Canadian Defender

Saturday Book Pick: Radio talk show host Michael Coren stands up for his adopted faith.

Michael Coren is a Canadian author and electronic journalist who delights in rocking the cultural boat, something which is, admittedly, very easy to do in Canada, where not rocking the boat is itself a cherished value.

Perhaps only in Canada, for example, would his statement of the obvious, that AIDS in North America is a disease of male homosexuals, be cited to illustrate his provocativeness.

Equally in your face is his latest book, Why Catholics Are Right.

Without apology, without qualification — and virtually without stopping to take a breath — Coren blasts blitzkrieg-like through the long, tiresome, and, apparently, mounting list of grievances against the Church.

It is thoroughly amusing and mostly very useful, though in trying these arguments out on friends or spouses, one would do best to drop Coren’s tone of constant irritation at the stupidity of most criticisms. Not that they aren’t irritating; it is just that many people subscribing to these views do so assuming they are indisputable.

A great example is the claim that more people have been killed in the name of religion than in all the wars of history: anti-religious comedians George Carlin and Jon Stewart are the contemporary promoters of this easily refuted, yet widely-held myth.

Coren reminds such critics of “the countless victims of the barbaric and aggressively God-hating regimes” of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, as well as the “terror of the atheistic French Revolution.”

The best part of his book is spent demolishing such specific anti-Catholic targets as the clergy sex abuse scandal, which gets its own chapter; the Crusades; the Inquisition, and the Galileo affair. He then tackles essential Catholic dogma such as devotion to Mary, papal infallibility and the Eucharist, the Church’s defense of the right to life and its sexual morality.

Coren’s defense of the Crusades is typical of his leave-no-attack-un-rebutted approach. The Crusades were not imperialistic since they were a net fiscal drain on Europe; nor were they attempts to convert Muslims by force but rather to restore to Christian rule lands conquered by Muslims (for which, he notes, it is “almost unheard of to hear any Islamic leaders offering any form of contrition.”)

On the anti-Semitic excesses of some Crusades he notes that these were unauthorized and Catholic bishops led efforts to protect Jews from persecutors. On the sack of Christian Constantinople he details the tangled intrigue (they don’t call it Byzantine for nothing) with the Eastern emperor that led to it, and notes that the Pope excommunicated all involved.

As for the far more infamous sack of Jerusalem after what should have been the crowning success of the Crusades in 1099, when the streets of the holy city reportedly ran knee-deep with the blood of the city’s Jews, he begins by disputing those reports as exaggerations. He goes on to note that such brutality routinely resulted from medieval sieges by both Muslims and Christians, when the besieged refused to surrender. He adds that women and children were protected as were Muslim and Jewish males who survived the initial uncontrolled explosion of violence that followed the breaching of the walls.

Coren defends the Inquisition’s motives (to save heretics’ souls and not to torture or punish), its methods (secular courts commonly also used torture to gather evidence; trials were fairer under the Inquisition and punishments less severe and in the case of the Spanish operation) and its historical context (very recent liberation from several centuries of Muslim tyranny). Even the notorious Torquemada gets his defence: he “seldom used torture and went to great lengths to make sure that accuser and accused received justice.”

Though Catholics should all be pretty well briefed on Pope Pius XII’s efforts on behalf of the Jews during the Second World War, nonetheless Coren does a masterful job assembling compelling testimonies from Pius’s contemporaries; not only praise from Jewish admirers such as onetime Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, but revealingly hostile comments from Nazis who knew the Pope for their bitter adversary.

One comment he cites from Rabbi David Dalin’s 2005 book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope touches on an interesting subtheme of the book about the motive for many attacks on the Church.  Says Dalin: “The Holocaust is simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditional Catholics in their attempts to bash the papacy.”

According to Coren, the same motive can be imputed to many current attacks on the Church, especially the clergy sex abuse scandal. On this, by far the most pressing and damaging complaint against the Church, Coren again assembles all the familiar arguments for the defence, but in my view does too good a job. It is true, as he argues, that there is no connection between celibacy or any other Catholic doctrine and the clergy’s sexual abuse of minors and no greater incidence of it than among teachers and coaches, and a smaller incidence than among family members.

But there is still a case to be made for a special, “Catholic” contribution to the scandal, and that is the undemocratic,  “old boy” nature of the Catholic hierarchy, that protected serial abusers as they moved from parish to parish, offending again and again in some salient cases.

But Coren hasn’t missed much. Entertaining in itself, his book is an entirely useful exercise in elevator apologetics — concise, abrasive argumentative gems putting all foes of Holy Mother Church in their place before the door opens to let them out at their floor (surely the sub-basement).

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.



By Michael Coren

McClelland and Stewart, 2011

240 pages, $19.99

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