A Review of Michael Coren's Why Catholics Are Right | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 24, 2011
Why Catholics Are Right
by Michael Coren
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011
The Catholic Church quietly presents reasonable arguments about the truth that it is organized to uphold and explain to the human race. These arguments are put forth as the truth about God, Christ, the Spirit, the Church, the cosmos, how to live. They are based in reason and intelligence. Revelation itself is directed to reason. Catholicism seeks light in the realm of intelligence not obscurity. It strives to explain, prove, and articulate what it holds.
The history of the Church is, from one point of view, a record of arguments made against it in any given time or place. The earliest Church Councils were called precisely to deal with misunderstandings about this or that truth of revelation. They concluded by stating as clearly as possible what the truth was. The Church is from its beginning concerned with intelligence. It maintains that, with good will, erroneous arguments can be understood and clarified in the light of the truth. Almost always error betrays some truth that is worth upholding. One of the purposes of Christian intelligence is precisely to do this work of understanding and, in the light of the whole, putting in proper place propositions that are said to disprove one or another of its tenets. Aquinas was famous for stating arguments against the Church better than those who held them. The precise knowledge of error is itself a work of truth. We do not fully understand the truth unless we can explain arguments against it.
The Church welcomes these arguments against its life and truth as opportunities to clarify what exactly it does hold and why it holds it. It assumes that such arguments are made in good will by those who will submit to the truth if it is clearly presented to them. This good will is not always the case but it is assumed in any case.
St. Irenaeus wrote a penetrating book, in the second century, Against Heretics. In the 20th century, Chesterton bemusedly recounted for us in Heretics why the arguments in his time presented by learned men against the truth of Catholicism finally succeeded in converting him to Catholicism. The arguments turned out to be wrong or contradictory in such a manner that often it seemed like any argument, true or false, was used against the truth of Catholicism. Many people, for private reasons of their own, did not want Catholicism to be true, as it would demand a different way of life on their part.
Michael Coren is a Canadian broadcaster and writer. His books, in fact, include a biography of Chesterton. Some of Chesterton's playful astonishment about the weakness of arguments against Christianity comes through in Coren's book. Coren is not afraid to call popular or classic arguments against Catholicism to be silly, or insane, or weak, or incoherent when that is what they are.
Coren is likewise a Jewish convert to Catholicism so that he is familiar both with the issue of the relation of Catholicism to the Old Testament as well as the accusations that somehow Catholics are unfair to or biased against them. Coren never excuses real Catholic faults or sins, but he understands that we are all in need of redemption.
What Coren does in this very useful book is to take up, issue by issue, the arguments that exist in the public order that purport to show that Catholicism is either wrong, un-modern, prejudiced, uninformed, or inhuman. What is unique about this book is precisely Coren's ability to cover the whole range of modern bias on its own terms. The book is an on-going narrative of commonly heard accusations against the Church's veracity or way of life.
Of course, today this book is also necessarily written against the relativism that presupposes that nothing is true but relativism—itself a strange position. It is well for Catholics in particular to see a book that takes up issue by issue the most biased and outlandish, as well as the most subtle and difficult, accusations against the faith that are heard every day in the media or in educational and cultural circles.
Coren neglects none of the so-called hard cases. He deals at length with the issue of clerical abuse, its extent and cause. He discusses anti-Semitism, its relation in particular to Pius XII, whom Jews universally praised for his aid to Jews in the years after World War II. He analyzes the Crusades, homosexuality, divorce, even Dan Brown, whose anti-Catholic novel, The Da Vinci Code, is a delight to dissect as it has so many idiotic presuppositions.
On every issue that is supposedly an argument against the truth of Catholicism, Coren presents the historical context of the accusation, which makes it, what it is worth. What strikes the reader is the almost eerie willingness of many in our supposedly sophisticated time to believe almost any accusation against the Church. In the public forum, we have very few able polemicists who take up one by one the popularly proposed accusations. By the time anyone gets around to answering them, a new accusation is brought up; the old one is forgotten. The fact is that the arguments are always weak and cannot stand up to careful analysis. It is almost as if the modern world is afraid to look seriously into the issue of the truth of Catholicism. This is the case. The truth of Catholicism is what the modern world assumes it knows, or thinks it knows, so that it cannot even think seriously about it.
Coren is very good on the various life issues, from divorce, to remarriage, to annulments, to contraception, to single-sex marriage, to experiments about the family, to on reproductive techniques and population control. He understands the hidden anti-humanism in much environmental propaganda. He deals with euthanasia and what it implies, as well with using embryos for experimentation.
He looks at historical issues like the Crusades which were in effect basically belated efforts of Christianity to defend itself from an almost successful Muslim take over of Europe after it had actually taken over, by force, most of the former Christian lands in the Near East and Africa. He understands the recent surge of Islam intends to carry out the previous Islamic effort to conquer the world in the name of Allah. He even deals with the famous myth of a Pope Joan.
Coren is quite lucid on politicians who are Catholic but prefer not to defend Catholic or reasonable causes when they are in the public forum. The book is concise. It covers Scripture, Vatican II, Protestantism, almost every conceivable issue that we see in the public forum. Coren is effective in showing that what is really at stake is not that Catholicism is wrong but that it is right on the very issues in which it is said to err. Catholicism always has a grounding in reason and revelation for what it maintains. Coren does not doubt that it is a difficult thing to live a Catholic life, but he is quite clear that living a life that in effect denies its basic premises is really much more difficult and unsatisfying. He is sympathetic to the unbeliever and the sinner. He knows about confession and forgiveness.
We need books like this. At one point, Coren muses about whether it is unkind to tell others what in fact is the truth of what Catholics believe, to point out to them their errors and prejudices. As he says, this endeavor is neither unkind nor unreasonable. If we can never defend or explain ourselves, we are simply inhuman. If we cannot talk in public about the truth of what we hold, we are already in a totalitarian system.
This book is quite refreshing. Catholics are frankly sick and tired of being accused of every sort of disorder and having their own arguments brushed off as if they had no reason in them. If the book proves anything, it is that too many in our culture do not want to know the truth of Catholicism because they in fact suspect that it does have the better of the arguments about what the truth of man and God is. The Coren book is quite worth reading in this light.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.