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Reading Pope Francis Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 22 April 2013

The new pope has become a Rorschach test: the media (and not they alone) see in him whatever inky images bubble up from the subconscious. Of course, it’s early in his papacy, and, unlike Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, Jorge Mario Bergoglio left a sparse pre-papal paper trail.

So far we have the homilies of Francis and few other papal pronouncements, but that’s precious little to go on, but now Image Books has released a translation of On Heaven and Earth (originally Sobre el cielo y la tierra), a book Cardinal Bergoglio co-authored in 2010 with an Argentine rabbi, Abraham Skorka. It’s a dialogue between two friends about the application of religious faith to crucial issues of the day.

While not exactly “burying” Rabbi Skorka’s role in the book, the publisher’s marketing emphasis is plainly evident in the new English subtitle: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century.

So too must I focus on the book’s “Catholic parts.” I’ll ignore the temporal distinction between Francis and Bergoglio, since we may presume the perspectives of the pope remain those of the cardinal. And I’ll also pass over what the authors write about Argentina, which takes up lots of space and includes fútbol references.

The book’s table of contents indicates the range of topics discussed: God and Satan; religion, religious leaders, and Christ’s disciples; prayer, guilt, and fundamentalism; death, euthanasia, and ageing; women, abortion, divorce, and same-sex “marriage;” science and education; politics (including communism, capitalism, globalization, wealth, and poverty); history and culture (including the Shoah, the Seventies, la Conquista, Liberation theology, Juan Perón, and the Arab-Israeli conflict); and, finally, ecumenism and the future of faith – too many issues to cover in a short review.

May we discern from Bergoglio’s views in On Heaven and Earth indications of the directions he’ll take as pope on key issues facing the Church? Perhaps, but it’s slim pickings here, since most of what Bergoglio says is aimed at finding common ground between his faith and Rabbi Skorka’s.

Personally, I find the dialogue format unsatisfying (outside of Socrates/Plato and Aquinas), especially when it’s as discursive as it is here. And this is one aspect of On Heaven and Earth that makes it hard to discern the extent to which Francis is in sync with Benedict’s distinction between the hermeneutics of continuity and of rupture: whereas there’s much here about conflicting visions (as between Biblical religion and secularism), there’s little of consequence about Catholic tradition versus the “spirit of Vatican II.”

And if I’m reading him correctly, Bergoglio is principally concerned with how the Church should apply the Catholic faith to crises never imagined in earlier generations:

The work of man before God . . . must maintain a constant balance between the gift [of faith] and the task [of solving modern problems]. When man keeps the gift alone and does not do the work, he does not complete his mission [and] . . . when man becomes overly zealous with his work, he forgets about the gift [and] . . . thinks that everything is the fruit of his labor and that there is no gift. It is what I call the Babel syndrome.

I guess he means we often talk at cross-purposes, using identical words but intending different meanings, creating confusion and disunity. Applied to the near future of the Church, this is opaque, although we may discern a “conservative” interpretation, given his opposition to the Liberationists and his apparent confirmation of the need to discipline the LCWR.

But consider what may be implied in his view of dialogue with atheists. He’ll talk about God if that’s what an atheist desires, “but not in order to proselytize” or convert him, because Bergoglio is convinced he has no right to judge any man’s “honesty.”

I find this odd, since we’re in the Year of Faith, and since the Church exists primarily to evangelize. And, pace the concerns of Traditionalists, Bergoglio seems unenthusiastic about extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Again though, this may be nothing more than collegiality in conversation with a rabbi.

He does say, commenting on our apostolic heritage, that whereas tradition is “enriched by . . . new explanations,” and there “are things that are debatable . . . I repeat – this inheritance is not negotiable.”

Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka agree that religious tradition must not be excluded from debates about same-sex “marriage,” as was often the case in Argentina. Bergoglio uses a pair of interesting expressions for “gay” nuptials: “anti-value” and “anthropological regression.” Indeed, he stresses anthropology over religion in defense of traditional marriage, which approach he deems prudent in political debates. (And you can sense how it stung him to have endured accusations that the Church is prejudiced, and that he is a hater.) There are a few pithy callouts in most chapters:

On feminism: “As a caricature, I would say that it runs the risk of becoming chauvinism with skirts.”

On abortion: “The moral problem with abortion is of a pre-religious nature because the genetic code of the person is present at the moment of conception.

And there’s one prophetic quotation. Speaking about the future of religion, the future pope says:

Francis of Assisi contributed an entire concept about poverty to Christianity in the face of the wealth, pride, and vanity of the civil and ecclesial powers of the time. He carried out a mysticism of poverty, of dispossession and he has changed history.
But over all, there’s just not much here to go on, and it’s likely that if Pope Francis also changes the world, it will be because of his actions, not his words.

Brad Miner
 is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review.
The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Manfred, April 22, 2013
Thanks, Brad. Well done. All that buoys me up about Pope Francis is that he has dedicated his pontificate to Our Lady of Fatima. The Church has obviously lost the reins on the secular world-it has simply gotten away from the Church leadership and they find they serve very little purpose in society at large. As it is God's Church and God's world, let us see what His solution to this will be.
written by Clement Williams, April 22, 2013
Dear Mr. Miner,
I have this visualization of a mule as King David speaks in one of his psalms 'Do not be like horses and mules'. If you come at them with a bit and bridle, they will not come to you.' or something to that effect. Would you agree that atheists are akin horses and the LCWR are akin to mules? Isn't it reasonable that a different approach is required since previous approaches have not worked and, in fact have increased the horsiness and mulishness? Was it not St. Francis who said 'use words only if you have to'?

Remember Pope Benedict's very first encyclical Deus Caritas Est?

You see, I have personal experience of having been what they call a Missouri Mule (though I live in Texas where everything is bigger) and have experienced the love of God through the love of a friend who helped me go a few more steps/seconds along the 6th. day of creation towards the 7th. day of rest.
written by Jacob, April 22, 2013
I'm not sure how I feel about our satanic "enlightened" priests preaching that BXVI was all just a bad dream and now we hava man we can work with on contraception and "modernizing".. As if compromise on abortion is fine, but we can't give in to those darned Orthodox Catholics!

How big of an idiot do you have to be to imagine that religion hating secularists are your friends and devout Catholics your enemies?

I'm only in my twenties, but I know Christ wants us to spread the Gospel of Christ not multiculturalism. Sometimes it seems like SSPX is the only group that tallks about Christ anymore and not their hip and progressive plans to win over militant leftists who will likely not believe before they're forced to choose between heaven and hell.

How bout we go for the people who actually want to learn about Christ and stop worrying about the people who don't like us like pathetic insecure children??
written by william manley, April 22, 2013
The Holy Spirit is definitely at work with Pope Francis. Actions without words is the new evangelization.
written by Louise, April 22, 2013
Brad, I see the Babel syndrome comments much more simply than you do. Don't you think he is merely saying that the two extremes tempting people of faith are to think that God will take care of everything without our cooperation or that we can take care of everything without God? Maybe he is only calling the latter the Babel Syndrome.
written by David, May 09, 2013
I am shocked that you would say the "Church exists primarily to evangelize"! I think the purpose of the Church so much more than that. The Church serves to be the Body of Christ on earth and as such exists for the same purpose as Christ himself did! I can't imagine any Catholic believing that Christ's time on earth was primarily to evangelize, but rather for salvation of mankind.

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