Pope Francis and the Witness of Divine Paradox

by NR Interview
The future of Catholicism is Christ.

Who would have predicted a year ago that one of the biggest news stories of the year would have been a Lenten journey to a papal conclave resulting in the first pope from the Americas, one whom you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to hear an opinion on.

“A mere two days after he was elected pontiff,” Michael Coren recalls in his new book The Future of Catholicism, “Pope Francis told the Cardinal Electors gathered in Rome, ‘If we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. . . . When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.’”

These are not the quotes you hear cited most often from Pope Francis. But this, Coren writes, “is central, absolute, essential, and inescapable. The Church does not exist to change the faith to reflect the world but to change the world to reflect the faith.” Further, Coren explains, faith “demands that our relationships with Jesus Christ . . . must lead us to become more like Him, not more like us.”

Coren, a veteran Canadian journalist, discusses The Future of Catholicism and an undeniable man of the year, Pope Francis, with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do you mean when you write that “the natural constituency for the future Church is the poor”?

MICHAEL COREN: This is an answer that demands nuance. There are the literal poor, and the metaphorical poor. The first category is obvious: those who have insufficient food, warmth, shelter, education, health care, and so on. The second is more complex: those who may have food, warmth, shelter, but lack love, spiritual meaning, community, and a sense of purpose. This is an area where right as well as left tend to hide behind tired old categories. Jesus did not come merely for the under-class and the impoverished, and to assume that he did is to misunderstand and minimize His messianic purpose. He came for everyone, and His Church was left for everyone. Because the world’s poor, in North America, but particularly in the developing world, are in such direct need, a church founded by the Prince of Peace and the embodiment of love has to reach out to them in direct ways. But those who will never want for food and a roof can still be in spiritual poverty.

LOPEZ: You write that in the face of liberation theology, Pope Francis, before he was pope, “was obliged to work out his own deeply Catholic yet non-socialist response to poverty.” You further write that “socialism has failed the poor, and governments of various stripes have not managed to address the deeper problems of poverty.” Is that Bergoglio or Coren? Is your read that Pope Francis is not a Marxist wishful thinking? What is Pope Francis’s “deeply Catholic yet non-socialist response to poverty”?

COREN: He was not liked by liberation theologians and Marxist Jesuits in Latin America, and when he was elected, many of them were apparently in despair. The liberation theological tradition is an arrogant one, assumes that only it has the answers to poverty, and is directly Marxian in its analysis of class and power. As such, it’s extremely old-fashioned, because Marxism has been tried in Europe, Asia, and Africa and failed miserably each time. Marxism is materialistic, and Francis is not. As a working-class Englishman born in 1959, I was a product of a social democracy and a Labor party that “owed more to Methodism than to Marx,” and this European/Latin American approach has to be understood if we are to appreciate the pope’s view on economic justice. There is nothing Marxist about making sure a child is fed and educated, and indeed some Marxists would condemn this as capitalist tampering with a system that has to be brought down. Socialism inevitably leads to more state power and less individual and thus religious freedom, and Francis is acutely aware of this.

LOPEZ: “Money is a problem and its abuse a temptation in every walk of life, and the Church is, sadly, no different.” So why doesn’t the Church get rid of temptations and get out of the business of having a bank and sell all its fine art? Wouldn’t that be in keeping with Pope Francis’s poverty push?

COREN: The Church bank is a problem, and reform is essential. Pope Benedict opened the door on fundamental reform, and we should be ever grateful to him for that. But while money produces problems, the Church exists in the world, and the world demands the use of money. As for art, those beautiful paintings and statues in Rome do not belong to the contemporary Church but to the Church of all time, and nobody owns them or has the right to sell them. If they were sold, many if not most would fall into the hands of private collectors and never be seen again by the millions of ordinary people who now bathe in their genius every day. The Church is the most generous institution on earth and gives so much to so many. If it did sell those pieces of art, the money raised would help for a while, but would not change very much in the long run. This argument is, of course, used in an attempt to paint the Church as hypocritical, but the truth is that priests live poor and basic lives. Also, glorifying God is not the same as delighting man. We should delight in creating beauty for God.

LOPEZ: Whatever do you mean when you write, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets Catholic”?

COREN: “LOL,” as the young people say! It was in reference to the phenomenon where in anti-Catholic Hollywood, whenever there is a movie involving Satan, the man who takes on Old Nick is never a Unitarian or an Episcopalian but always a Catholic priest. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one that is repeated almost every year. Suddenly, movies become disarmingly pro-Catholic when the threat is horribly real and dark.

LOPEZ: Would the ordination of women as priests really constitute the “destruction” of the Catholic Church?

COREN: It would, in that it would no longer be the Catholic Church. You see, we haven’t the authority to contradict Scripture or the teachings and example of Christ. This is not an issue of equality but an issue of obedience. After the Resurrection, Jesus showed Himself first to women, gave women positions of importance, told us to revere His Mother, and the Church has always liberated women and made them doctors of the Church. But Jesus never ordained them. This is vital to understand. It wasn’t that women were excluded from authority and influence but the very opposite, and that in this context they were not ordained says so much. The primary role of the priest is to represent Jesus at the Mass, and, in my experience, the most faithful and Catholic of women are the last and least to want female ordination. It tends to be those who demand, often angrily, the complete transformation of the Church who speak of female ordination.

LOPEZ: Your vision of the future of Catholicism has some doubling down on issues that have been a bit of an obsession with conservative Catholics — abortion, euthanasia, contraception, marriage. Is that the Francis way? How can that all be fruitful and not futile?

COREN: I would argue that this is not conservative Catholicism but mere Catholicism. The dignity of the human person is at the heart, the epicenter of the faith, and if we forget this, we are in profound danger. There is no contradiction between the defense of life at its most vulnerable and a fruitful, modern Catholicism. Remember, the main victims of abortion are black, brown, female, and handicapped. If anything, this puts the pro-life community on the left of the spectrum. But I would argue that the Church looks neither left nor right but up. As for contraception, all we ask is that people do not exclude God and His plan for procreation from the marriage bed, put latex before love, and allow lust and personal desire to dominate what should be selfless and loving. Marriage? No compromise on love, but no compromise on truth. The same-sex marriage issue is less about gay people than about children and their rights in what is supposed to be a child-centered institution. I think that what the pope was saying was that while issues of life and morality are vital and central, they are not exclusive, and that unless we expand the conversation, we will be ignored on those and every issue.

LOPEZ: Why do politicians so often get stuck when talking about abortion? Will this only get worse as the ACLU sues Catholic bishops for daring to be involved in Catholic health care?

COREN: This is not confined to the United States, and we have this problem in my homeland of Britain and in Canada, where I have lived half of my life. The love that dare not speak its name: the love for the unborn. Media and culture have worked hard to paint pro-lifers as extreme and intolerant, and politicians have too often listened to that narrative and assumed that opposition to abortion will damage their careers. Even if it does, so what?

As for Obamacare, I can tell you as someone who has experienced two publicly funded health systems that, by any standard, the president’s insistence on the funding of elective family-planning procedures is breathtakingly unusual and extreme. There is an agenda here that has nothing to do with the reform of medical care. As for being sued by the ACLU, I would take that as a badge of honor. Wear it proudly!

LOPEZ: How do you really seriously start a conversation in secular society (even among Catholics) about contraception, particularly at a time when it may confuse people about what fights in the U.S. about religious freedom entail? Is it wise to start such a conversation?

COREN: Recently a good, intelligent Catholic journalist said to me, “Michael, most Catholics don’t obey Church teaching on birth control, so why continue with it?” I replied that most Catholics don’t turn the other cheek, forgive their neighbor, love God with all their heart, or absolutely believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, so why continue with all that? Look, the teaching is difficult because it involves one of the most visceral and certainly pleasurable aspects of human behavior: sex. Pornographers don’t starve! There’s money in sex because sex is very, very popular. God made it so because He wants us to be happy and also to continue to exist. But, frankly, I would never begin a conversation about faith and Catholicism by discussing contraception. We learn to obey God by loving Him, not the contrary. There are many ways to find truth, many routes home, and some issues can be discussed later rather than earlier.

LOPEZ: Isn’t it semantics to sidestep questions of tolerance and compassion and equality in the same-sex marriage debate to insist that “the Catholic Church defends the Sacrament of marriage” more so than it opposes same-sex marriage, which it does?

COREN: I don’t think so. Individual Catholics may be intolerant, but as early as the 1970s the Church was condemning anti-homosexual attitudes. I can tell you on a personal level that I have campaigned against Iran’s treatment of gay men, I have called for full legal protection of gay people in cases of employment, housing, and inheritance legislation, and have done everything I can to reach out to gay friends and colleagues. But this does not prevent me from defending marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Marriage is not a human right. If intolerance is an issue today in the West, it is the intolerance of gay extremists when they attack, libel, and condemn even their gentlest critics.

LOPEZ: Could it be overstating things to talk about “a destructive claim against God’s plan” when discussing updating marriage law and family life?

COREN: Not at all. You see, alongside the promotion of so-called “alternative” or “modern” family life has been an attack on traditional family life. The nuclear family has been the subject of academic and entertainment disdain for two generations now. I don’t accept conspiracy theories, but I do appreciate cultural trends and tendencies. Family is mutable, but gender and the adult-child relationship is not. Family as we have known it has given an order and stability that has not only allowed, but enabled so much that is grand and great about our communities. God did — and does indeed have — a plan, and we see it in natural law and biological imperatives.

LOPEZ: Is denial of Communion the only way to deal with the privatized Kennedy model of Catholicism in public life in the United States? Is that really just, given the bad catechesis of recent decades?

COREN: As I say in the book, denial of Communion should not be seen as a punishment but as a teaching model. A good bishop will try to take a politician aside privately and explain that to receive the Sacrament in a state of mortal sin is a very serious matter. One’s soul is in danger! While there are many ordinary Catholics who don’t understand Church teaching, I cannot believe that major politicians have never been told it; in fact we know they have, because many have said so and then boasted that they don’t care. In some ways it’s less the Communion issue than the public acceptance and glorification of defiant Catholic politicians by Catholic leaders. If one of my children did something terribly wrong, I would still love and forgive them, but I wouldn’t loudly congratulate them for what they did, thus betraying my integrity and encouraging their siblings to do the same.

LOPEZ: If one politician is denied Communion over abortion, could another be denied it for his vote to cut food stamps or some other economic, budgetary matter?

COREN: They are very different issues. If a Catholic politician said “to hell with them poor, let them starve,” we would have a problem. But a Catholic politician who believes the best way to liberate the poor and help them out of poverty is by a means other than food stamps, for example, is not betraying his faith; it’s an issue of different means to the same Catholic end. There can be no argument for abortion. If a woman cannot raise her child, so be it. There are many who are clamoring to adopt. Help and love that mother, ease and aid her in the process, but we do not have the right to kill her baby. There is a difference between unchanging Catholic teaching about life, and opinion about the best way to help the poor.

LOPEZ: If it “is difficult to be optimistic about the future Church and its relationship with Islam,” what should the Catholic approach to Islam and Muslims be, broadly and practically speaking?

COREN: Actually my next book is about Islam’s war on Christianity. In 15 years of hosting television shows I have interviewed so many Christians and Christian leaders from the Islamic world that my heart breaks and bleeds. Muslims and Islam are separate issues. Muslims are individual people made in God’s image and must be treated with love and respect. But Islam, in spite of what the pope wrote recently, is not a religion of peace and a thorough reading of the Koran and Hadith and understanding of Islamic history gives one cause for enormous concern. We have to ask some basic questions: Does orthodox Islam allow free conversion, does it embrace gender equality, does it tolerate homosexuality, does it allow female autonomy, is it compatible with a modern, pluralistic state, and so on? There is not really a single Muslim majority country where Christians are treated properly. Even in relatively moderate Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, there are problems; and in Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, and so on, the persecution is grotesque. Whatever Saddam was and whatever Assad is, as secular leaders they did not actively persecute Christians; their fundamentalist rivals certainly do and will. The relationship between the Church and Islam will be one of the dominant challenges of the coming years, and it is too late to be ignorant or naïve about the realities we face.

LOPEZ: “We are not made for the bunker or the ghetto, but for the shining light on the hill,” you write. How can that be marching orders for Catholics in public life? How can that be for real? Can Catholics really shine Christ’s light with their witness and leadership, especially when it seems there’s so much the world disagrees with the Church on?

COREN: That’s precisely why. We sometimes assume that because, as a society, we’re full fed and relatively wealthy, we are happy and agree with the culture. Not so. There is a great deal of unhappiness and despair out there, and legions of people who do not embrace the status quo. Monasteries did not agree with the world around them, but were built on high and prominent places so the people could see their alternative. Thus with modern Catholics. Seems to me there are two errors into which we can fall. Conform to the culture and hope we’re liked because of it, or hide away and moan about what is around us. The answer is much more Catholic than that. Be in the world but not of it.

LOPEZ: Why do you write these books? Why is thinking about, teaching, clarifying, and defending what the Church teaches important? Why is the existence of the Catholic Church important?

COREN: Goodness, what a question. I’m not sure I can give an adequate answer. I suppose it’s a vocation in a way. I have written columns for mass audiences, hosted television and radio shows, for years now. I seem to be able to communicate the Catholic message in a popular, accessible way without dumbing down the message. Frankly, even some of our most esteemed apologists use esoteric and insular language too often, become almost evangelical in their Christianese semantics, and also have no sense of humor or irony. I am not as tall as a Lewis or a Chesterton, but I can stand on their shoulders. While politics matter, faith matters more, and the Church is where the genuine answers are to the genuine questions.

LOPEZ: Over the weekend, the New York Times editorialized: “After decades of Vatican indifference and evasion, Pope Francis has ordered the creation of a commission to study the rape and intimidation of schoolchildren by priests and to recommend measures for effective reform.” How do you respond to a sentence like that — so loaded down with pain, suffering, misunderstanding and, I think you might add, anti-Catholicism — an anti-Catholicism made worse by sin and error?

COREN: What a callow, ill-informed statement by the New York Times. Mind you, no surprise there. I wrote about this issue at length in my book Why Catholics Are Right and haven’t the room to repeat that here. But the truth is that the abuse crisis said more about the brokenness of human nature than the failures of the Church. This was mainly an issue of homosexual men abusing teenage boys, and while we must not generalize about gay men, we have to state truth and admit what this was and what this wasn’t. The Church reacted poorly but entirely typically for the time — similar to the way that schools, sports teams, and other denominations reacted. The Church is now about the safest place for a young person to be, unlike some of the institutions so favored by the Times!

LOPEZ: What was the “divine paradox” of Pope Francis’s Holy Thursday washing of the feet incident? Is understanding that the key to understanding what some are calling the “Francis Effect”?

COREN: Tradition evolving but truth remaining. To conservatives who were offended by this I would say that what matters is less about whose feet he washed than the fact that he washed feet. But within the washing of a woman’s feet was the pope reminding the world that this was not a perfunctory exercise but a revolutionary act. A man with enormous power and prestige washing the feet of someone so marginalized and poor. If you’re in doubt about the wisdom of the action, ask yourself how the world reacted.

LOPEZ: If there were one point that you’d hope readers would take away from your book and ponder in their hearts, what would it be?

COREN: That while parties and politics and policies and presidents and prime ministers and even popes come and go, the Church remains the Church, and only the Church is absolute and gives us pristine truth and hope.

LOPEZ: “We are in the world but not of the world, we use the new media but do not allow it to seduce us,” you write. “We embrace the best of modernity but are aware of its threat, we look for dignified and precise English rather than an archaic language that excludes, we change the present rather than live in the past.” What’s the primary threat of modernity? And fundamentally how can we ever be in the world but not of the world when we necessarily carry with us the burdens and challenges of the world that we simply must handle on a daily basis?

COREN: Think of modernity as a dragon, waiting outside the castle that is the home. We can hide away, hide the children away, in a tall tower and be safe, but eventually we have to leave the castle, and then the dragon simply eats us up. Better to spend our time in the castle training with metaphorical sword and shield, building a suit or armor, and then go out of the gates to take on that dragon and tame it and defeat it. I, for example, am a television host. It’s not television that’s bad but what’s on television that’s bad. It’s less modernity than the abuse and exploitation of modernity that is a problem for Catholics. Remember, we are rooted not in fashion but in timelessness.

LOPEZ: What is this encounter with Christ you and the popes keep talking about (Benedict, and now Francis)? Can’t this just be dismissed as pious nonsense?

COREN: Catholic teaching must begin with knowledge of Christ, otherwise it is merely doctrine without source. Know Him, understand His teaching. I tried to obey my father not because I was frightened of him but because I loved him, and I try to obey God because of the love I have for Him. Pious? Perhaps. But then this is said by a culture that is more interested in reality television than reality and assumes that if Oprah says something it has to be true. So spare me the hypocrisy. But the danger of what is known as a personal relationship with Jesus is that while it is essential, it sometimes leads to Christians wanting Jesus to become more like them, rather than they more like Him. It’s why we have more than 20,000 different Protestant denominations.

LOPEZ: To what extent does G. K. Chesterton influence you? What might he be writing today? How might he explain Pope Francis?

COREN: Chesterton introduced me to my wife and brought me to Canada, which is odd in that he died in 1936 and I wasn’t born until 1959. Let me explain. In 1986 I was writing a biography of the man, and was asked to give a paper at a Chesterton conference at the University of Toronto. It was a supremely dull lecture, but at the party following the conference a beautiful young woman approached me and said I was “amazing.” Thinking it would never happen again, I married her. I was right by the way, it has never happened again. That was Bernadette; we met in ’86, married in ’87, our first child was born in ’88. His middle name is Gilbert, after Chesterton. The man not only brought me my family and new home in Canada but has formed me as a writer and to a certain extent as a Catholic. My father was Jewish, and I have had to work through the accusations of anti-Semitism that are still thrown at Chesterton. It has, however, made me a better Chestertonian and a better Catholic. What would he write today and how would he explain Pope Francis? Easy. “I told you so.”

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.

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