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Sea to Sea: Michael Coren's ConversionsSea to Sea: Michael Coren's Conversions

Sea to Sea: Michael Coren's Conversions

Father Raymond J. de Souza's continuing survey of religion, culture and public life. In this edition, why the author of Why Catholics Are Right turns his cheek on Catholicism.

Raymond J. de Souza
21 minute read

Michael Coren has left the Catholic Church to become an Anglican. His decision is significant in two respects. First, Coren has for many years been an important voice for faith in our common life. It matters what he thinks. Second, the reason for his decision highlights one of the great cultural fault lines of our time, namely the conflict between religion and the sexual revolution now being played out most intensely around the question of homosexuality.

Coren has been kind to our Convivium project and an ally in the larger cultural efforts of which we are a part. As we are an ecumenical venture, that Coren went from being Catholic to Anglican is not in itself a prima facie cause of either happiness or sadness. We respect the sincere search for God's will, even if it should involve unexpected turns.

Coren is most recently known for his successful four-year run on the Sun News Network with his show The Arena — to which he was kind enough to invite me several times. Yet that was only the latest post in a successful media career that included umpteen years on radio and television, more than a dozen books and countless newspaper columns. A specialist in English letters, he has published biographies on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His columns appeared in Canada's pro-life monthly newspaper The Interim, and he had columns in the Catholic World Report and Toronto's Catholic Register, as well as his regular column for the Sun newspapers and occasional appearances in the National Post.

He published a series of best-selling books on Christianity in our contemporary situation. They carried titles indicative of Coren's combative and polemical style: Why Catholics Are Right (2011), Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity (2012), The Future of Catholicism (2013) and Hatred: Islam's War Against Christianity (2014). In recent years, there was no more prolific generator of content, as we say nowadays, on the news and religion scene in Canada. So when Coren decided to convert from Catholicism to Anglicanism, it was important to pay attention.

The Importance Of Converts

Converts are important figures, for they often discover anew that which "cradle" Christians take for granted. For English-speaking Catholics in particular, the intellectual influence of converts is striking. Indeed, there would likely not be a post-Reformation Catholic intellectual tradition in the English language without converts. Consider inter alia the contributions of John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, Robert Hugh Benson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Merton, Karl Stern, Walker Percy, Russell Kirk, Avery Dulles, Dorothy Day, Catherine Doherty, Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Muggeridge, Richard John Neuhaus, Scott Hahn, Alasdair MacIntyre, Joseph Pearce. Michael Coren was in that line. Accomplished in his chosen field of journalism, Coren is apt for conversion, with a curious even restless spirit, combined with the courage of his convictions. Half Jewish but raised in a non-observant home, a 20-something Coren first became Catholic in the 1980s. He was a lapsed Catholic — "failed Catholic" is his preferred term — in the 1990s before becoming an evangelical Protestant. He then returned to the Catholic faith. When he published Why Catholics Are Right, a friendly joke among his Catholic admirers was that Coren was so convinced that Catholicism was true that he converted twice.

Whenever I hear news of a conversion, whether it be to Christianity from a non-Christian religion or from non-belief, or whether it is from one Christian communion to another, I keep in mind the ancient wisdom — first spoken by I do not know whom — that the Lord has some the Church does not have and the Church has some the Lord does not have. Conversion stories can be encouraging or discouraging depending on one's point of view, but they always call for humility. We do not possess the truth as much it possesses us. A convert, whether we agree or disagree with the direction of conversion, invites us to ask whether we are indeed possessed by the Lord and His truth, not truths of our making. Every minister of the Christian gospel sees in some of those who belong to other flocks a closer relationship to God than he sometimes witnesses among his own. Nevertheless, the same minister remains convinced of the truths of his own confession — otherwise he would have to convert to something else.

I respect those who, following their conscience in a sincere search for the truth, come to the conclusion that they must convert to live with integrity. It is more admirable than those who simply drift along in dissent with their own tradition, unconcerned about coherence of life. So, of course, I paid attention when Coren's conversion was announced. Though we do not see each other socially, he had certainly been a professional friend and ally in contending for the place of the Catholic faith in our common life.

A Clandestine Conversion?

Uncharacteristically for the prolific and voluble Coren, he did not announce the news himself. It was posted on an Anglican site in Toronto. In subsequent tweets, Coren revealed that he had been worshipping as an Anglican for over a year, formally joining the Anglican Communion on April 23, 2015. This came as a surprise to the various Catholic publications Coren had been writing for up until the moment the news broke. By all accounts, he was apologetic for not properly revealing to his Catholic editors that he was preparing to leave the Catholic Church for over a year. He accepted with magnanimity the inevitable news that, as one who has publicly and formally rejected the Catholic faith, he could no longer continue as a Catholic columnist. He was quite properly dropped from those publications — including Canada's largest Catholic newspaper, the Register, where his column and mine appeared side by side. While it is certainly possible to have non-Catholics appear in the Catholic press, former Catholics, especially clandestine former Catholics, are rather a different thing.

The lack of forthrightness is difficult to defend and uncharacteristic of Coren, who is nothing if not a straight shooter. Some critics have suggested he kept his shift to Anglicanism secret in order to continue earning fees from his Catholic columns and Catholic speaking events. While plausible, that is not consistent with what I know of Coren's many years of standing on principle.

Whatever the reason, it did constitute a serious disservice to, even deception upon, his readers. When he declared that the Catholic teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts was not true and that he was wrong to accept it and promote it, he did so as a Catholic, even though he no longer was one.

"Thing is, I have evolved my position on [homosexuality] not in spite of but precisely because of my Catholicism," he wrote in a June 28, 2014, column titled "I Was Wrong" in the Toronto Sun. "My belief in God, Christ, the Eucharist, and Christian moral teaching are stronger than ever."

It is understandable why Coren would want to present his new thinking as a Catholic. For the polemical, pugilistic Catholic apologist to write such a thing would have a rather different impact on the reader than the news that an Anglican in Canada had joined the consensus position in that community. The June 2014 column also appears now not to be true. The timeline does not suggest that his Catholic faith led him to change his position on homosexuality. The facts suggest that it was his changed position on homosexuality that led him out of the Catholic faith.

I am disappointed that Coren's behaviour over the past year is not consistent with what many readers, including me, respected in his public commentary. I expect that Coren himself is disappointed in his own behaviour, for after the news broke he removed his two recent books on Catholicism from his website as well as his Catholic speaking dates. He evidently saw a contradiction there; but when the contradiction was known only to him, he did not do anything about it.

This spring, Coren took up with passionate enthusiasm the curious cause of the Ontario government's new sexual education curriculum — a curriculum that offers elementary school students plenty of advice on sexual technique but has nothing to say about love. He directed sustained fire at those parents who protested, especially "right-wing Catholics," as he characterized them. His comments received prominent attention precisely because they were made by the man who wrote Why Catholics Are Right. It is impossible that Coren did not know that his argument would have less impact coming from someone who chose Anglicanism precisely for its embrace of homosexual acts.

Sexual Orientation, Explanations And The Eucharist

And it was for more liberal, if not libertine, sexual morality that Coren became Anglican. After word of his choice spilled around the Internet, Coren explained himself in a brief interview with Joseph Brean of the National Post. Brean asked him why he became Catholic the second time around.

Q: What brought you back?
A: It was really the pull of the Eucharist. It really was that. That is a centrepiece of worship for me.

Q: It is not exclusive to the Catholic Church. The same sacrament is given elsewhere.
A: That's why I'm now in the Anglican Church.

Q: You say you could no longer worship with integrity as a Catholic. Why not?
A: I could not remain in a church that effectively excluded gay people. That's only one of the reasons, but for someone who had taken the Catholic position on same-sex marriage for so long, I'd never been comfortable with that even though I suppose I was regarded as being a stalwart in that position. But I'd moved on, and I felt a hypocrite. I felt a hypocrite being part of a church that described homosexual relations as being disordered and sinful. I just couldn't be part of it anymore. I could not do that. I couldn't look people in the eye and make the argument that is still so central to the Catholic Church, that same-sex attraction is acceptable but to act on it is sinful. I felt that the circle of love had to be broadened, not reduced.
Q: So you left. You were not lured away.
A: It's not about superiority or inferiority. I needed to find a place for me where I could worship God, where I could be given the Eucharist, but I didn't have to buy into some of the social and moral teaching that I had not been able to embrace for more than a year.

It's astonishing when one of Canada's most notable Christian apologists declares that sexual morality is more important than Eucharistic theology. What the Catholic Church teaches about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not the same as what Anglicanism teaches. Coren's explanation for his conversion is that he is willing to accept a different teaching on the Eucharist in order to assent to a different teaching on the morality of homosexual acts. That is a radical departure from the entire Christian tradition. It is a radical departure from the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel, which deals in the Decalogue with the right worship of God much before it gets to questions of marriage and chastity.

Coren's explanation offers those who seek to engage his arguments a contradictory confusion. For months now Coren has been blasting pro-life and pro-family Catholics for being too obsessed with sexual morality rather than focusing on preaching the love and mercy of Jesus Christ or devoting attention to the care of the poor. Is it not rather more obsessed with sexual matters to make the issue of homosexual acts the moral teaching upon which one's adherence to a church stands or falls? What would Coren say to an Anglican who became Catholic because the latter upheld the long tradition of Christian teaching on homosexual acts? It is not hard to imagine.

Coren did not get into the question of homosexuality in Anglicanism, but his conversion raises the question of whether he has joined the Anglican Communion throughout the world or just the Anglican Church of Canada. The former no longer exists de facto. Hundreds of bishops from the south did not attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion's principal instrument of global unity. They boycotted to protest the Anglican bishops in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States who changed Anglican teaching on homosexuality. The 2018 Lambeth Conference has been cancelled, or at least postponed until such time as the question of homosexuality can be worked out. But of course it cannot, as homosexual relations cannot be sinful according to some Anglicans while others consider them necessary to consummate a sacrament. In choosing gay-positive Anglicanism, Coren is embracing the minority position among his own practising co-religionists.

Coren was formally received into the Anglican Communion on April 23, four years and four days after the publication of Why Catholics Are Right. A large part of that book defends the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist. If Coren still believes what he wrote there, communicating honestly in the Anglican Communion is not possible. Perhaps he now thinks Catholics are wrong not only about homosexuality but the Eucharist, too. It would be a more coherent position, but then why not put first things first and speak about his change of Eucharistic theology rather than hide behind the more culturally relevant question of gay liberation?

Capitulating To The Culture?

Here we arrive at the cultural significance of Coren's conversion. As he wrote in Why Catholics Are Right, "I've seldom met someone who dislikes me because of my views on saints or the papacy, but I have lost jobs in media because of my Catholic belief that, for example, life begins at conception and that marriage can only be between one man and one woman."

Our broader culture thinks that religion is about morality, and all morality is reduced to sexual morality. What does it mean to be Christian? To be against divorce or fornication or homosexual acts or abortion. That is not how Christians understand themselves. Coren argued effectively against that, pointing out in his books that Christian discipleship does not begin and end with the commandment thou shalt not commit adultery. Yet in making homosexuality the grounds for his conversion, Coren implicitly agrees with our secular culture that the most important public thing about religion is its opposition to the principal social phenomenon of our time, namely the sexual revolution.

The principal clash between Christian faith and culture is the sexual revolution. Coren has chosen the sexual revolution over the ancient faith. That Coren left the Catholic Church a second time is perhaps not wholly unexpected. The great shock is that Coren, the self-professed courageous Catholic who stood athwart a hostile media culture, has now left his Catholic faith in favour of the trendiest of all trendy cultural causes.

In relation to Catholic teaching about contraception, the epicentre of the sexual revolution, Coren wrote four years ago in Why Catholics Are Right that the conflict went to the heart of the place of faith in our common life. His words then for what he has done now were typically harsh.

"All that was said was that sex was to be enjoyed in the context of love and with openness to God's plan. He gave us the ability to love and to be sexually intimate, and we should repay him by using those gifts responsibly. This, it seems, was simply too much for some. It's very likely that those who left the Church over [contraception], and still leave over sexual issues, would not leave the Church over some statement of, for example, theology or foreign policy. How selfish and small, then, to abandon an institution that one is supposed to believe is God's instrument on earth just because it refuses to affirm someone's lust and because of a person's insistence on putting sexual convenience before consistent, moral, Christian precedent. Still, pride rather than principle has led thousands in the West to leave the Church. The Church, though, refuses to leave them."

Indeed, the Church refuses to leave them. The Catholic Church no longer has Michael Coren. It doesn't mean that the Lord doesn't have him. Coren's admirers certainly pray that that remains true, even as they may lament the reasons for this choice.

Remaining Pro-Life

Coren has been a stalwart "journalist for life" as he styled himself, recognized by The Interim as Canada's "most prominent pro-life journalist." There is no reason that should not continue, as there are many pro-life Anglicans. Yet despite his railing against "right-wing Catholics," Coren will have to contend with the arguments made by those liberal Catholics who would share his embrace of homosexuality. As recently as last fall, Coren blasted Justin Trudeau for banning all pro-life candidates from the Liberal Party in the upcoming federal election. Trudeau is a prominent example of how many who celebrate same-sex marriage do so as part of a broader celebration of the sexual revolution as the greatest good of our time.

"One set of policies in post-war Canada generated more liberty for more people than any other," Trudeau said in a lecture titled "Canadian Liberty and the Politics of Fear" at McGill in March 2015. "It was the decades-long effort of the women's movement to gain control over reproductive health and rights. Indeed, let me be perfectly clear on this point. The Canada we know today is unimaginable without widely available birth control and the legalization of choice. Every conceivable measure of inclusion and progress has moved in the right direction since women gained legally protected reproductive freedom in Canada. From workforce participation to educational attainment to representation in the corridors of economic and political power. That's why I took such a strong stand in favour of a woman's right to choose when I sought the leadership of my party."

Coren has suggested that his departure from the Catholic Church was driven in part by right-wing Catholics being beastly to him. It will bear watching to see whether he can now successfully pick and choose which parts of the sexual revolution, such as gay marriage, he celebrates while rejecting others, such as abortion. If he can do so effectively, he may gain a new hearing as a counterforce to those liberal Christians — like Justin Trudeau — who make it clear that the whole kit and caboodle is to be celebrated, including the abortion licence Michael Coren has spent a lifetime campaigning against. I wish him Godspeed as he continues as a journalist for life.

Criticism And Conversion

On April 30, Michael Coren tweeted, "48 hours of abuse, insults, lies & threats from people who call themselves devout Catholic Christians. Thanks for confirming my decision."

I am not sure what abuse rained down upon Coren from Catholics, devout or otherwise, but it was to be expected. Both the abuse, and Coren's whinging about it. Despite a vigorously aggressive writing and broadcasting style, Coren has always been rather fragile when it comes to criticism. He constantly laments that people say mean things to him on the Internet. Even after all these years, he remains wounded and aggrieved when it occurs. Nevertheless, he has managed to persevere thus far despite having an unusually thin skin for a public controversialist, and no doubt will be comforted by his Anglican parishioners. Everyone knows that, generally speaking, Anglicans are rather more genteel than Catholics. Certainly Newman, Knox and likely Chesterton thought so.

But can it really be that Catholics tweeting mean things could "confirm" the decision he made? Could there be a weaker argument for a conversion? Especially from someone who has made his living lambasting others? It brings to mind the review that our publisher, Peter Stockland, wrote of Why Catholics Are Right for our sister publication, Comment. He argued that Catholics are not "right" — we fail in all sorts of ways to live up to the faith we profess. A better title might have been Why Catholicism Is Right. We can offer an apologetic for our faith. We can only apologize for our own infidelity.

Peter wrote a generous review, acknowledging that Coren's book did not argue for Catholicism from the behaviour of Catholics, even quoting Coren on the same point: "The Church is composed of people, and people do terrible things and commit sin — it's what the Church has been telling us for two thousand years and continues to tell us, which is why the Church is here."

If in fact the discovery that Catholics are sometimes mean confirms his decision to convert, then perhaps Coren's original title was accurate and Peter's criticism still stands. It's not actually Peter's original thought. The scripture tells us not to put our faith in princes. The same holds for our fellow parishioners.

For our part, we aim to remain convivial while addressing the same controversies that Coren so energetically explores, with gratitude for the good service he has made to the place of faith in Canadian life, and with hopes that it may continue.

The Court And Religious Freedom

The Supreme Court of Canada decision in Loyola — explored in this issue's Conversation — was a great victory for religious freedom. It also indicated why religious freedom is going to lose most of the time. So I did not share in the general euphoria for the Loyola decision. To be sure, I was proud of the role Convivium played in making the public case for Loyola's right, as a Catholic school, to teach Catholicism as true. From holding the Montreal launch of our magazine at Loyola to featuring the case in our pages, we coordinated a cross-Canada tour with principal Paul Donovan to raise the alarm on religious liberty. We did yeoman work to point out the absurdity of what the Quebec government wanted, and my colleagues who led the fight deserved every measure of satisfaction from their vindication at the Supreme Court.

That vindication consists of a unanimous decision (7-0) that a Catholic school has the religious liberty right to teach Catholicism from a Catholic point of view. Forgive me if I am not overwhelmed by this bit of common sense finally prevailing. But the court could not muster a majority saying that Loyola had a right to teach its entire curriculum from a Catholic point of view. There is a Catholic approach to music and literature and, yes, comparative religion and ethics. A majority of the court (4-3) ruled that Loyola had to teach, say, Islam or atheism or witchcraft from a "neutral" point of view. For a Catholic school to be neutral about witchcraft is neither faithful to its religion nor respectful of its liberty. The minority argued for a wider liberty for Loyola, but the majority would only grant religious liberty rights as a kind of special pleading, namely that Catholics did not have to pretend to be neutral about Catholicism. Despite initial exclamations from our friends at Loyola of "total victory," it was more like a deferred defeat.

The deferral was not long. A few weeks later, the court ruled unanimously that the municipal council in Saguenay could not begin its meetings with a prayer. It appealed to neutrality, saying the council had to be neutral between religions — so no favouritism for Catholic prayers in that majority Catholic town. The State must also be neutral between religion and atheism, between belief and unbelief. Specifically, the court said that the council could not begin its meetings with an affirmation of atheism either. These crumbs from the table of equality caused some to lick their chops. It is an indication of how emaciated religious liberty has become in Canada that sensible people like Lorna Dueck and our own Peter Stockland hailed Saguenay with hosannas. The State cannot proclaim atheism! A secular State does not mean promoting secular fundamentalism.

That principle means little in practice. To be neutral between theism and atheism, between belief and unbelief, can only be achieved by keeping silent, and silence on transcendent matters is not a midpoint between religion and anti-religion. Silence is a kind of absence. Silence speaks practically for another absence, the absence of any transcendent claims, which, though not quite the same as full-throated affirmation of atheism, sounds very similar. After all, there are no council affirmations of atheism that will have to be suspended because of Saguenay. There will be plenty of council prayers that will be. Neutrality is not very neutral.

Ottawa's city council was meeting the day Saguenay was handed down. They immediately suspended their customary prayer. Interestingly, the mayor and the councillors were wearing Ottawa Senators jerseys at the meeting. It is a fact that many Ottawa residents and taxpayers support the Montreal Canadiens. Could they object? Not really, because hockey is too important to allow the courts to interfere with the elected representatives representing the consensus of the population as they understand it. What if Ottawa tried to be neutral between the Senators and the Canadiens? Or between hockey and not-hockey? What would that look like? It would look like nothing and sound like nothing. It would indeed be the expression of nothingness. That's the logic of Saguenay. Nothingness is not the same as atheism, but it's close enough for government work.

Changing The Climate

Priests are long accustomed to people asking them to pray for fine weather — for the crops, for safety, for the parish picnic. Now some priests — Pope Francis to be exact — is getting ready to tell people — governments actually — to look after the weather themselves.

By the time the forthcoming environmental encyclical of Pope Francis is released, it will be anti-climactic. Not anti-climate change to be sure, as the Holy See is certainly enthusiastic about the issue. Actually, it is against climate change but enthusiastic about entering the debate firmly on the side of those who believe that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity, that the consequences are catastrophic, and that only massive State action, coordinated internationally, is sufficient to stop it.

At least that is how the Holy See, led by the Holy Father, has advertised the enviro-encyclical. Its purpose, as stated by Pope Francis himself, is to encourage this year's United Nations climate change conference in Paris to achieve an international and legally binding agreement to take action on climate change. He has climate change enthusiasts the world over almost giddy with anticipation.

The giddiness was in full flight at the Vatican on April 28, when Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations' Secretary-General, attended a summit convened by Pope Francis to warm up public opinion for the climate change encyclical. The United Nations, which usually finds the Vatican an irritating opponent of its vast schemes hostile to faith and family, was delighted to borrow the moral authority of the more-than-willing Pope to promote the global regulation of the economy mandated by climate change campaigners. So enthusiastic is the climate change industry for Pope Francis that Al Gore mused that he might consider becoming Catholic, so attracted was he to the Pope's climate activism. Gaining Al Gore over climate change would make up for losing Michael Coren over homosexuality, but Coren for Gore is a bad trade.

We don't know as of press time what Pope Francis will write, but I expect that, in addition to stressing that care for creation is one of the first mandates given to man by God in Genesis, the Holy Father will expand his predecessor's argument that care for natural ecology is strange if there is no corresponding care for human ecology — the protection of life, the promotion of the family, the alleviation of poverty, the securing of human liberty. That most climate activists neglect all of that means many will be disappointed by the actual encyclical. For now they are riding high, and the April 28 conference at the Vatican was full of congratulatory rhetoric that finally something was going to be done about an urgent problem.

"There are ominous signs that the Earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production — with serious political implications for just about every nation on earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only 10 years from now. The regions destined to feel its impact are the great wheat-producing lands of Canada and the U.S.S.R. in the north, along with a number of marginally self-sufficient tropical areas — parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indochina and Indonesia — where the growing season is dependent upon the rains brought by the monsoon."

Is that a typo? The U.S.S.R.? No, the quotation is from April 28 — but in 1975. The text is from Newsweek's April 28, 1975, cover story, "The Cooling World." Climate change has been with us for 40 years. At first the Earth was cooling, now it is warming. But whatever it is, it is bad. How bad? The Newsweek article continues:

"The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it. In England, farmers have seen their growing season decline by about two weeks since 1950, with a resultant overall loss in grain production estimated at up to 100,000 tons annually. During the same time, the average temperature around the equator has risen by a fraction of a degree — a fraction that in some areas can mean drought and desolation. Last April, in the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded, 148 twisters killed more than 300 people and caused half a billion dollars' worth of damage in 13 U.S. states."

So, there is cooling cutting the growing season but also warming bringing drought and desolation. It's bad either way, and everyone knows it.

"To scientists, these seemingly disparate incidents represent the advance signs of fundamental changes in the world's weather. Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the trend, as well as over its specific impact on local weather conditions. But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century. If the climatic change is as profound as some of the pessimists fear, the resulting famines could be catastrophic. ‘A major climatic change would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale,' warns a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, ‘because the global patterns of food production and population that have evolved are implicitly dependent on the climate of the present century.'"

My colleague at Britain's Catholic Herald, Dr. William Oddie, thinks that the Pope should not put his faith in the Nobel Prize-winning princes of climate change.

"The history of science is a history of one collapsing consensus after another," wrote Dr. Oddie. "An encyclical is a document to which the Church will be committed for years to come. To base one on the passing vagaries of secular opinion is surely something the Church should be very hesitant to embark on. For it is possible that the idea of anthropogenic global warming is on the verge of a collapse as total as that of eugenics in the last century. The latter was a virtually universal ‘scientific consensus' which the Church not only steered clear of but also contemptuously rejected." Sounds like good advice to me.

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