Rhetoric rules OK

Even had I known in advance of the Intelligence Squared debate at which Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop Onaiyekan were soundly trounced defending the motion that “The Catholic Church is a Force for the Good in the World”, I would not have attended.

Such occasions are not mounted to explore truth but to use the force of rhetorical tactics to drive home selective points which will appeal to an often prejudiced audience. Not that I dislike public controversy – as an intellectual exercise and an opportunity to strut one’s stuff it is great entertainment.

When I took part in such things in the late 1950s, I was doing so at Marble Arch and Leicester Square for the Catholic Evidence Guild. But then our training for this was extremely demanding. We were required to make presentation after presentation to a roomful of experienced speakers who had learned to deal with every kind and technique of attack. They were merciless for our own good. No one should enter the lions’ den without the full equipment to deal with lions. By the accounts, neither of our champions was so prepared. Folly.

One rhetorical device which is worth mastering is called Tu quoque (“You also”). It doesn’t get you nearer to the truth but it can unsettle opponents, and make palpable hits.

Take, for example, the case of Galileo, which is so often raised as an example of the Church’s opposition to science. Of course there is a good defence for the Church’s decision in the context. But it takes time to demonstrate, and no one will listen. Much more (rhetorically) effective is to say: “That’s a strange accusation to make given that the history of science is marked by its refusal to accept plain evidence, with far more serious consequences than Galileo.” The audience will sit up (doesn’t science, unlike the Church, follow the evidence?). And you will be challenged. So you can take your pick of answers.

You might take first William Harvey’s demonstration of the full circulation of blood, which he published – with experiments and reasoned arguments –  in 1628. His evidence was rejected by conservative medical science, and it took some 20 years before it was accepted.

More dramatic is Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who established, with indisputable results, that lack of hygiene led to a high rate of sepsis in midwifery and other medical treatments. This was in the 1840s. Despite the clear evidence his view was rejected time and time again by the scientific community of doctors. It was not until the last decades of the 19th century that medical hygiene began to be more widely recognised. Meanwhile, a very large number of deaths, particularly in childbirth, had taken place. It is thought that the mental illness which preceded Semmelweis’s death was caused by the continued, tragic rejection of his proofs.

The result of medical science’s conservatism was the death of many thousands of innocent people. Galileo only got house arrest.

In another part of the woods an attack may be made in this form: “You Catholics refuse to be guided by reason. You insist on faith, which none can prove.” You could, of course be tempted into philosophical argument, but how much better to say: “I have always been intrigued by the superstition of near-atheists – I do not call them atheists because it would be uncharitable to insult their intelligence. It’s really quite startling what they will believe without any evidence at all.” Again the surprise, again the challenge. So how do you back your statement up? Take your pick once more:

“I think I’m right in saying that you put a great deal of weight behind reason. Is that not so? I have always been disappointed when I have asked people to demonstrate the validity of abstract thought – without of course using abstract thought to do so. They never seem to be able to. I hope that you can, since you base your case on reason.”

Since this is a logical impossibility the demand may seem a trifle cruel. But this is a game where you take no prisoners. You might continue:

“I see you are scathing about miracles. But in the whole Bible and the history of miracles I have not come across a single one that is as far-fetched as the one that secularist scientists seem to believe automatically. I mean the miracle that something can emerge out of nothing by its own power. Do please explain why you believe this and how it could come about.”

Or if you really want to be naughty, try this: “You have condemned immorality in the Church over its history. I find this an odd approach because you also believe that human beings are no more than a complex of evolved neurons, entirely material. If that is true how can you blame the Church for anything it has done? Without free choice, morality and immorality have no meaning. Perhaps you could explain this strange contradiction in your thinking.”

Of course the Tu quoque technique I have described is no more than a tiny sample of the rhetorical skills built up since the Greeks and the Romans. And they are devices. Socrates, through Plato, rightly put rhetoric on a par with a skill like cooking. This did not stop him using such devices throughout his dialogues. But if we are to enter the public forum we need them. At the very least they put our opponents on the back foot, and leave even a prejudiced audience with some splinters of doubt in their minds.

Perhaps you agree, or you may think that such techniques are unworthy of the Christian. Perhaps you have further ideas on how to counter the ungodly. Let’s have some tips.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Rhetoric rules OK

  1. claret says:

    Like Quentin I had not heard of this debate until I read of the flotsam that surfaced because of it.
    I too am surprised, disappointed and dismayed that any ‘leading catholic’, even with the best of intentions, would submit themselves to a debate that was patently unwinnable because there is so much to ‘go at’ when attacking the Catholic Church.
    Added to this is the anti-Catholicism that is never far from the surface in this country ( you only need to scratch at it for it to rise up,) and there can only be one outcome.
    The machine-gun scatter approach that any anti catholic has in their armoury can never fail to hit home with several bullets.
    Evidently I read that Stephen Fry used this old technique and all of his rants went unchallenged because of the sheer volume of them so the truth of any of them became totally irrelevant. Volume of charges was sufficent to win the day.
    Over 2000 years of history gives an accuser a lot of material to go at. But of course the mention of child abuse and the subsequent cover ups and the merest hint of some kind of vatican involvement is enough in itself to destroy any arguement of the Church being a force for good in those who have their own agendas.
    As for the audience how can any UK audience be truly unbiased when Catholicism is a minor religion? Added to that the fact that secularism has only one real target to aim at and the face of hated Christianity in this country is not the Queen but the Pope.

  2. James H. says:

    We shouldn’t underestimate the damage this ‘debate’ caused. I read in the Herald that it’s to be broadcast! Why was our side so unprepared and unsupported? This should have been advertised far and wide. Anywhere where that tipsy Trotskyite Hitchens appears needs to be sandbagged!*

    These debates are not about truth, or not essentially – we should get that out of the way as soon as possible. But we have to get our points out, short and sharp, for an attention-deficient audience who might think we don’t have an answer to the charges.

    I wish I knew as much rhetoric as Quentin has in his little finger. I could pose a few gems:
    ‘Given that the population of southern Africa is over 90% non-Catholic, why do you think people there should care what the Pope says about condoms?’
    ‘Can you give an objective, scientific reason why paedophilia is wrong – only without using unscientific concepts like human dignity?’
    ‘Hitler’s Pope? Oh, you mean the one who personally saved 8000 Jews?’
    et cetera, et cetera.

    Quite apart from being a lot more entertaining, it would help illustrate the bankruptcy of a truly mendacious subculture.

    Rhetorical techniques are not unworthy of Christians – in fact, we’re in the best position to put them to a worthy use.

    Having said that, we should make sure our own practice matches our preaching – if you don’t walk the walk, you can’t really talk the talk.

    * That’s not libellous, by the way – he’s been described as a drunk on atheist blogs!

  3. Just in in passing – I was once given the opportunity for media training. It was eye-opening. I learnt the importance of deciding on the message you want to communicate. Then, irrespective of the question you are asked, you twist the answer immediately to give the message. You speak at a normal pace, but you leave no gaps for interruption. Thus:
    Interviewer: So Mr Jones, surely you are shocked at paedophilia in the Roman Catholic clergy?
    Jones: I will tell you why I am shocked. It’s because Catholic priests have such high standards and have given up so much to serve the poor and vulnerable – far more than you or I will ever do – that the few bad apples we meet shock us particularly.
    You can learn a great deal from listening to skilled politicians being interviewed – often quite aggressively. Watch the techniques they use to get across their points.

  4. Robert Hartness says:

    Quentin, may I suggest that it would be more appropriate to admit that the Church was extremely stubborn and unreasonable in its’ treatment of Galileo. You quote the unreasonable rejection of scientific advances by a conservative science community and yet Harvey’s work was accepted in 20years and that of Ignaz Semmelweis in 50 years. The Church never officially admitted its error over Galileo for nearly 500 years.

    Also to say Galileo only got house arrest is to misinterpret the way this restriction, which lasted until his death, totally suppressed his ability to speak the truth and blocked his links with the international community of freethinkers of the time.

    It’s worth noting to that the first victim of the Church over Copernican teaching was not Galileo but one Giordano Bruno. For denying the Aristotelian world view (heresy in the eyes of the mediaeval church), he was imprisoned for seven years in a six ft.square. cell and then burned at the stake in February 1600. He is regarded by the scientific community as the first martyr of science.

    Casual readers may by now imagine I’m not a catholic or if I am then I must not be “a good catholic” whatever that means. Neither assertion is true.
    Yes I am a scientist by training – Physics among other subjects as it happens and a practising catholic. I also believe in addressing issues honestly and with a view to seeking the truth. By relying on the verbal trickery of rhetoric as practised by the ancient Greeks we are merely compounding the error of the 17th.century Vatican leaders. They could not shake off their belief in Ptolemy’s model of the universe as supported by Aristotle. Pity they didn’t follow Archimedes instead.

    Instead of trying to wriggle away from the truth about the way the Church denied the truth of Galileo’s magnificent contribution to our understanding of the universe, we should candidly admit its error. Pope John Paul II did just that to his eternal credit.
    He also said “truth cannot fight truth” That being so, it is pointless to see science as the enemy of religion. Whether a TV debate is won or lost is immaterial.
    God exists and Christ revealed the eternal truth and science uncovers the truth that lies in nature. One day the common ground over both fields of knowledge may become obvious, we know not when or how.

    Meanwhile, let’s view scientists as God’s explorers charged with the duty of using their combined brainpower to derive the truths of nature. Religious people who try to cover up the admitted mistakes of past church rulers simply muddy the waters.
    Darwin and Christ share a common view that all men are brothers. This view was at the heart of post-war thinking and found expression in the UN charter of human rights.

    Finally, I recommend a useful book called “Galileo –Antichrist” by Michael White,
    a committed atheist who has produced a starling biography of a genius. It may be ordered from http://www.orionbooks.co.uk ISBN 978-0-7538-2210-4

    Sorry about accidently posting this in the wrong section

  5. Robert, I hope you will never find on this Blog the suggestion that the careful investigation of any truth, suggests bad faith or disloyalty to the Church.

    Just some detail points.

    Galileo versus Semmelweis. Count the the bodies.

    Bruno may have been condemned for heresy about many different things (the charge sheet is long – and extant), but amongst them was not his belief in Copernican theory. It was not a heresy in 1630.

    While Galileo was under house arrest he wrote the seminal “Two New Sciences” and had it published in Holland.

    Rhetoric is a tool. It can be at the service of evil (Nuremberg) or at the service of good (Sermon on the Mount). Jesus was a superb rhetorician. Examples: “Whose image and likeness is this?” (answer a question with a question). “Whited sepulchre” (graphic metaphor). The Beatitudes (rhetorical alliteration and repetition). “He who has seen me has seen the father” (paradox). The parables.

  6. snafu says:

    Hmmm…I completely take your larger point regarding rhetoric. These debates are (at best) good fun if you’re in the mood, but largely useless if you’re interested in finding out more about a topic.

    One problem is, these techniques cut both ways. It simply won’t do to state “Galileo only got house arrest” – because he was threatened with torture, at least partially for his scientific views. This is about as indefensible as it gets, unless you try to hide it completely as acceptable in the context of the age.


    “[H]ow can you blame the Church for anything it has done? Without free choice, morality and immorality have no meaning”

    Yep, good in debates, but in the real world, this is glossing over about 3 weeks worth of reading on free will and metaethics. The fact is that there are solid philosophical positions centering on the notions that free will is compatible with determinism, and (should the world turn out to be deterministic), this still allows for deliberation and moral responsibility. These positions have been defended for several centuries, and have many contemporary defenders today.

    Now, this is where it’s going: I’m not Catholic partially *because* the philosohpical arguments lack concensus. They don’t have anything like the certainty required for me to overlook the gaping lack of empirical evidence. (No, claiming that I believe “something coming from nothing” isn’t going to cut it, but I’m not going there in this post).

    In summary: yes, the soundbites are a little disappointing, and it’s a shame they’re unavoidable in debate. But don’t forget that many, many believers out there live their lives by these soundbites, in complete ignorance of the academic debate that’s undermined them since the Enlightenment.

  7. claret says:

    Enough !! Surely.
    Where in any of this have we said one thing that shows that the Catholic Church is a Force for good in the World?
    No wonder Hitchens and Fry had a ‘field day’ if the best we can do is try so badly at defending the Church’s errors by descending into semantics from centuries ago with not a solitary point gained for the good from the Church today. I hope I am reading James H’s posting incorrectly because it reads as though he is defending paedophilia.
    Also, with due respect Quentin, what on earth has the lack of hygeine among the midwifery from the 1800’s got to do with any of this?
    We are on the defensive scrabbling about with little dignity as we seek to divert attention away from the attacks on the Church that really are often better left unanswered.
    Where are the medical clinics and hospitals and seats of education that are built to the greater glory of atheism as there are built by the Catholic Church to the greater glory of God? Which organisation is the biggest giver of charity in the world? Who runs and pays for hundreds of clinic and medical centres in the developing world? Who provides an education for the poor that they would otherwise be deprived of. (And also provides to the rich for which the Church shoud be ashamed of.) Who gives the world a moral lead on things like abortion? Which religious leader spoke out against the Iraq war?
    These are the responses to the attacks on the Church, and many more like them.
    What we have on here, and I suspect was in the debate, is nothing more than an irrelevant and negative damage limitation exercise.

  8. Claret, I wonder if you are expecting more than anyone is intending to give. I would assume that anyone reviewing the world picture without prejudice would see the Catholic Church (warts and all) as a force for good in the world.
    We have been discussing the rhetorical ways in which a stream of unfounded or unbalanced accusations can be stemmed, and an audience obliged to consider that there might be another point of view. It usually has to be accomplished in a single forceful remark or question – that’s all the time you get.
    So James H is doing no more than a quick rapier thrust to question what human dignity means, and so deserves, if you hold that we are no more than the outcome of materialist chance. Similarly my comment on Semmelweis is a shorthand way to demonstrate that both scientists and churchmen resile against threats to long established orthodox views. So perhaps scientists should be a little less cloyingly complacent than they often are.
    Similarly Snafu, coming from the other side but using the similar tactics, is able to sound quite reasonable in flouting the the law of contradiction in the matter of free will and determinism. Good for him!

  9. claret says:

    I guess there is little point in making this the debate rather than focussing on the one that actually took place. Without the benefit of having been there it is difficult to make a judgement on whether the ‘rapier like thrusts’ and ‘rhetorical questions’ would have been effective or not.
    I would hazard the opinion that an hostile audience would not have a clue as to what you were talking about and/ or see no relevance to it.
    Your assumption on the world view of Catholicism may be true but this would not be shared by a audience in London fed a diet of child abuse allegations, subjegation of women to a minor role,
    homophobia ( not a word I share incidentally,) of the Catholic Church of this country, and by definition the world.
    We would have needed to come up with stronger arguements that those proposed on here which are negative, defensive, and of the ‘red herring’ category.

  10. Claret, I think you’re right. And of course it’s much easier to think of a brief effective answer in the quiet of one’s home rather than in a public meeting. (Which was why the Catholic Evidence Guild prepared speakers for every possibility). But I can see no reason why we shouldn’t look at some of the genuine difficulties which upset people about the Church.
    I will drop you a direct note about this.

  11. claret says:

    I have replied to your direct note.

  12. JohnMThompson says:

    Thank you for your most useful advice on countering atheists.
    How is it that they pronounce with such conviction on areas of which they have no personal experience?
    For example, Richard Dawkins says ‘there is no God’. Would we dare to stray with conviction into his own field of biological science in order to dispute his knowledge?

  13. Fariam says:

    i agree that we shouldn’t underestimate the damage this ‘debate’ caused, particularly in a climate of hostility and quick fixes. I also heard – to my horror – that it is to be broadcast!

    I would also ask the same question: why was “our side” so unprepared and unsupported?

    Anyone going into thhis kind of debate should know what they are up against.

    They should be armed with correct and up to date facts regarding a host of issues. Such debates can serve as an opportunity to get some true facts out, for example with regard to “Hitler´s pope”, adult stem cell cloning, abortion trauma, Aids experts agreeing with the Pope, post abortion trauma, the new evidence putting the Inquisition and the Crusades in context, Catholic influence on the developement of Western thought and culture, Catholic charity, the theology of the body…

    I agree with using rhetoric. It can be a great tool in getting such facts and points across in a hostile environment. We may not change those with whom we debate, but we can perhaps influnce someone in the audience.

    I agree with being honest, particularly about our shortcomings as a Church. A little humility can be very disarming.

    I also agree that in a hostile environment, we need supporters. And I find it inexcusable that “we” were not prepared. And in these days of modern communication, how was it not possible to avert Catholics to this debate?

  14. Ion Zone says:

    The thing about these debates is they pick their religious opponents carefully, often the atheist side will be running the show. I have heard of nuns being invited who are outnumbered two to one and don’t have a clue what to expect. The religious side is put in a position of ‘guilty until God says otherwise’ and put on a permanent defensive. These people don’t so much disbelieve in God as hate the very idea. And they don’t know a lot about what we believe in. We are constantly put in the position where they declare, subtly, that they are the sole guardians of facts and truth, uninfluenced by anything but Science and Reason, and therefore anything we say to contradict them is automatically false, even if we are rubbishing some assumption or ‘fact’ of theirs about our faith. I am constantly annoyed by their coming-or-going assertions, for example, that we all believe the Old Testament to be literal truth, and if we don’t then it is invalid anyway because it was written in the Bible, therefore, if one word is demonstrably untrue, particularly in a literal sense, then none of it is.

    Who said science, logic, and reason belong to them? They did (Of course, when you point that out to them science become the ultimate democracy). This is a belief….but just you try to get them to admit they take anything without proof.

    When you find evidence of atheist wrongdoings (French revolution, etc), they explain it all away by claiming that ‘religious thinking’ is to blame. That’s right, evil is never done in the name of atheism, it’s all ‘religious thinking’. But if you think about it, ‘Because there is no God and we have a materialistic reason for combat! Charge!’ is a very clunky battle cry, so they tend to say things are in the name of ‘reason’ or ‘progress’, which is why they get away with saying there has never been any violence in their name, despite things like this:


    In their eyes, God is always the reason for a massacre, but atheism is just a ‘feature’, like a mustache. Just looking at google headlines I see pages with names like “The Religious Origins of Totalitarianism and Tyranny”


    I also question their blaming of the ‘witch trials’ (Secular courts hunted ‘witches’ – the Vatican has always seen witchcraft as superstition, and did everything it could to prevent the trials – many of which are now, very quietly, acknowledged to be fiction) and Galileo’s trial, which was as much about his labeling of the Pope as stupid as anything else.

  15. Superview says:

    It is only human to be very defensive about criticism of the Church, especially when we are conditioned to believe that it does not err. The previous blog on ‘Following the crowd’ touched on the phenomenon of conditioning and we Catholics have certainly been subject to that since childhood; one of the reasons (if not the whole reason) for Catholic schools is to ensure that children are educated in a Catholic cultural setting with values and a world view that is carefully controlled. In very many ways it adds value and produces less selfish and more compassionate Christians and citizens; in other ways it leads to uniform and naive outlooks derived from the fear our leaders have of the modern world. Their reliance on the perspectives of, albeit, brilliant minds from many centuries ago -such as Augustine and Aquinas from 1,600 years and 800 years ago, respectively, hampers their ability to adapt to new information and expectations. For example, in context, I can understand how the Index of proscribed books came about, but it is amazing that from the 16th century until the 20th century -when it was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966 – the Vatican believed that with a directive from Rome it could (and probably did) prevent adult Catholics from reading alternative world-view literature. It is in a similar vein to the, presumably still extant, good advice to avoid occasions of sin and bad company. However, imagine the same task now with the global information revolution – instantaneous internet, multi-channel TV, Wikipedia, cinema, and the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of books and articles published every year. There is no hiding place or protection for any institution from the opinions of anyone (maybe Islamic fascism excepted) so to take Ion Zone’s last point, which seems to be a defence of the Church’s treatment of Galileo because his offence was to call the Pope stupid, calling the Pope stupid is a license available to us all without fear of imprisonment or worse – even in nominally Catholic countries.
    As for the proposition that the Church does not err, who can sustain this case? The first principle in advocating that the Church is a force for good is to recognise the evidence to the contrary and the impact it has on your audience, deal with it with integrity, and then give brave and truthful witness to all that is good. It seems we are still a long way from this.

  16. eclaire says:

    I strongly disagree with those who state that they wouldn’t have attended the debate even if they had known it was taking place. No matter what the odds are against, it is never a waste of time defending what one firmly believes (even when opponents refuse to listen). If it’s a sunny day you are waiting for, you’re in for a long wait in the current climate.
    What we need are strong, fearless and magnetic, but humble and prayerful leaders; the rest will follow.

  17. tim says:

    Well said, eclaire! We have a duty to defend the Church. This doesn’t imply a duty to maintain that it’s always got everything exactly right – infallibility doesn’t stretch so far. But we must do our best – carefully. It can be as damaging to listeners to admit unfounded criticisms as to deny proper ones.

  18. Ion Zone says:

    I agree, I never argue for infallibility in debates, for one thing it plays into their arguments, for another, it has never been true, human fallibility is a theme in the Bible, as well as life since the dawn of time.

  19. eclaire says:

    Thank you, tim.
    One never knows who may be quietly responding to the arguments presented in defence of the Church even amid the hullabaloo. I attended the debate with my sister and I can say that one young man was genuinely interested in finding out why we were voting for the motion (this is another reason why more Catholics should have been sitting in the audience). He was thoughtful and respectful and this despite the fact that his ‘student’ friends were very much against. There is an awful lot of bravado out there.
    I can understand that it might not be a good idea to argue for infallibility in debates, but if others bring it up, surely it needs to be addressed? We can’t deniy it. After all, it clearly states in the Catechism (890) that ‘Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals’.

  20. Robert Hartness says:

    I concur mostly with Superview in his remarks, but disagree about our stance over the expediency of staying clear of infallibility. It seems odd to me that we are to fight shy of this issue until provoked. Maybe we should clarify the issue among ourselves first before trying to explain it to a hostile audience.

    Vatican 1 introduced the notion of an infallible Pope on faith and morals and Vatican 2 added an afterthought that the Pope was to have his infallibility re-inforced as it were when teaching in unison with the Bishops of the world in a Church Council.

    The first point might be that if either position can be said to be an intrinsic quality of the Magisterium of the Church wouldn’t one think it should also have the quality of being retrospective, rather than bursting upon the scene in the late 19th.century?
    One might further observe that the rather late appearance of the concept of infallibility would indicate that it was an attempt to stem further dissension following the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

    Be that as it may, it could hardly be said that previous Popes, especially Paul Vth, had
    a hotline to God when he was complicit in the execution of Giordiano Bruno, and later mistreatment and persecution of Galileo. That being so, we have the rather awkward fact that the issue of infallibility, as currently understood, appears to be a latter-day development of that very Church Magisterium which is allegedly unchanging.

    Add to that the fact that for anyone to claim to be infallible is counterintuitive and flies in the face of common sense leaving us all well and truly up the proverbial gum tree.

    On the other hand, if one admits these problems and clears the ground of such obstacles, maybe there is room to harden up an understanding of what infallible means.

    Why doesn’t the church publish a list of those occasions when the faithful are expected to comply with the idea of infallible teaching?

    It can’t be that difficult, surely. What springs to mind for example, is The Immaculate Conception, The Resurection, The Ascension, Pentecost, The Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven. …in effect, the contents of the Creed said by millions of Catholics every week, not to mention transubstantiation and the miracles of the Gospels. I, for one, am prepared to believe the absolute truth of these issues and yet they do not depend upon believing that the previous incumbents of the Papacy since 1870 were infallible.

    So does it really matter whether the Pope thinks he’s infallible? I’m sure that if this proves to be yet another dogma issue that slips out of public view , like say limbo or indulgences, the Church will survive under the promises of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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