Intelligence Squared (or halved?)

Here is an event Melbourne Catholics might like to get along to:

Intelligence Squared Debate: Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World
Melbourne Town Hall, 6:30PM – 8:30PM, Tuesday 15 November 2011

For almost two millennia, the Catholic Church has been the author and repository of some of the highest ideals of humanity. Yet, as humanity is flawed, so is the Church. Few would deny that the Catholic Church has dark chapters in its history. So much is expected of an institution that claims to bridge the sacred and the secular. Do these darker moments unfairly obscure the light? Or is the Catholic Church simply the most ancient of wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Speaking for the proposition will be Helen Coonan, Julian McMahon and Sister Libby Rogerson. Speaking against the proposition will be Father Peter Kennedy, Anne Summers and David Marr.


Helen Coonan
Senator Helen Coonan was a Liberal member of the Australian Senate representing New South Wales from July 1996 to August 2011.

Julian McMahon
Julian McMahon is a barrister and member of the Melbourne Catholic Lawyers Association.

Libby Rogerson
Sister Libby Rogerson IBVM is a Loreto sister currently working with Mary Ward International Australia, the Loreto Sisters’ aid, development and volunteer organisation.

Peter Kennedy
Father Peter Kennedy is a former Catholic priest who was forced to stand down from his position as parish priest in the South Brisbane diocese of St Mary’s in 2009.

Anne Summers
Dr Anne Summers AO is a best-selling author, journalist and thought-leader with a long career in politics, the media, business and the non-government sector in Australia, Europe and the United States.

David Marr
David Marr is the multi-award-winning author of Patrick White: a Life and The High Price of Heaven, and co-author with Marian Wilkinson of Dark Victory.

Of course, this was done before, disasterously, in the UK, when the Catholic speakers just were not up to the eloquence of the opposition (notably Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens). I think that debate was lost simply on the grounds of oratorical skill and entertainment. Hopefully that will not be the case this time around, as at least two of the speakers on behalf of the Church are professionals orators. Nevertheless, David Marr and Anne Summers are also very skilled debators, and it won’t be easy. I have also noted that the Catholic side has not been weighted with experts in either history or theology, but social justice (in particular Sr Rogerson and Julian McMahon). Perhaps that makes sense in this context, where the question is about the “good” the Church has done. Still, the Church has been a “force for good” in our culture in ways far beyond its charitable and social justice actions.

Just what “Father” Peter Kennedy will bring to the debate, we will have to wait and see.

Go here to book.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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25 Responses to Intelligence Squared (or halved?)

  1. Alexander says:

    I say (and maybe I just haven’t been around long enough to see many) – but where are the Dominicans in all this? I mean, heck, back in the middle ages, the Friars Preachers were a force to be reckoned with in debate, and even today they certainly would not be lacking in either historical or theological prowess.

    Today’s Catholic Church may not have a St Vincent Ferrer to wheel out in her rhetorical defense, but I am sure that a Fr Vincent Magat, O.P. could easily take a polemical wrecking ball to 99% of these clowns’ arguments.

    • Alexander says:

      Hmm, I have been told that the speakers in this debate were simply chosen by the organisers, and that the Church had no say as regards just who was going to step up to the plate in her defence – but then what sort of debate can it be? If it means that the outcome is basically to be decided beforehand by choice of speakers, then probably one not worth having in my opinion.

      Then again, I suppose it wasn’t so much a problem in the days when all this was done in the open air before an impromptu crowd.

      Actually there is a fantastic example of this related in St Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures VI, §§27-30 (, regarding the debate between Bishop Archelaus and Manes concerning the latter’s Gnostic dualism.

  2. Fr. John Cox says:

    I think this is a mistake. If I were Catholic or this was happening in an Orthodox context I would be frustrated by the premise. The question of the debate conflates “force for good” with “true church.” Therefor the endgame for the audience is not likely to be anything other than whether or not the Catholic Church is true/genuine. From my point of view even if you win you lose because the question at hand almost guarantees that even in the context of total victory people will leave feeling that Catholicism is justified on the basis that it is a force for good. On those terms the Red Cross or (Name your philanthropic organization here) is the true church. It doesn’t matter whether you’re RC or Orthodox that’s not a conflation that any serious Christian should be comfortable with.

    • Schütz says:

      A “mistake”, Fr? If so, it is an intentional one. The Wheeler Centre is not a Catholic institution, but a secular one. This event was not, in any way, organised or endorsed by the Catholic Church. The Wheeler people are just doing the same topic that was done in England under similar circumstances. Believe me, their concern is hardly for the question of whether or not the Catholic Church is “the True Church” or not. The opponents of the topic wouldn’t give two figs for any Church, whatever her claim to validity might be! I agree with you, whether or not the Church “is a force for good” isn’t the issue. But the goal posts for this game were not set by the Christians!

      • Stephen K says:

        Incidentally, I watched Stephen Fry’s address on Youtube via the link you included, and, though I enjoy and appreciate Stephen Fry immensely, I must say I was disappointed by the scope and character of his argument – Thomas More’s burnings and the condom controversy. But then, like Fr Cox (though not for the same reason), I think there’s a false dichotomy posed in the question: the complexity of the subject matter does not, in my view, permit an unequivocal yes or no answer. There are too many nuances, like what we mean or could possibly mean by “the Church”, and how we are to separate intention and good faith from acts or propositions which we might now think bad or false or vice versa. And what do we mean by “good”? Or whether the question ought better have been framed as “is the Church on the whole a force for human and social good or on the balance not?” Because clearly, if the many acts of love being performed by St Vincent de Paul workers, missionaries,and many others driven by an ethos of love of God and neighbour are to be considered, then the “church” is a force for good, or arguably so. This has to be weighed up against some very nasty historical and contemporary counter-examples. For it could be argued that the church can only be a force for good to the extent that its individual members are, such that it is a force for good when people are doing good things and a force for evil when people are doing evil things.

        I don’t think the question of whether it is true, the true or genuine theologically speaking is necessarily involved in the issue or discussion of its beneficence or otherwise.

      • Fr. John Cox says:

        I think that for Catholics being willing to entertain the question in a public forum is a mistake, regardless of who invited the debate. The only reason you ask a question like that is because you know that in the minds of audience members the status of the church as church will be on trial. Without that subtext the question isn’t really that interesting. I don’t understand why an intelligent RC apologist would be willing to enter the debate on these terms. You can’t win even if you do.

  3. Stephen K says:

    Actually, David, I think having Peter Kennedy is a understandable choice. His perspective, which is that of a man who knows what it’s like to operate as a priest within the official structure – and thus will be a pastor’s perspective – is an important one, since those in charge of flocks are very much at the coalface. Yet his dissidence and separation qualify him to represent the negative case. Whether his presentation will be brilliant and entertaining remains to be seen. I suspect it will be simply that of one who has sincerely come to a view about the church and will reflect the doubts and disillusionments that that process will have entailed. Hopefully, the debate will not be sought to be “won” on mere elegance and oratory, but the audience will actually listen and weigh up the ideas.

    By the way, David, I didn’t think it was worthy of you putting inverted commas around the title the brochure gave him for it can give the impression you’re being petty, or denigrating to the man. It’s far more respectful to simply call him by his name which is almost certainly how he styles himself. Besides, if you think he remains a priest, irrespective of his beliefs and actions, then why refuse the title? Alternatively, if you think he remains a priest but is no longer in a relation of spiritual fatherhood to you, why not simply refer to his baptismal and legal names?

    • Jeff Tan says:

      I think using quotes around “Father” is to question the title having been used in the event’s invitation. After all, his priestly faculties have been removed by those who gave it to him, and then there are the troubling details of how he has broken ranks completely. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but the interview quotes him referring to Jesus as a fable, metaphor, and not having actually existed:

      • Schütz says:

        Thanks, Jeff, for coming to my defence!

        Stephen, I completely understand the choice of Peter Kennedy for the “against” side – he is a high profile case of someone who thinks the Church to be a very bad thing indeed. But if they wanted “a pastor’s perspective”, it is notable that they didn’t chose “a pastor” for the “pro” side – many would have willingly made themselves available.

        I put the title “Father” in quotation marks for precisely the reason Jeff points out: his priestly faculties have been removed. You might counter that I don’t put this title in quotation marks when I use it of Protestant priests, eg. Anglicans. But the fact is that they still have that title, not by virtue of the fact that this is how they have “chosen to style themselves” but because that is the title bestowed upon them by their community. Again, you might say that “Father” Kennedy has a community which has bestowed this title on him, but I rather think it is the other way around… He has styled himself as “Father” and created a community which is happy to call him that.

        I don’t believe this is being petty. Given that the debate is specifically about “the Catholic Church”, I believe that the use of the title “Father” by Mr Kennedy (nb. other priests who have been laicised do not have the right to style themselves in this way, however much they may remain sacramentally conformed to the priesthood) is misleading to make it seem like one of the Church’s own is taking a stand against Her.

        • Stephen K says:

          Yes I get what you are saying, David. All fair enough. Although you’ve misunderstood me. I don’t think Peter Kennedy styles himself “Father” and I said that I thought he styled himself simply as “Peter Kennedy”; it’s not him who would be misleading in that respect.

          • Schütz says:

            Righto. You are probably right. It is the media who are still using that form of address for him. Just goes to show the power of that particular title.

            • PM says:

              Yet more proof, as if we need it, that Kennedy, in all those years when he pretended to minister as a Catholic priest, was a hypocrite and a fraud. I can sympathise with and cut a bit of slack for people’s honest struggles with doubt and with their moral failings – we all have them – but at some point in the last 30 years he passed over into hollow and self-serving pretence. Why his diocese allowed thiss to fester for 28 years is another question.

            • Stephen K says:

              “Proof”, PM? And what do you mean, “pretend” or “self-serving”? It is clear, rather, from the record that Peter Kennedy’s ministry was hard-working and involved with the marginalised at the sharp end, and that a substantial proportion of the parish community were responsive to, and involved in, his focus and theological presentation. In these circumstances, the “cut-and-dried” moment may come – indeed probably only can come – when an external event or factor triggers the most dramatic turn and face of conflict. As I’ve suggested before, affiliation with a church, religion or community is not a simple question of intellectual consonance but of a complicated, idiosyncratic, psycho-emotional relationship, especially if it has been rooted from childhood and earliest years. For broad parallels, try imagining or considering living in another country; being orphaned in mid-life from loving parents; being retrenched from a lifelong employment.

              There is absolutely no reason to accuse Peter Kennedy of hypocrisy or fraud from the ‘bleachers’, as you have done, especially given the fact that his critics appear to dismiss him as a poor theologian in the first place.

              How generous of you to “cut a bit of slack” for “honest struggles…with moral failings”! On the contrary. I’d be very surprised if Peter Kennedy or those primarily involved with him saw his religious evolution or the evolution of his thinking about church and ministry as a moral failing or indeed, anything other than a moral imperative and gradual consciousness. Moreover, it would be misleading to characterise the final stage of this as a “fester for 28 years”. In all likelihood, prudential judgment that the apostolic good that was being produced or channelled was paramount. Of course, we know that this priority was not agreed with by the Vatican. The rest is history, as they say.

              Sorry, PM, though you are perfectly entitled to disagree with Peter Kennedy and all the St Mary’s-in-exile community represents, I think calling him a fraud is a colossal over-reach.

            • PM says:

              Yes, Stephen K, I know I used strong language, and I hesitated over posting it. But I stand by them.

              As I said, I can understand honest difficulties over points of belief , and the last thing I would want to do is push the confused and the struggling out of the Church. Most of us have had doubts at some time or other – I certainly have, though I have learned to trust the universal church’s judgement over my own. And I fully recognise that there is more to membership of the church than assent to propositions.

              But when someone reaches the stage of repudiating nearly every word of the creed and encouraging others to do the same, it is simply dishonest – intellectually and morally – to remain in the ministerial priesthood and lay claim to the authority and resources that come with it. And he only stopped doing that when his diocese, far too late, made an issue of it. If you are in any doubt about this, consider the promises he made when he came forward for ordination.

              It shouldn’t need to be said, of course, that this isn’t about concern for the poor. I wish every parish did as much of it. But you can do it without reducing Jesus to a mythological precursor of Che Guevarra and Carl Rogers.

              As an English monsignor once put it, ‘better one infallible pope in Rome than a self-appointed one on every street conrner’.

  4. John Nolan says:

    Stephen Fry is one of those media celebrities whose fame rests less on his ability as an actor than on his reputation (promoted to no small extent by himself) as a universal clever-dick. Those of us with real intellectual ability regard him as a joke. What worries me about these so-called debates is that the Catholic apologists have nothing better to arm themselves with than an anaemic ‘justice and peace’ agenda. Chesterbelloc, where art thou living at this hour?

    • Paul G says:

      John, I agree completely that the debate is framed to get a “no” result. David Marr will reprise the Stephen Fry argument, namely that he is insulted by the Church’s opinion of his lifestyle (why does he care so much?). The affirmative case will rely on charitable works, to which the reply will be “red cross, doctors without borders, inquisition, crusades” etc.
      The real answer is that civilisation depends on Christianity because it is the truth of our relationship with God, but this will not be accepted, because the audience will not accept that there is any such thing as civilisation, beyond tolerance of each other.

    • Stephen K says:

      “Those of us with real intellectual ability regard him as a joke.”

      John, whom do you include in your ‘us’ besides yourself? And how can mere mortals tell what is “real” intellectual ability from non-real intellectual ability? Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam.

      • John Nolan says:

        Fry is a talented comic actor and a witty writer. Lucernam suam sub modio certe non ponit. Unfortunately the media does not distinguish between wit and profundity and he has been given the accolade of “the cleverest man in Britain”. Whether or not this has gone to his head I cannot say, but his views on the Catholic Church are prejudiced by his atheism and homosexuality, and some of his comments immediately prior to the Papal visit last year showed a surprising ignorance of history. In order to criticize or even lampoon an institution you need to understand it, which is where real intellectual ability comes in. And to be aware of the facts yet ignore them in order to score cheap points is intellectually dishonest.

        • Stephen K says:

          Fair comment, John. I must say I expected more from him than what I thought was his very superficial contribution in the UK debate. I was disappointed he even agreed to take part in the occasion in the first place. Perhaps that is the problem: we often expect more from celebrities than is sensible or realistic. It may be something of a truism to say that though ‘outsiders’ (for want of a better term) can often see aspects insiders are too enmeshed to see, still, insiders can see and experience aspects outsiders by definition cannot. I’d have thought that, logically at any rate, just as one black swan demolished the proposition that “all swans are white”, so too it required only instance of experience of good to counter the proposition that the church was not a force for good.

    • Peter says:

      You have kicked another goal John!
      The rabble for the “no case”would need counselling after the ChesterBellocs had driven them through the floor.

  5. Peregrinus says:

    If, as I suspect, Helen Coonan is one of your “professional orators”, then I have to say that I’ve sat through a couple of Helen Coonan addresses, and “professional orator” is not at all the same thing as “competent orator” or “persuasive orator”.

    I do note that the three people who are to argue in support of the Catholic church are all themselves Catholics. I think this is disappointing. Catholics have no particular monopoly when it comes to thinking about what is “good in the world”, and when Catholics argue that the Catholic church is beneficial there must be a tendency to discount what they say on the basis that it may be at least partly motivated by loyalty, tribalism, or call it what you will. I think it would make for a much more interesting discussion if the organizers had looked for a non-Catholic who was willing to affirm that the Catholic church is a force for good.

    Of course, the contrary perception may attach to the opinions of Peter Kennnedy. It would have been even more interesting if the organizers had found a Catholic who was willing to speak against the motion (on the basis, e.g., that the church has failed too often to proclaim the gospel effectively or to live it faithfully).

    The fact that the Catholics are lined up against the not-Catholics underlines the weakness that Fr Cox points to; is this a debate about social utility or about the claims of Catholicism? The motion suggests the first, but the dynamics of the set-up point to the second.

  6. Adam G says:

    Well a can of worms opened for sure. And not a single ‘genuine priest’ as opposed to a rebel priest or bishop on the panel. So just who are these people and what is the depth of their faith or non-faith? It will probably be a free for all and Kennedy will just have a blast at the Vatican and now-retired archbishop of Brisbane who sets off into the sunset. But at the end of it all, nothing will change. Poverty and malnutrition will be rampant across the planet; children will continue to die from malaria and no food and adequate water in Africa and South Asia. and of course the atheists and agnostics wil romp on criticising the Church of which they are not members, but about which they will seek to knock and attack.
    And while at it, the mention of Fry and Chris Hitchens rises some points. Fry is a man who has a huge following not only in Britain. This is due to his style, language, humour and intelligence. But the man is a very much the anti-catholic and raged against the visit by BXVI to England last year.This is often forgotten but he was a major critic of that visit yet kept quiet when huge crowds turned out to see the pope in London. Hitchens has been a rampamt anti-Catholic for years and has been probably the most vitriolic critic of Bl M Teresa whom he blasted and attacked in such a ruthless fashion while she was alive. How he could ever have a balanced view of catholicism amazes me.
    I often wonder just who picks these people to be on panels where the vitriol pours out and sours all rational discussion of the Church founded by Jesus. And who often forget that even the Lord chose a traitor as one of the 12. Even the great Lord and Master knows the falibility of human nature. And no debate will cure that or destroy the divine spirit that lives within the Church.

  7. Adam G says:

    I forgot.

    The following link is fascinating to read, from Clerical Whispers blog. Hope this is ok David, but it is an interesting comment in light of the Irish Church episcopal problems:

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