeatedly referring to his co-defendant as ‘Miss Weatherman’ did nothing for his cause, either. But he lost his argument due to his evasiveness in the face of such severe accusations and, in particular, by his refusal to apologise for the church’s handling of child abuse.

During the Q&A session, many in the audience vented their anger at the church’s homophobia. It was a reminder that this was not just any old intellectual debate. For some, it was as if their personal integrity were on trial. The chairwoman, BBC World broadcaster Zeinab Badawi, turned to the Archbishop to ask what Jesus said about homosexuality.

“That’s not the right question,” his Grace retorted, to hoots of derision from the audience. He then went on to claim that said that those engaging in sexual acts aren’t automatically condemned for it afterwards, as “each has his own story to tell”.

This seemed a bizarre assertion, given the funding provided by the Catholic Church for campaigns aimed at banning gay marriage in California and Maine. Hitchens mocked this: “The Archbishop is completely wrong. It doesn’t just say homosexuality is wrong, in the same sense as divorce and contraception. Wherever it can, [the church] bans these things and punishes them. Homosexuality is not sex, it is a form of love and I am proud to have Stephen as my friend, and when my children were young, as babysitter also. If anyone had turned up to babysit in holy orders, I’d first call a cab and then call the police.”

He had no patience either for Widdecombe’s plea not to judge the church by today’s standards, wondering why God decided not to reveal slavery was wrong until the 19th century, decades after humanists such as Thomas Paine came to that conclusion. For the defenders of the faith, this was a rout. The audience overwhelmingly opposed the motion, 1862 against, to 268 votes for.

Author: Adrian Tippetts 


Yesterday, first-hand, I saw Twitter achieve two apparent results for civility. In the morning, I posted a tweet drawing attention to an online report of a tube official seemingly humiliating an elderly passenger who had his arm caught in a door. A little while later I RTd (‘re-tweeted’: passed on) Charlie Broker’s strongly-worded thoughts on Jan Moir’s unpleasant article of dailymailia. The latter was then picked up by Stephen Fry, and by the end of the day it had gained such widespread awareness that both stories had made the evening news. The tube official was investigated under pressure from Boris Johnson and received a suspension, and Moir issued a statement saying she was a victim of an orchestrated campaign.

Moir’s interpretation was wrong, and betrays a misguided notion about the nature of Twitter and similar forms of networking. There is no orchestration – just the rapid spread of information. Tweets (posts) are passed on, word gets around, and when a Twitter giant like Stephen Fry mentions it, a million people hear and many pass it on themselves. The response to Moir’s article came from areas much further than the Twittersphere, and although the accusation made was one of homophobia, her critics were not defined by sexuality. Ads were withdrawn from her online article, a strong critical voice was heard, and the Daily Mail became mortal for half a day. If the Mail exists to motivate the small-minded complaining communities of outraged middle England, for once it had a clear voice of outrage hurled back at it.

I hope that the tube official was fairly investigated and deserves his suspension. And that the complaints lodged against Moir have a worthwhile effect. As vast numbers shun print and turn to the net for their news, yesterday sounded an interesting note: an infamous newspaper held to account by a sharp, informed, conscientious public. It may even be a first. I did not know Gately, but there was time when he feared the press ‘outing’ him. If his passing has caused this familiar form of mawkish, snide journalism to be held to account, then perhaps we could see that as a tribute to him. And to the astonishing impact of Twitter, and the shared decency of its users.


Twitterstorm a’brewing

A storm of complaints has brewed online thanks to Charlie Brooker, Stephen Fry and our own Mr Brown. Over 800 people contacted the Press Complaints Commission about a rather foot-in-mouth article published by Jan Moir of the Daily Mail.

The article comparing Stephen Gately’s death to “nothing more than an unfortunate mishap on a holiday weekend, like a broken teacup in the rented cottage” alarmed more than a few people. Continuing, it seemed to express that the death was likely to be suspicious, despite the coroner’s report stating otherwise, because of Gateley’s sexuality.

In a later rebuke Moir said “Some people, particularly in the gay community, have been upset by my article about the sad death of Boyzone member Stephen Gately. This was never my intention,”

“In what is clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones,” Moir added.

The PCC have said it will only launch an investigation if it receives a complaint from Gately’s family. The Mail have changed the article’s headline from ‘Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death’ to ‘A strange, lonely and troubling death…’.

Charlie Brooker has called for people to be sensible on the matter; “Unchecked hysteria helps nobody. Let’s all have a lovely peaceful evening, no matter how annoyed” after Moir’s home address began appearing online.

You can read Brooker’s article here and read Moir’s apology here

Derek Acorah to conduct Michael Jackson Séance for Sky

Yes indeedy. You heard it here first. Unless you read Broadcast.

Can you honestly imagine anything – anything – more anus-invertingly unpalatable than this? I hate myself for drawing attention to it.

“The shows were ordered by Sky 1 HD commissioning editor Clare Hollywood, who will also executive produce. Steve Regan and Melanie Leach exec produce for Twofour.”

And we salute them for it.

So proud to be in telly.



I was very reticent to get onto Twitter. Why on earth would it be of any interest to anyone how I was conducting my days, and why on earth would I care how they went about theirs? It took much proselytising and a ready stream of drinks to have me reluctantly, whiningly, well-alright-I’ll-try-it-for a while-ly agree to pop my head round that particular door and see if it looked like a party I’d enjoy.

I twitter (I believe one twitters a tweet, but some seem to use ‘tweet’ as the verb, so I’m a little unsure) sporadically, with no particular agenda, mainly to pass on things that amuse. As this blog passes to the Twittersphere through the same feed, I figured less serious, personal tweets from me might balance out the grander posts from Mother Blog. Having said this, the number of my ‘followers’ (I prefer ‘disciples’, it’s just nattier) has grown to such proportions that I am, during quiet moments, wondering how I might go about embracing so many people to try something rather more nefarious. Bear with me, I’ll find something.

I try to scan at least my recent ‘mentions’ and replies as much as I can without endangering my career, getting run over or irritating my real-life companions to the point of violence. I’m aware that quite a proportion of these tweets boil down to people requesting I reply to them; a sadly insurmountable task given the numbers, were I to comply. So forgive me: I do read most tweets, and tend to DM a response to things I find interesting, but the numbers are huge and time is oftentimes sadly lacking.

I follow very few people, as I like to have only a manageable number of tweets pop up for worthwhile reading when I open up Twittelator, or Tweetie 2, or twatever. This is perhaps because I am a novice in this strange new world, and maybe I should throw myself in and follow anyone and everyone. For now, I have turned down requests to follow a good number of real-life friends for this reason, which shames me a little, and a million or so requests from friendly twitterers to do the same. As it is, I follow @stephenfry, because you get him free when you join Twitter; my co-conspirator and fluffer @andynyman, our own @lordcoopy and a small handful of other chums including the brilliant @serafinowicz.

As a performer with a public profile, Twitter puts me horribly close to real feedback, which is a mixed blessing. Very quickly one learns not to read reviews in order to remain sane (I don’t even read interviews or articles about myself any more), as one can skim past a hundred glowing comments and get to a single nasty dig which then eats away at one for days. And the internet has a habit of bringing out witless vitriol in people in a way that other fora tend not to. Politeness and decency are quickly abandoned by most when they are not face to face with those they criticise, and probably don’t even imagine that their comments might be read by the person in question. That one in a hundred comment, through some infuriating glitch in ones sensitivity, has a vastly disproportionate effect to the many positive ones which remain largely ignored. The lovely thing about Twitter is that, unlike reading blogs or online discussions, eighty percent of the comments are from people who are amiably disposed, and it warms the ego a little to delve into such kind thoughts, albeit sixty three times a day. The trick is to peripherally anticipate the occasional ‘@derrenbrown is a prick’ tweet, and jump past it still smiling, as it scrolls down into vision.

For those who find the thought of Twitter ridiculous, I do not presume to argue. Vapid and ludicrous, of course. I read a tweet from a tearful lady who had just received a hug from a person she didn’t know in the street and had decided on the spot to withdraw from Twitter (which had presumably taken up much of her time), implying that it was an empty place that bore no comparison to real-life relationships. Indeed it is, and should be no substitute for them. It is, most of the time, footling and featherbrained: luckily, we can enjoy plenty of things in life which are pretty inconsequential, and appreciate the wit and colour they add to our days. I can’t honestly think of a reason for the stuffed giraffe which is looking at me from my hallway other than I like it being there and it’s a fun place to hang scarves. But occasionally, with Twitter’s capacity to spread important ideas within moments, it can also be utterly majestic and invaluable. Though it has to be said you might not find that so much on my feed.

Right, I haven’t checked my mentions for almost twelve minutes now, so off you pop.