Last night I joined a comfortable number of men and women at the aptly named Bishop and Belcher in downtown Toronto to share a meal and lively discussion with Michael Coren. In Canada, Coren is a familiar face in conservative political punditry. He has been a columnist for four major Canadian newspapers, he has authored over a dozen books—including biographies of Menken, Lewis, Chesterton and Tolkien—and is the host of The Michael Coren Show; a daily political talk show on television. Coren is a London expatriate and I was interested to find out that he spent some time in the eighties working for the New Statesman.
Coren’s recent book is Why Catholics Are Right and he agreed to join our monthly meeting of theological discussion to speak about it. Though he grew up rather nominal when it came to church, he entered into the Roman Catholic fold while living in England. Upon arrival in Canada he grew tired of some forms of Roman Catholic worship and spent a number of years testing various evangelical bodies in the Toronto area. About eight years ago he was received back into Catholic communion and has since been an outspoken advocate of a more conservative brand of their teaching.
I give Coren credit for being so willing to join our discussion as our group is by-and-large Protestant with a significant number of us as self-identified Calvinists. Of course, Coren is not one known to back down from a good debate, so it’s not too surprising to see him hanging out with a group like ours. Thankfully, from both our part and his, the discussion was energetic and entertaining, but not at all combative. Coren got to clearly, and with wit, express his views as they are found in the book, and we listened intently without letting him off the hook on a number of key areas.
For my own part I have found aspects of the book helpful and others somewhat troubling (I plan on reviewing it shortly). After about three questions from the group I raised my hand to share my thoughts. First of all, I thanked Coren for his section on the so-called “Hitler’s Pope” misconception. Since the sixties the popular take on the Roman Catholic Church’s silence during the Holocaust is that she and her pope, Pius XII, were complicit in what happened to the Jews in order to save their own skin. Coren helpfully dispels this myth and demonstrates that Pius XII had long been a vocal critic of National Socialism and that as pope he expended himself saving a significant number of Jews. This spurred me on to further research which confirmed Coren’s argument.
However, I did mention an area, one among many, that I found problematic in both the book and his presentation of it. He says that although Roman Catholics are “right,” serious minded evangelicals are only “slightly wrong.” He believes that the major difference between evangelicals and Roman Catholics is that of ecclesiology, not so much soteriology. The concern that I voiced is that according to Canon 9 of the Council of Trent (1545-1564), “If anyone saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema” (see also Canons 11, 12, 24, 30, 32). That last word, “anathema,” means “accursed.” Protestants historically have followed the apostle Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:8-9 that sinners are saved by the grace of God apart from “works” so that no one may boast. Thus the Canons of the Council of Trent leave us accursed, or damned. Coren responded by saying that the strong language of Trent was driven by its immediate historical context; that due to the violence and disruption in Europe, the Roman Church needed to react strongly. However, the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church does not speak in such strong terms. That may be, but Trent is still a binding authority in the Catholic communion and its anathema’s still stand. Thus, committed evangelicals can’t be “slightly wrong;” according to Rome, we’re going to hell.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion. A person like Michael Coren, who has had so many unique life experiences, can share anecdotes and stories that make any conversation interesting. On numerous occasions his dry humour had us all bursting with laughter. I confess to feeling a little of the romanticised nostalgia of hanging out with a “literary Catholic” akin to Auden, Eliot, Waugh or Greene. While I would strongly disagree with his book—on a number of levels—I am thankful that in his busy schedule, Michael would be so willing to come and hang out with a rag-tag bunch of theology-wonks. It was very gracious of him and I think all of us who were there can look back at last night with a new-found fondness for the man and his work.