There are times I wholeheartedly agree with Gerard Henderson, but I do think he is often shrill. His correspondence with ideological foes is painfully pedantic and repetitive.
Nonetheless, I read his Media Watch Dog blog because it keeps me alert to a media bias which is so overriding that it might otherwise become undetectable. “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.”
This week he reviews ABC Radio’s coverage of Pope Benedict’s resignation. He was dismayed to hear one guest after another criticise the outgoing pontiff — not because he doesn’t like contrary opinions, but because he expects the ABC to provide a balance of opinions. Linda Mottram, Paul Collins, Fr Frank Brennan, The Tablet‘s Robert Mickens, and Fr Bob Maguire are by no means a uniform chorus of voices. But as you can easily imagine, they do harmonise on the note that Pope Benedict is “too conservative.”
So in an hour and a half across several ABC Radio outlets, only critics of the Vatican were heard discussing Benedict XVI’s papacy. The prevailing ABC group-think did not lead to a realisation that there are some Catholics who support the Church’s teachings and some non-Catholics who admire Pope Benedict XVI.
Henderson especially gets stuck into Linda Mottram’s claim that Pope Benedict “has been very divisive.” And he praises Scott Stephens, ABC Online’s religion and ethics editor, for his defence of Pope Benedict’s legacy:
Scott Stephens: Wow. I’ve heard Peter Fitzsimons say some pretty stupid things about the Pope but I think that just about takes the cake. And I’m sure that we could find some better, some more intelligent, certainly some better informed people to assess the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI apart from someone like Christopher Hitchens. Some really awful and ill-informed and derogatory things – [Interrupted]
Peter FitzSimons: [interjecting] Go on get to it, what? What? Spread ‘em out.
Scott Stephens: What, what? For instance, I’m not sure if Paul Collins would agree but it seems to me from the research that I’ve done – from the immense reading that I’ve done on this topic – that there’s no one in the life of the Church today that can claim to have done more to eradicate the cancer of sexual abuse – and that’s Pope Benedict’s own phrase “The Cancer of Sexual Abuse”, from the life of the Church and the whole culture of cover-up and craven and cowardly bishops from the life of the Church than Joseph Ratzinger – in his initial role as prefect and his subsequent role as Benedict XVI.
Peter Fitzsimons: So was Hitchens wrong? Was Hitchens wrong in what was published in the Sydney Morning Herald?
Scott Stephens: Absolutely.
Peter Fitzsimons: So Hitchens was wrong?
Scott Stephens: Absolutely. My God! Absolutely. As wrong as someone like Richard Dawkins who described Pope Benedict as this ‘leering old villain whose first instinct when he heard of children with their pants down was to cover up the crime,’ and as wrong as someone like Geoffrey Robertson QC who described the Pope as -
Peter Fitzsimons: [interjecting] If I may —
Scott Stephens: — No hang on — as ‘the global CEO over a global paedophile trafficking network.’
Peter Fitzsimons: Okay.
Scott Stephens: This is quite preposterous.
You can read Henderson’s column at The Sydney Institute. . . If you can bear it.
It’s not as compelling as the debate itself of course, but the ensuing discussion about Monday’s Q & A is nonetheless quite interesting.
I made a rare visit to the Catholica forum board on Tuesday, to gauge the reaction of Catholics who don’t think like me. I didn’t perservere with the whole thread, but the first few posts credited Pell for not embarrassing the cause. In Catholica land, that’s high praise indeed!
In contrast, a similar discussion on Fr Z’s blog was critical of Pell, especially for his claims about Adam and Eve. Fr Z himself posted the video without comment, though he does defend the Cardinal’s claim that atheists can go to Heaven.
Andrew Bolt, as is his wont, turned to the data. In his blog on Tuesday, he awarded the debate to Pell, on the basis that Pell’s citations were vindicated, while Dawkins’ were not. Quadrant, too, refutes Dawkins’ assertion that Hitler was a Catholic.
In his newspaper column yesterday, Bolt (a self-described agnostic) developed Pell’s argument that Christianity restrains the pursuit of power while atheism gives it license. But he also unearthed an admission from Dawkins himself that Hitler was no Christian. (An online subscription is normally required to access News Limited columns, but if you arrive at an article via Google, you can read it in full.)
Most interesting of all was Greg Sheridan’s analysis. Here’s how he starts:
There were times in Monday night’s great debate . . . when you felt the boxing authorities would step in and call a halt to the bout. Dawkins was so obviously boxing above his weight division, was so completely outclassed in all aspects of the encounter, that you felt the event promoters were being cruel to him.
Sheridan’s piece most closely accords with my own analysis. Dawkins landed very few blows; he really was outclassed. Pell landed several, though it must be admitted he also clobbered himself a few times, without any help from Dawkins. Still, I’d argue that Pell won emphatically.
Not everyone agrees. The Age’s Karl Quinn declared it a draw (a judgement apparently lost on his sub-editor). Others insist that Dawkins won hands down. Which goes to show, I think, that one’s pre-established position on the question of God determines how one judged the debate.
One of my very first posts on this blog related to Cardinal Pell’s effective witness as a controversialist. (I’ve given up trying to retrieve the archive. No great loss to posterity, I’m sure.) It seems apt that the subject should be revisited so early in the blog’s second incarnation.
Last night’s Q&A discussion between Pell and Richard Dawkins was entertaining if nothing else. If you missed it, you can catch it on iView, or watch it on YouTube:
It was good TV. It didn’t have to be. The recent debate between Dawkins and Rowan Williams proves that! The BBC compared that exchange to “a rather polite philosophical chess game.”
I don’t think anyone would characterise last night’s encounter in such terms. A few cheap shots were attempted on both sides. And the disagreements weren’t exactly friendly. But it not only made for better TV, it also made for a more satisfying intellectual exchange.
We tend to say that passion obscures reasonable argument. I’m not so sure. Pell v Dawkins was a contest filled with a passion which lent itself to a clarity of ideas. In contrast, Williams v Dawkins was urbane and arcane, and frankly obscure.
I’d be surprised to learn that Pell or Dawkins won over any of their respective antagonists. But that’s not really the point. Both parties succeeded in revealing the heart and soul of the debate over God. They each presented the big ideas which underpin their competing philosophies. For that reason, last night’s debate was a worthy exercise, and it was also an edifying one. In the life of the mind — and, I would argue, in the life of the polis — robust debate is better than no debate.