Veteran journalist and best-selling author Michael Coren has written fifteen books, including biographies of Chesterton, Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, as well as works on current affairs and apologetics. He also contributes a regular column, “Controversies with Coren”, to Catholic World Report. His most recent book, The Future of Catholicism (Signal, 2013), considers several points of controversy and confusion, including Church teaching on marriage, sexuality, and the papacy, and looks to the challenges facing the Church. Coren spoke recently with CWR editor, Carl E. Olson, about the book.
CWR: The title of your book brings to mind the various “lives” and “deaths” discussed by Chesterton in The Everlasting Man. And, in fact, you mention Chesterton in the first paragraph. We know that some people think the Church has no future: who are those people and why do they think the Church is a dead relic of a past age?
Coren: Chesterton has always been an influence on me and still is; I am not as tall as him but I can stand on his shoulders! The Church is of a past age, and a present one and a future one. When people argue that the Church has no future they really mean they don’t want it to have a future and they are two very different things.
CWR: There is, as you note, a constant call for “change”. Why is that so? And why does the Church have to change? Shouldn’t it be at least a two-way street?
Coren: Change is sometimes a reasonable demand, sometimes merely a selfish moan. The main problem now is that too few people are listening to Catholicism and it may well be that this Pope will change that state of affairs. I do believe that on matters of sexuality we have to at least update the conversation and stop responding to complex questions with answers that simply don’t satisfy. Look, let’s be candid here. I’d think at least 80% of Catholics, even those in the pews on a regular basis, reject Church teaching on birth control. How do we respond to that? Many if not most Catholics think the Church is wrong on same-sex marriage. How do we respond to that? Clearly the Church has not made its case well and I doubt that most people even know what that case is.
CWR: The opening chapter is not about the Papacy or the dogmas of the Church, per se, but about marriage. Why is that? Speaking of the future, where do you think the growing conflict over marriage, as well as homosexuality, is going to lead, culturally and politically?
Coren: That’s such a difficult issue. The marriage debate has rather moved on actually. If you speak to young people about it they are generally incredulous that anybody would still oppose same-sex marriage. They may be pro-life, they may love God and Christ, but they do not see anything wrong in what they refer to as marriage equality. The Church will never change on its teaching, and in spite of what the fanatics might say, nobody is going to try to force priests to marry same-sex couples. But as for civil marriage between gay people, in North America and western Europe it’s a done deal. We have to find a way to accommodate and co-exist.
CWR: There are many Catholics who seem to think Pope Francis is going to open the door to changes regarding divorce and re-marriage, and perhaps even contraception. What do you expect to happen at the upcoming Synod of the Family?
Coren: These are different issues of course. What is important regarding divorce, marriage, annulment is empathy and pastoral care. If these situations are handled sensitively and compassionately it need not be a huge problem. But let’s not pretend that Catholics are doing much better at marriage than anybody else. As for contraception, I don’t see any change in teaching but perhaps in the way the teaching is taught.
CWR: Catholics are constantly told that Church teaching about contraception and sexuality will result in people dying (of AIDS in Africa, for instance), being very unhappy, or being very poor. Does the evidence back that up? And what about the data and stats from the past fifty years—does being an avowed secularist and progressive mean never having to apologize for past errors?
Coren: We need to consider the context first. The Church has been on the ground working with people with AIDS for generations – before HIV and AIDS were even known in the west. So it’s simply unfair to pretend the Church doesn’t care about this. The Church’s argument is that by enabling a culture of sex outside of marriage we are allowing a culture that will produce more and not less AIDS cases. The grotesque problem is when a husband or wife finds themselves to be infected. Anybody who thinks there are easy answers hasn’t spent much time thinking about this.
CWR: As you note, in your chapter, “Church and State,” there are more and more “Catholic” politicians who openly deride or ignore Catholic principles and teachings. What do you think should be done? And why can politicians lecture the Church about being backwards and anti-woman, but it is considered bad form—“being political”!—for the Church to weigh in on matters having to do with ethics, the common good, and the moral order?
Coren: It’s really quite simple. As I say in the book, no person has to be a Catholic but if a person is a Catholic then they have to be Catholic. Politicians who consistently vote against Catholic teaching tend to do so less out of principle than political expediency. If a Joe Biden or a Nancy Pelosi believe in abortion, same-sex marriage and so on that’s entirely up to them but it does mean they have left their Catholic faith behind.
CWR: You point out that there is an obvious double standard when it comes to the papacy: when a pope discusses poverty, the death penalty, and war, he is celebrated by secular-minded folks as a moral authority, but when he denounces abortion, euthanasia, and “same-sex marriage”, he is criticized for being out of touch, unenlightened, and so forth. What gives? How has this approach affected coverage of the first year of Francis’ papacy?
Coren: That’s very interesting. It hasn’t yet, partly because he has been fairly quiet about these issues. But it will be fascinating to see what happens when he does. With John Paul II and in particular Benedict XVI the double standard was obvious but right now media has a romance with the Pope, partly if not largely because he has tried to emphasize issues beyond the moral and sexual to the political and economic.
CWR: You write about how the future Church will likely not be centered in the West, but in the global South. What must the Church in North America do to not only survive, but to once again flourish?
Coren: It will be a different relationship, a different experience. North Americans need to look to western Europe to see the experience there. It’s not as bad as some people think but it’s not comfortable, not easy and many of the assumptions of the past no longer apply. But that means that we have to try harder, be better at being Catholic, and that’s not a bad thing.