Reading Pope Francis


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 overall, 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 a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer).