I found the experience deeply disturbing, and it only a sense of duty to you, dear reader, that has me writing anything at the moment, when I would rather be pondering the meaning of what I experienced.
I took detailed notes of the entire debate, but it would be tedious for both me and you to reproduce it here when you can wait for the recording to come online and listen to it yourself.
I will make a few observations however.
1) The Melbourne Town Hall was full. They audience was both old and young. This is a topic in which people were interested. They were not debating the proposition “Is the Baptist Church a force for good in the world”. I don’t mean to pick on the Baptists, I am just saying that whichever way you cut the question, it at least comes to this: there is recognition that the Catholic Church is a “force”. Julian McMahan, in his opening statements, asked what “a force” meant – with reference to the largest growing “religion” according to census: Jedi Knights. The Catholic Church has been here for 2000 years, and it stirs emotions today as strongly as it did right at the beginning and has always.
2) The speakers “for” the proposition came at the question, as was to be expected, from the perspective of the immense amount of good that the Church does in charitable works, welfare and social justice. They argued that whatever failings might be attributed to the Church, these works outweigh them, so that on balance the proposition must stand. But Julian McMahon began with the important step of mentioning the “God” word: the Church is the People of God. “It is what it is” because they believe in Jesus who was divine, and “Jesus’ central them was that love is the driving force behind the authentic development of the person and society”. This angle was very popular with the audience – Sr Libby Rogerson spoke powerfully of her own experience in East Timor, Africa etc. But here is the question: it is true that the love of Christians has always been the greatest witness to the truth of the Gospel (“See how they love eachother”), but do we wrong-foot ourselves when we present this charity towards our neighbour as the Gospel itself?
3) The speakers against the motion based their arguments on three themes: feminism (Summers), anti-authoritarianism (Kennedy), and sexual libertinism (Marr). Marr was really caustic. Summers arguments were basically that the Church caused poverty by its teaching on abortion and birth control. Kennedy demanded the Church be run by “the people”. Marr twisted the Church’s teachings on sexuality into something that I couldn’t even recognised. But it is instructive that these three arguments are not about whether the Church is a force for good in the world – it is rather about whether or not I as an individual might feel in anyway restricted by the teachings of the Catholic Church. These topics are the same topics of debate that arose in the 1960s and have been with us as a part of the underlying Zeitgeist ever since. They have strong appeal to a great majority of people today, old or young. Because the Church does not endorse, but rather opposes, these themes, She is condemned without a hearing.
4) Catholics who fail to defend the Church’s teachings when the Church is under attack – perhaps in the vain hope that they will gain sympathy – do themselves, the Church and the Gospel no favours. At one point Marr asked the “For” panel point blank “Put up your hand if you think it is a sin for someone who has AIDS to use a condom.” Of course, the phrasing of the question was designed as a trap, but I take my hat off to Julian McMahon for at least stating that he agrees with the Church’s teaching that it is a sin to use artificial contraception. But the other two speakers (on the “For” side) rejected the Church’s position on this matter. They argued that the Church isn’t the hierarchy, and that it is what the people do that make the Church a force for good in the world. It is not well understood, even by Catholics, that it is precisely the unified governance and teaching of the Church’s pastors that holds the Church together. They live in a dream world where they think that all the good which the Catholic Church does in the world would still be possible if everyone were simply left to do what they felt best in their private conscience without the assistance of the authoritative magisterium.
5) Finally, I was very, very uncomfortable at some points. It is not a nice thing to be among a crowd of people loudly cheering and jeering against your community. I applaud the brave people who got up and spoke on behalf of the Church after the main speakers.
Two last comments. At one point, Peter Kennedy referred to the appointment today of Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett as the Apostolic Administrator of Brisbane. “Jarrett is well known as an ultra, ultra, ultra-conservative bishop. George Pell has enormous authority and will endeavour to put people like Jarrett in every diocese. There is no meeting between the people and the hierarchy.”
The last speaker of all was David Marr. He emphasised the world-wide dissent of Catholics from the teaching of “the hierarchy” (the magisterium). He spoke of the “miracle of silence and the miracle of obedience”. “Why do they just sit in the pews and shut up whenever some old priest starts laying into poofters? When are all these good Catholics that the “for” side has been talking about going to get rowdy, really rowdy, and start speaking up?” This comment was met with thunderous applause by the crowd, even by those around me who I know were Catholics.
Finally, the vote. There was a “pre-event poll” taken, as people entered the Hall. This gave 35% “for”, 34% “against”, and 31% “undecided”. The vote after the debate resulted in: 34% “for”, 59% “against”, and 7% “undecided”. Basically, Catholics (or Catholic sympathisers) made up about one third of the crowd. They did not find the “against” arguments convincing. But those who were “against” when they came into the room were not dissuaded by the Catholic side’s arguments, and those who were undecided were convinced by the arguments – such as they were – of the “against” side.
So my final observation after attending this event is that if next year’s “Year of Faith” is to mean anything, or to achieve anything, then we – the Catholic Church from top to bottom – will need to embark upon the “New Evangelisation” with a vigorous determination, and without any illusions about the battle before us. We cannot live in a dream world: if the Church is a force for good in the world – and I truly believe that it is – then we need to be aware that there are other, very influential, forces that are aligned against it. If it were not for the promise of Christ – that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church built upon the Rock of Peter – then I would indeed be fearful for the future of the Catholic Church. But instead we hear Christ’s words: “Do not be afraid; put out into the deep.”