Catholics should be more like Michael Coren and less like Joe Biden

Pope Francis greets US Vice President Joe Biden and his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, at the Vatican

On Tuesday I had lunch with the British Canadian broadcaster and journalist, Michael Coren. He is well-known, in Canada and the US at least, for his two recent books of apologetics, the wittily titled, Why Catholics are Right, of 2011 and Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread about Christianity, of 2012. What distinguishes Coren’s approach to faith, in his TV shows and in his writings, is his unapologetic approach to Church teachings.

It could be summed up as, “Yes, it’s tough; but it’s also true; and when you realise this it is fantastically liberating. So get over it.” I tell him that over here it’s hard to get Catholics to stick their heads above the parapet. When they do, they are super-polite, anxious to put their hostile interlocutors at their ease, never confrontational or in-your-face. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing? i.e. “No hard truths please – we’re British”. Coren thinks it is easier for him to be counter-cultural because in Canada, his home for many years, he still feels an “outsider.” Thus he is not afraid to shock. He thinks it would be harder to do this over here and still be popular.

Our conversation makes me think of a quotation from the late Bishop Fulton Sheen: “If you say ‘I’m a Catholic but,’ you’re not a Catholic.” Coren won’t have any truck with “buts”, or indeed, with public figures who are supposedly Catholic but who leave their faith at the church door.

I mention John F Kennedy, the first Catholic President of the US, who ducked and weaved his way through the American political scene very expertly, seemingly without the encumbrance of a faith that made moral demands on him.

Coren cites Joe Biden, the current Catholic Vice-President as another. He thinks that bishops should take a tougher line on public figures who receive Communion while at the same time saying “I’m a Catholic, but when it comes to abortion…” and so on. Rather than a public stand-off, the bishops should call such people in for a private talk so they know where they stand.

The refreshing thing about Coren is that faith does not seem to weigh heavily on his shoulders. It makes him light-hearted, funny, disarming – yet uncompromising. He recently tweeted, in response to some commentator who stated that, with the papal election imminent, the Church was at a “crossroads”, “Morphing STDs/rampant divorce/family breakdown/Islamic triumphalism/social despair/addiction/emptiness. [The] West, not Church, at ‘crossroads.’” Another Tweet during those heady days of March went, “’Nobody cares about the Church anymore’. Which is why entire world glued to papal election. Direct descendant of St Peter soon to be known.”

Coren is optimistic about the election of Pope Francis, tweeting on 28 March, “Pope washes feet of young offenders. Just like Presidents and Prime Ministers do. Hold on a moment. No, that’s not what they do, is it.” Having only come across the irretrievably shallow thoughts of certain public figures on Twitter, I had not appreciated that 146 characters could be used as an ironic, acerbic and effective tool of evangelisation like this.

In some Catholic circles there has been some hand-wringing about the papal foot-washing, especially that of a young Muslim girl. Unlike William Oddie, in his own blog on the subject, I am not unduly uncomfortable about this. Otherwise it might be tempting to fall into the mode of those who complained to Jesus about the way he broke certain rules.

Without tumbling into sentimentality and jettisoning truth for the sake of a false compassion, I think the law of love is the highest law – but that you have to be a person of great holiness to judge when to act upon this precept. I know I shouldn’t mention John Paul II and Assisi in this context, in case people think Pope Francis, who has taken the name of the saint of you-know-where, is going to commit appalling liturgical or theological blunders in the name of charity. I leave the last word to Michael Coren, who wrote in his syndicated column for the Canadian weekly Sun media newspapers after the news of the papal election: “Pope Francis will reform the Vatican, will shake up the place…He will beguile though, because he is theologically orthodox, whilst being supportive of the poor. But the Church looks neither left nor right, it looks up. As should we all. God bless Pope Francis.”