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.