Rather famously, in 2009 the late atheist pundit Christopher Hitchens and actor Stephen Fry squared off against British MP Ann Widdecombe and then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, in an Intelligence Squared debate in London over the proposition that “the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.”
By consensus, Hitchens and Fry mopped the floor with the opposition.
Before the debate, members of the audience voted 678 to 1002 against the proposition, with 346 undecided; afterwards, the tally was 268 to 1876 against, with just 34 undecided, in what observers described as the largest landslide for one side of an argument in recent memory.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, who spends a lot of time thinking about how to defend the faith in a secular milieu, looks back on that moment as a watershed – an object lesson, among other things, in how far behind the Church was (and in some ways still is) vis-à-vis skilled polemicists and “evangelists” such as Hitchens.
Among the other results of that night, it was a motive force for the birth of Catholic Voices, the most successful Church communications initiative of my adult lifetime. Co-founders Austen Ivereigh, a Crux contributing editor and papal biographer, and Jack Valero, U.K. spokesman for Opus Dei, were convinced by the night’s evidence that Pope Benedict XVI’s looming trip to the country would be a PR disaster if something wasn’t done.
I wasn’t there for the debate, though, as fate would have it, I was with Onaiyekan in Rome the day before he flew to London for the showdown. I had a strong sense it might not go well, since Onaiyekan, as an African, just had a hard time taking the topic seriously.
In his world, the Church is basically the only voice of civil society that isn’t corrupt or driven by self-interest. It’s often the difference between people being fed or starving to death, being treated for their illnesses or dying of neglect, and between children going to school or growing up trapped by illiteracy and ignorance.
Onaiyekan himself is an example of the point. He became a national hero in Nigeria in 2005 when he delivered a famous Christmas sermon essentially shaming Olusegun Obasanjo, a former general who ruled the country in the 1970s as a military dictator and as its elected president from 1999 to 2007, into not amending the constitution to give himself another term.
For people such as Onaiyekan, the claim that the Church is a force for good is basically a tautology, something so blindingly obvious that the idea it requires a defense just doesn’t compute.
All this comes to mind in light of an initiative by Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops, to capture the work it does around the world in the form of a “photo of the month.”
This month’s image also comes from Nigeria, where CRS is helping to teach adults in 42,000 farming families how to read and write so they can access better seeds and fertilizers to increase their crop yields and family income.
That’s part of CRS’s broader commitment to Africa’s rising superpower, the most populous nation on the continent, where they put a special accent on empowering Nigerian women. Most of CRS’s savings and lending communities, intended to foster the growth of small businesses, are led and populated by women in the fields of agriculture, nutrition and health.
One such program is SMILE, intended to reduce infant mortality by supporting vulnerable children and caregivers. It’s targeted at household economic strengthening, food security, nutrition, child protection and health, and HIV, and by the end of the program in 2018, 500,000 children and 125,000 caregivers will have been reached.
CRS also runs a $170 million portfolio of anti-malaria programs, especially focused on children under five, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. Given that there were 214 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2015 resulting in almost a half-million deaths, 90 percent of which were in Africa, that’s no small thing.
CRS is also involved in the USAID “Feed the Future Nigeria Livelihoods Program” (FTFNLP), which uses a system of peers and influential leaders to improve agricultural livelihoods and nutrition. Through it, CRS trained 139 Community Health Extension Workers to provide counseling in 2015. They have reached over 195,000 individuals with health and nutrition messages.
On another front, CRS is helping a small number of vulnerable children attend a Catholic school in northeastern Nigeria. They’re paying their school fees and buying materials such as notebooks, pens, uniforms, and so on, and these are children affected by Boko Haram violence.
In turn, Nigeria is merely one among 90 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe where CRS is active, serving a grand total of 130 million people with no distinction whatsoever in terms of religion, gender, ethnicity or social class.
The scope of CRS’s commitment is awesome — more than 5,000 employees around the world and a total budget of almost three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Pulling back even further, CRS is one of the major players, but hardly the only one, in the broader Caritas Internationalis network, meaning the federation of 165 national-level Catholic charities active in 200 countries and territories worldwide.
For Catholics aware of that staggering investment in serving the most vulnerable and marginalized around the world, the idea that the Church as a force for good requires some sort of apologia is almost self-parodying.
That, of course, is quite apart from the root conviction of believers such as Nigeria’s Onaiyekan that the Christian Gospel is the truth about humanity’s origins and destiny, and therefore proclaiming it to the world is, by definition, a good thing.
Perhaps what Catholic apologists today ought to consider is a “show, don’t tell” approach. Rather than slugging it out on principle with pundits such as Hitchens and Fry, they could simply stand back and let the CRS’s of the world tell the story.
To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, you think the Catholic Church isn’t a force for good in the early 21st century? Look at what CRS is doing in Nigeria, and in countless other spots around the world, and the most compelling answer may well be, “I refute it thus.”