Michael Coren is a social conservative voice in Canada’s news media who has credibility and respect from both the public and many of his liberal journalistic colleagues.
He has written biographies with favourable international reviews of H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. He has been a columnist for all four Toronto newspapers.
He has co-hosted (with Irshad Manji) a public affairs program on Ontario’s public television station, TVO. He has hosted a talk show on Toronto’s popular CFRB radio. He has hosted for six years the Michael Coren Show on Crossroads Television.
He is smart. He is knowledgeable. He intellectually bounds through life.
All of which makes his new book, Why Catholics Are Right, difficult to figure out. The question is not so much “what is it?” as “why is it?”
He has written a Ninja Turtles defence of the church, a reference that parents of boys who were preteens in the late 1980s and early ’90s will understand. The four anthropomorphic turtle brothers in their heyday triumphed over petty criminals, evil megalomaniacs and alien invaders with their exultant cry of “Cowabunga!”—instantly setting wrong to right with never a moment’s nod to the grey shades of life and the complexities of human and institutional behaviour, the male preadolescent’s totally certain view of being.
Thus Coren swiftly deals with the church’s problems with priestly sex abusers. Gays, liberals and the weirdos who let them in the door are to blame. He definitively champions the church’s positions on homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion, condoms and the role of women in the church. He proclaims the necessity for priestly celibacy. He stands up for the Inquisition and the Crusades.
He dismisses questions about Pius XII, the wartime pope. He whacks Muslims, those Catholics whom he says have distorted the true meaning of Vatican II and (en passant) the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He declares to be unchallengeable the tenets of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the dead and the authenticity of St. Peter as the first pope. He asserts that William Tyndale, the great English translator of the Bible, was a liar.
Arguments against the church and its teaching he attaches to malicious, perfidious, religiously competitive or slow-witted critics upon whom he leaps with sword brandished and—“Cowabunga!”—scornfully and effortlessly bests. And when he can’t take that approach, as is the case with sexually abusive priests, he declares that the incidence of sexual abuse of minors in the church is no worse than it is in other institutions, while stating that he finds that defence repugnant.
The book has a jacket endorsement by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, champion of North American conservative Catholicism and the prelate who declared in the 2004 U.S. presidential election that, because of Democratic candidate John Kerry’s pro-choice views on abortion, those who voted for him were “cooperating in evil” and “needed to go to confession.” Coren in addition acknowledges expert advice and guidance from Anthony Schratz, director of Ernescliff College, a student residence run by the Catholic conservative Opus Dei organization on the edge of the University of Toronto, and Reverend Stefano Penna, academic dean at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, who this spring taught a course on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI.
Why Catholics Are Right is a polemic but not an evangelizing polemic. It is a brimstone homily to the ranks of the already conscripted—orthodox, conservative Catholics—that is far more likely to irritate people who are not of the same mind than win them over. In fact, given its abrasive and combative tone, it is safe to say that it will indeed irritate people who see the church differently from Coren.
But maybe evangelizing is not the point. Maybe irritating is the point, or at least part of the point. Coren has never been known to shy away from provocation. And maybe there is something else.
First, Archbishop Chaput has produced a book of his own, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, in which he exhorts Catholics to take a “more active, vocal, and morally consistent role” in the political process, arguing that private convictions cannot be separated from public actions without diminishing both. In his jacket blurb for Coren’s book, Chaput does not say it is a great treatise for winning souls. He says Coren “has written a case for the Catholic faith … the whole text is alive with fidelity.”
And Coren writes in his introduction: “I’m a Catholic and believe in Catholicism, and thus I believe that people who disagree with my beliefs are wrong”—hardly the opening notes of a cantata for ecumenism, but it does tell you what you are going to find between the covers: institutional fidelity.
Second, Coren then sets out to make the case that the modern world is awash in anti-Catholicism, citing Pennsylvania State University historian of religion Philip Jenkins’s 2003 book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Jenkins argues that racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic or homophobic statements can haunt a speaker for years but it is possible to make hostile and vituperative public comments about Roman Catholicism without fear of serious repercussions, particularly in the United States. He cites comments on “the Catholic menace,” the attacks on the church by liberals, the claims that the church hates women and gays, the popular portrayal of the church in the news media, movies and TV and the rewriting of Catholic history to make the church look black.
I do not know whether anti-Catholicism is more virulent in the U.S. than elsewhere, but it is interesting to report that the British Catholic journal Tablet, observing that Jenkins lists the 1979 Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, as evidence of anti-Catholicism, concludes he “has absolutely no sense of humour.”
And given that one out of three Americans who was raised Catholic has left the church—and half of those departing have joined Protestant Christian denominations, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life—it is a reasonable bet that a good chunk of those who are anti-Catholic are ex-Catholic.
Yet Jenkins and Coren almost certainly have a point. Just as September 11 fanned Islamophobia (something else that has acquired a measure of social acceptability), the sex scandal in the U.S. church, to a lesser degree in the Canadian church, has been a wind at the back of anti-Catholicism.
Coren’s opening words in his chapter on the church’s sex abuse scandal are: “This is the chapter that I didn’t want to write and shouldn’t have to.” And perhaps too many Catholics have said the same thing, which is why the church has a recorded history of sexual deviance among priests and cover-ups by their bishops dating back centuries.
Coren acknowledges that “thousands of people, mainly adolescent young men, were smashed, destroyed, broken, abused, assaulted by criminals and perverts who hid their disorders, their cowardice and their criminality beneath the sacrament of the priesthood. Not only were the direct victims devastated by what happened but so too were their families and friends and the millions of Catholics, and, in particular the overwhelming majority of clergy, who live as faithful, good, honest men and women trying their best to worship God, help others and repair the wounds of the world.”
But then for the rest of the chapter, for another 30 pages, he offers the church’s worn catalogue of defensive mitigations and justifications. I will touch on a few of them, beginning with the hoariest.
Critics, he writes, seem to be “morbidly eager to prove that abuse was all about Catholicism, about Catholic teaching and about Catholic sexuality”—and yet the rate of sexual abuse in the Catholic church is the same as in other Christian churches. It is on a par with the abuse rates within any institution involving a power ratio between adult and young persons, such as education and sports teams. (Coren may be right about this, but no one knows for sure because the reporting rates are so unreliable.)
He writes a baffling paragraph about why offending priests should not be called pedophiles. He is right, they are hebephiles—people whose sexual preference is for pubescent minors, particularly boys, in the 11-to-14 cohort—but what point is he making?
He writes that most bishops demanded that abuse by priests in their charge stop immediately and that the offenders submit to therapy recommended by sex behavioural experts. In fact, after the experts began telling the church hierarchy that therapy did not work and hebephilia has no cure or no effective screening mechanism, many abusing priests were still being sent for treatment by their superiors or given a slap on the wrist and transferred to other parishes.
Coren points a finger of blame at homosexuals in the priesthood and applauds the Vatican’s decision to bar ordination for those, in the church’s language, “who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture.”
Yet behavioural scientists—like psychologist James Cantor who leads a team of sexual deviance researchers at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, for example—find virtually no linkage between homosexuality and hebephilia, which results from abnormal development in the prenatal brain.
And Toronto priest J.A. Loftus, an internationally known Jesuit psychologist, has said that a campaign against homosexuals in the church would be discriminatory, intellectually dangerous and impossible to implement, and would fuel a totally incorrect notion in the mind of the public that all homosexuals are pedophiles ready to sexually prey on children or adolescents ((Editor’s Note: Since we published the print version of this article, the John Jay School of Criminology has published a $2-million report on the causes of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The report can be found in full here. )).
Coren writes that “it was the more permissive, liberal 1960s with its exploitation of the Second Vatican Council that created the atmosphere in which sexually confused men were allowed into seminaries in which their dysfunctions were not addressed but often positively encouraged.” Church documents indicate the presence of priests who sexually abused children dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Then the excuse was that children were not thought of as objects capable of being sexually abused because they could not procreate.
Coren quotes former New York mayor Ed Koch saying “many of those in the media who are pounding on the church and the pope today clearly do it with delight, and some with malice.” One wonders if that is such a bad thing—when this institution has abused children for so long, and this pope in the past saw the scandal in the American church as largely media-manufactured, when the Vatican took until 2010 to publish an explicit directive to bishops to report suspected clerical sex assaults to civil authorities, when just four months ago a Philadelphia grand jury named 37 priests who remained in active ministry despite credible allegations of sexual abuse.
I will skip over what Coren says about the Crusades and the Inquisition, accepting his explanation in this case that everyone at the time was killing, torturing and burning at the stake. His accusations against the English theologian William Tyndale (1494–1536) are another matter.
Tyndale, a brilliant linguist and scholar, was the first to translate substantial parts of the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into English for a lay public. Coren says he ran afoul of the Catholic church—which had him strangled—because he “told lies, fed false information [to the people]” and took away “from the truth of the Bible toward the opinion of a Bible translator.”
Specifically, he was accused of mistranslations of five key words—“church,” “priest,” “do penance” and “charity”—into “congregation,” “senior” (later changed to “elder”), “repent” and “love,” which were said to challenge the foundation of the Catholic church.
Interestingly, the Tyndale translation is the basis for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which Coren’s guide, Father Penna, uses as a prescribed classroom text.
Coren has an interesting relationship with the Bible. “At the heart of Roman Catholicism,” he writes, “is the belief that although the Bible is central to the faith, it requires interpretation and is part but not all of the beliefs of a Christian. Literal interpretation without context is not only dangerous but contrary to what the Bible teaches.”
Fair enough. But he then grabs quotes with both fists through the rest of his book to support whatever argument he is making, which may well be the revelation of God’s truth but which leaves out a lot of scriptural scholarship that should at least be acknowledged—the work of 150 scholars of the Jesus Seminar, for example, who have concluded that only a tiny fraction of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament gospels could have been spoken by him.
One can be pretty sure Coren would not accept this, but surely he can note their work and explain why he rejects it.
Instead, he has found scripture to explain why women should be barred from ordination, why they would destroy the priesthood and how John Paul II cited scriptural authority to close debate on ordaining women. Similarly he writes about Jesus’s disciple Peter becoming first pope in Rome without mentioning a major study published in 2009 by the well-known classical Roman historian Otto Zwierlein, who concludes that Peter never visited Rome, did not undergo martyrdom there, was not buried there and certainly was not the first bishop—or pope—of Rome.
Anyone who does not accept that Mary the mother of Jesus was a virgin when he was born is not a Christian, says Coren, citing scripture. Life begins at conception and therefore abortion is killing, he says, citing the Book of Job: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Condoms cannot be used even to protect people against HIV/AIDS, says Coren, citing the encyclical Humanae Vitae, “Men … must recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design.”
Bad timing for Coren on the last point. The Vatican just recently declared that “the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality [i.e., using condoms], but maintains that the use of the condom to diminish the danger of infection may be ‘a first assumption of responsibility,’ … as opposed to not using the condom and exposing the other person to a fatal risk.”
Eppur si muove.
An institution that has lost a third of its living members—as the U.S. Catholic church has, and the numbers must be at least the same for Canada—should be curious to know why. An inquiry by a journalist and writer of Michael Coren’s talents would be an act of fidelity to his church. A book that says nothing is wrong, everything is right, risks inviting a shrug.
Michael Valpy is a journalist and author. Through a long career at The Globe and Mail, he served as foreign correspondent, national political columnist, member of the editorial board and deputy managing editor before leaving to teach in 2010. He is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto.