This past Monday, I received an e-mail with the news that Michael Coren had left the Catholic Church and recently entered the Anglican communion. Coren, the Canadian author and apologist who has written a monthly CWR column (“Controversies with Coren”) since September 2013, had apparently been attending an Anglican church for a year or longer. Shortly after receiving the news, I sent Coren an e-mail, and a few minutes later we had a 20-minute phone conversation. I agreed to have our conversation off the record, as he requested, because I simply wanted to hear his side of things. It was a very civil, friendly conversation, and I appreciate that Michael was willing to talk to me.
That said, the reasons Coren gave me for leaving the Catholic Church were not convincing. Actually, they were rather confusing. They certainly weren’t very cohesive or compelling.
A couple of days ago, I informed Michael that CWR would no longer be carrying his column, a decision that I’m certain he expected. He accepted the news graciously and professionally.
Yesterday, the National Post published an interview with Coren, accompanied by a short video, providing more background and reasons for his decision. Titled “‘I felt a hypocrite’: Author Michael Coren on why he left the Catholic Church for Anglicanism”, the combined interviews have a strangely passive-aggressive quality. Coren laments that his decision to become Anglican has “brought out the worst in the Catholic right.” I’m not entirely certain who make up the “Catholic right” in Canada, but I do know that if a vocal defender of the Catholic Church who has written books with titles such as Why Catholics Are Right suddenly turns Anglican and condemns Catholic teaching on a serious issue, he’s going to be criticized. It’s a given. What’s surprising is that anyone might find that surprising.
What is the hot button issue? Here’s the key quote:
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.
Many things come to mind, including this question: “How far, then, should the circle of love be broadened?” Does it bother Coren that the Catholic Church also considers adultery, polygamy, pornography, and incest to be serious sins? Is he bothered that polygamists and people in incestuous relationships are “effectively excluded” by the Catholic Church? Where does he want to draw the line? And why? The key point is that Coren is simply dancing to the tune of the secularist pied piper here. And so it probably makes sense that he “feels comfortable” (as he puts it in the video interview) in the Anglican communion, which has a substantial tradition, beginning with Henry VIII, of tweaking its doctrines and moral stances based on the winds of political power and cultural expediency.
However, another comment reveals just as much or more about Coren’s decision, albeit in a somewhat circumspect way. Asked why he had left the Catholic Church and attended Evangelical services for a few years in the ’90s, Coren says, “I just thought I needed a closer relationship with Christ at that time. I just wanted something simpler, a relationship rather than a religion.” Back in August 2012, I asked him a very similar question, but received a rather different response:
Catholic World Report: You converted to Catholicism as a young man, then spent some time in Evangelical circles. What brought you back to the Catholic Church? How has that influenced your recent books, which are apologetic and controversial (in the old-school sense) in nature?
Michael Coren: I was asked to speak at a G.K. Chesterton conference in Toronto back in 1986, met a wonderful Canadian woman, fell in love, married her, and left Britain to Canada. I’d come into the church a year earlier. The Canadian Church was in a poor state, and at the height – depth – of its liberalism.
After a few years I felt so distant, so rejected. It was my fault, and better people than me stayed and continued the fight, but I think I was still vulnerable in my faith and simply drifted away into Evangelical worship. But as so many others have written and explained, it was never the full truth, never the entire picture. I longed for Christ, for His body, for the Church He left us, and that twitch upon the thread drew me back. That journey, than struggle, certainly influenced my writing, and turned me into an apologist really. I’d had to do the work, years of it, and wanted to convey all of that effort to other people, to give them what I had been given.
If I follow this correctly, in the ’90s Coren left the Catholic Church for a while because it was too liberal and lax, but now he is leaving the Catholic Church because it is too conservative and rigid.
It becomes even more confusing, however, because Coren has acknowledged that he has attended an Anglican church for at least a year (perhaps longer). But in a controversial column published June 28, 2014, in the Toronto Sun, he wrote the following:
Thing is, I have evolved my position on this issue [gays and gay marriage] not in spite of but precisely because of my Catholicism. My belief in God, Christ, the Eucharist, and Christian moral teaching are stronger than ever. Goodness, I am even trying to forgive those “Christians” who are trying to have my speeches cancelled and have devoted pages on their websites and blogs to my apparent disgrace. …
As for pressure, you clearly don’t know me. I have never compromised because of intimidation, even when it comes from genuinely violent and serious people. It’s tragic but indicative that there are critics who cannot come to terms with growth and change and, rather than consider what I have to say, try to question my motives.
No, I have evolved on this single subject because I can no longer hide behind comfortable banalities, have realized that love triumphs judgment, and know that the conversation between Christians and gays has to transform — just as, to a large extent, the conversation between conservatives and gays has.
Yet Coren was apparently no longer going to a Catholic parish or attending Catholic Mass at that time, and was already focusing on entering the Anglican communion. And just two months ago he sent me a column (it was never published) which referenced what “we in the Catholic Church” believe (the column was about atheism). Again, prior to this past week I had no idea that Coren was making a break from the Catholic Church.
What to make of all this? I cannot read hearts, nor is it my place to do so. But the external evidence strongly suggest the following to me:
First, Coren is incredibly sensitive to criticism, which is not unusual–except that he has made a name writing about controversies and topics that elicit strong criticism. It’s a sad but undeniable fact that some of the criticism aimed at him has undoubtedly been harsh, personal, and even outrageous. I’ve been there; it’s hard. It hurts. It can be depressing and frustrating. But my faith as a Catholic–having entered the Church in 1997–has never been based on the politeness, reasonableness, or even moral rectitude of individual Catholics (and that includes bishops). It never will be. Thank God!
Second, Coren is a good journalist and a fine communicator, but he is a mediocre theologian and is often a rip-and-recite apologist (that is, take it from the manual and repeat when necessary). He knows the arguments but it’s not evident to me that he really understands the deeper, foundational truths involved with sexuality and marriage, moral theology and magisterial teaching, Catholic anthropology and objective truth. When he states, for instance, “I just wanted something simpler, a relationship rather than a religion,” I hear someone who is repeating empty Evangelical cliches, not someone who has really grasped the inner core of Catholicism, which is deeply relational and ecclesial precisely because of who Jesus Christ is and what he had done and continues to do in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Finally, it seems to me that Coren wants to bake, hold, and devour the proverbial cake–in this case, the Catholic cake. He keeps lamenting that Catholic journals are severing ties and Catholic groups are cancelling talks. But what does he expect? Seriously. He essentially misled readers and listeners about what he was doing or not doing, and he has now publicly renounced the magisterial authority of the Church. And he has done so in a way that, again, calls into question his grasp of fundamental Catholic theology. Catholic teaching is of a whole, and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, the nature of marriage, and related matters are not isolated issues, but speak to a comprehensive vision and understanding of human nature, relationships, society, the political order, and the nature of salvation that is rooted in the teachings of Christ.
I certainly harbor no resentment toward Michael (who I do not know well), and I do hope he finds peace and real happiness. However, I don’t believe he’ll find it outside the Catholic Church. Perhaps that means I’m part of the shadowy “Catholic right.” However, I doubt it, if only because I think too highly of Hans Urs von Balthasar and believe “Lumen Gentium” is essential reading. But that’s a topic for another time.