Awhile ago, I was listening to a debate on Intelligence Squared (I2) between Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry on one side, up against Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe on the other over whether the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world or not. You can listen to it yourself here. Hitchens was a journalist and writer. Stephen Fry is an actor. You can guess what Onaiyekan does and Widdecombe was (is?) a British politician.
I typically love listening to debates on I2. The panel is usually full of experts, and I always gain from them. But this particular one bothered me deeply. It’s not that the side against the Catholic Church didn’t raise what I can relate to as difficult issues. Hitchens at one point berrated the church for denying homosexuals – of which Stephen Fry is one – communion. It was a very emotional and personal moment, and you can hear the indignation in his voice. It’s not like being Catholic or believing Catholic doctrine makes for an easy life.
But the debate was not about whether the Catholic Church had certain aspects about it that were distastful or hard to swallow. The debate was about whether the Catholic Church could be called a force for good in the world. Overall, could we say that the church made the world a better place? And with one small section of Ann Widdecombe’s speech, the debate should have been over. Her words are worth stating without paraphrasing:
…when we ask whether the Catholic Church is a force for good, let’s just try to imagine a world today without, for example, the billions of pounds that have poured into overseas aid by the Catholic Church, contributing year on year more than any single nation. Imagine the developing world being left without the input of the medicine and the education that was brought to it by the missions. Imagine the absence of those collections Sunday upon Sunday for famine relief. Imagine the absence of the church in the local community. We play a vital role. And you don’t need to be a Catholic to acknowledge that we play that role.
As I said, the comment should have ended the debate, but it didn’t. Far from it. By the end of the evening, 2/3 of the people who came in supporting the idea that the Catholic Church was a force for good stopped believing it. And nearly everyone who came in undecided took the side against the church as well.
I kept thinking, “How did this happen?” How can so many people hear, forcefully, plainly, and without any contrary evidence that the Catholic Church does so much good in the world, and yet still walk away believing it’s warts outweighed it’s accomplishements? That the few priests who were child molesters outweighed the vast majority who were carrying the burdens of their congregations with them? I suppose it would be better, according to them, that the poor be left to die in the streets than that they should hear another homily about contraception and traditional marriage.
I pocketed these thoughts away without thinking about them too much for the months following that debate. But lately, with Mother Teresa’s canonization, the thoughts came back again. Along with most Catholics, I have been completely overjoyed at Mother Teresa being given this honor. I remember, even as a Protestant, the stories about her sacrificial work among the poor in what was then Calcutta. She inspired people of her own faith, of other Christian denominations, of people from other faiths, and of people with no faith at all. So it came as a shock to me when, along with the news of thronging crowds and celebrations worldwide, there were articles being published in major media outlets like the Huffington Post and NBC news about her apparently controversial legacy. I discoved that Christopher Hitchens had made a documentary slamming her left and right. The only legitimate claim I could find against her was that while she was receiving millions in donations, her hospices (not “hospitals”, mind you) ministering to the poorest in Kolkata were in conditions that didn’t meet western standards.* I suppose those criticizing her felt they could do a better job in Kolkata where at least 1 out of every 4 people live in the slums.
I started scrolling through my Facebook feed and discovered many people just eating the criticisms up. I tried debating with them. I tried posting articles. But no, Mother Teresa, to them, was a sadistic old woman who found pleasure in letting people suffer and underfunding her missions. One friend commented essentially that the Catholic Church was good for nothing.
I don’t know if this kind of unabashed, unashamed vitriol is particular to those who hate the Catholic Church or if we are just becoming a society that demonizes the opposition – everything becoming black and white, with no room for grey. But something is desperately wrong when an institution and individual can do so much to alleviate suffering, lift up the poor, give dignity to those forgotten on the streets, and try to be the conscience of a world always tending towards excesses of war and environmental suicide and still be spat upon and derided. Perhaps they don’t realize, as Widdecombe said just a little later, that the Catholic Church is not just the Pope and his priests. It is all of us, living and working day to day to make our common home a little brighter. When they attack Mother Teresa, they are attacking my mother. When they deride the Bride of Christ as being good for nothing, they are saying the same of me. I am the church. We are the church.
I want to believe that most people are reasonable. I want to believe that our good deeds shine forth and that, even if people don’t accept our doctrine, they can accept that we mean well and do good. But if our society is coming to a place where they can’t even see that anymore, I worry not for the church. I worry for the world.
*Of course, none of them mentioned that she didn’t just have one hospice to run. She had over 610 missions in over 100 countries her funds were funding – as well as other ministries that helped the poor outside of her own work. But why bother with minor details?