A pope and a rabbi write a book …


So that is not the set up for a joke but just a way of introducing the idea that in 2010, current pope Francis (then cardinal Mario Bergoglio) co-authored with rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine biophysicist and rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, a book titled On Heaven and Earth. In the absence of a significant public record, this book has become a valuable source of information for people trying to figure out the pope’s views on the major issues confronting the Catholic church and the world. This book will become available in English in the US on April 30.

In an article about the book, the pope is quoted as taking a seemingly conciliatory position with regard to atheists, saying:

“When I meet with people who are atheists, I share human issues with them, but I don’t bring up the problem of God right away, except in cases when they bring it up with me,” Bergoglio says.

If that happens, however, the future pope says he tells them why he is a believer. Since humanity is something rich enough to be shared, he and the person can calmly and easily discuss experiences in life.

“Because I am a believer, I know these riches are a gift from God,” Bergoglio says. “I also know that the other person, the atheist, does not know that. I do not embark on the relationship to proselytize to an atheist, I respect him and I show him how I am.”

He also states that while knowledge is present, good qualities such as appreciation, affection and friendship emerge.

“I am not reluctant in any way. I would not tell him that his life is condemned because I am convinced that I have no right to pass judgment on the honesty of the person,” Bergoglio says. “Even less so if he shows me human virtues that make people better and are done in goodwill toward me.”

Bergoglio is firm in his insistence that consistency is necessary regarding the Bible’s message: “Every man is an image of God, be he a believer or not. With that reason alone, he has a number of virtues, qualities, riches. And in the case that he has morally low qualities, as I have as well, we can share them with each other to help us overcome them together.”

However his co-author Skorka seems to take a harder line, bringing out the tired old ‘atheists are arrogant’ argument.

Skorka agrees, though he adds that he believes an atheist takes a position of arrogance as is also the case of a person who proclaims with certainty that God exists. The ideal position is one of doubt, Skorka says, like that of agnostics or believers who have moments of doubt.

“We religious people are believers, we don’t posit [God’s] existence as fact,” Skorka says. “We can perceive him in a very, very, quite profound experience, but we never see him.”

“To say that God exists, if it were but a certainty, is also arrogant, regardless of how much I believe that God exists,” he explains.

I think it is a sign of how successful atheists have been in recent times that religious leaders are saying agnosticism is the correct position to take. We have come a long way from times when expressing any form of doubt as to the existence of a god was sufficient to be persecuted or killed.

Both Bergoglio and Skorka deplore the idea of rabbis and priests dictating to their followers what they can and cannot do.

Bergoglio says, “A teacher who assumes the role of making decisions for the disciple is not a good priest. He is a good dictator, an annihilator of the religious personalities of others” and that his type of rigid religiosity “disguises itself with doctrines that pretend to give justifications, but really deprive people of freedom and will not allow them to grow.” He also says, “What [the religious minister] does not have a right to do is to force the private life of anyone,” he says. “If God, in his creation, ran the risk of making us free, who am I to butt in?”

Skorka meanwhile deplores “certain Jewish circles where fundamentalism is rampant, meaning that when the teacher says to do something, the followers don’t have any other choice but to comply” and adds that “These leaders hold back the religiousness that should emanate from the most intimate depths of a person; they dictate the lives of others.”

So then they should be comfortable with people choosing for themselves how they should live, right? Of course not. Such expressions of broadmindedness and tolerance by religious leaders have limits because they both go on to decry abortions, same-sex marriage, and sex outside of marriage. What they seem to be saying is that they want people to be free to think for themselves as long as they don’t act on those beliefs . It will be interesting to see if Bergoglio’s attitude of not forcing people to following the views of priests means that he will stop the practice of disciplining priests, nuns, and parishioners who take stands that go against official church doctrine.

Francis strikes me as a decent person, someone who wants to be tolerant and open and accepting, but at the same time one who is dutiful and obedient, which makes him accept and adopt the church’s narrow and intolerant views. He may have been able to juggle those two contradictory positions while he was under the radar but now that he is the chief enforcer of Catholic dogma whose every word and action will be closely watched, he will find that he has to choose.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    The most remarkable thing about this is the fact that a Rabbi and a Catholic Cardinal co-authored a book in the first place. I don’t know if such a thing has ever happened before.

  2. says

    Francis strikes me as a decent person, someone who wants to be tolerant and open and accepting…

    Where do you get that? The passages you quoted are nothing but a bland mealy-mouthed pretense of reason and evenhandedness (when they’re not flat-out hypocritical, that is), which have nothing at all to do with how either author or their religius institutions behave in real life.

    All Bergoglio is saying is that he doesn’t get pushy with atheists — and that’s probably because he knows he can’t fool them or get them to follow his script, and he doesn’t really have to in a country that’s predominantly Catholic.

    And his lame attempts to glorify “agnosticism” (a.k.a. “spinelessness”) as a virtue (for others, of course, not his own) is nothing but a bully whining about how horrible it is that people can stand up to him.

  3. says

    Bergoglio is firm in his insistence that consistency is necessary regarding the Bible’s message…

    He wasn’t so firm when a certain military junta was ignoring the Bible’s message. Like most authoritarians, this Pope is only “consistent” with people he can push around.

  4. Corvus illustris says

    Skorka: “We religious people are believers, we don’t posit [God’s] existence as fact,” Skorka says. “We can perceive him in a very, very, quite profound experience, but we never see him.”

    “To say that God exists, if it were but a certainty, is also arrogant, regardless of how much I believe that God exists,” he explains.

    First Vatican Council (the one that enunciated papal infallibility): If any one shall say that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can not be certainly known by the natural light of human reason through created things: let him be anathema.

    It is hard not to see a little Jesuitical disingenuousness in Skorka’s coauthor here.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I think that is right, to the extent that he agrees with Skorka, Francis is dancing around the issues. He could do that while being a mere cardinal but now his every word will be scrutinized for deep meaning.

  6. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Francis strikes me as a decent person, someone who wants to be tolerant and open and accepting…

    Where do you get that?

    I think he gets it from an appreciation of how one can grow up not questioning the religion of one’s family & community, then join the priesthood and witness profound acts of atheistic moral courage in fighting against overtly Catholic dictatorships in Latin America…but know them and appreciate them too late in life to feel like one can legitimately change careers. One might even be aware that one’s family & community would see leaving the church as a betrayal and a condemnation of those who remain within it.

    In a similar way to how queer folk can be reluctant to come out of the closet, a decent man deeply involved in the Catholic Church may believe that he can hurt others least and help them most by remaining within the institution.

    Don’t forget that Francis is the first pope from south of the equator for good reason: Catholicism was farther from the Vatican, and was unable to get chummy with local monarchs as there were no local monarchs by the time Catholicism became established enough to have bishops there. Instead, Catholicism was shaped by a fiercer tension between the “meek” and the Vatican than ever it was in Europe or the US or Quebec.

    I’m not saying that it benefits people to learn to trust in things that contradict reality. I’m not saying that the Catholic Church has done no harm in Latin America. I am saying that over the last hundred to hundred and fifty years they have done some pretty good things pretty publicly. There’s a reason that LIberation Theology is a Latin American phenomenon.

    Combine all that with the power invested in a Bishop, power to do actual good which would function as a positive temptation and power to command respect or an audience or other things that might be a personal and possibly negative temptation. In that combination, I can imagine a good person squeezed by circumstances only some of which were of one’s own making.

    With an appreciation of the man and his circumstance, I think it’s quite reasonable to conclude that this is a man who has a strong dose of good qualities. I don’t really feel I know enough about him to say, but Mano’s phrase “strikes me” isn’t definitive either. Your comment seems to be dubious that a good person could possibly participate in the Catholic Church. I don’t see him as a bully. I don’t see him as a good man. I don’t see him much at all, not being Catholic, but turning my mind to what I know about his culture (which is little), it doesn’t seem at all impossible that the man is not a bully.

    Although I tend to think it much more likely true for Ratzinger than for Francis, I don’t even assume that Ratzinger is a bully, despite his leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and his role in demanding priestly sexual abuse be covered up. I think it’s pretty deranged thinking to believe that one’s church can better be a force for good by covering up and enabling sexual abuse than by exposing it, but if he believed that the church was a force for good, and he was deranged enough to believe that the church is a stronger force for good by engaging in the evil of covering up and enabling abuse because of the secondary [perceived] benefit that the church may have fewer scandals and may be trusted more in certain communities, then he could, without being a bully, issue such a declaration.

    He’d be a utilitarian of the worst order, and I don’t see how doing evil makes your organization more good, but that doesn’t make one a bully.

    I think this is a lot more complicated than you seem to think, and I don’t have any problem with Mano’s expression of his tentative conclusions.

  7. Corvus illustris says

    IMO it is not so much that what he says will be intensely scrutinized but rather that he will have lost any freedom of action or expression that he may have had as a bishop or archbishop. He will find himself bound by dicta previously enunciated by various Ordinary or Infallible Magisteria™ of the RCC and by his most stridently fanatical predecessors like the Pii #s 9 and 10. Changes will be minimal and cosmetic, and the hard line of his two immediate predecessors will continue.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Also, he seems on a personal level to be genuinely humble, eschewing the trappings of office. People who do that are usually more attuned to the real human needs of people and less likely to see them as abstract categories, because they encounter them on a daily basis. It makes them more human and that cannot help but rub off a bit on the person. Of course, he is still a Catholic cardinal with all that that entails in terms of rigid dogma. That is why it will be interesting to see how he develops. He may become more aloof and distant with time. We’ll see.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    … he seems on a personal level to be genuinely humble, eschewing the trappings of office. People who do that are usually more attuned to the real human needs of people …

    Or just better at manipulating the media and public opinion – particularly after witnessing the respective receptions of Agnes “Mother Teresa” Bojaxhiu and Joseph “Prada”/”Panzerpapst” Ratzinger..

  10. lanir says

    My understanding was that the new pope upheld and continued the old pope’s punishment of the American nuns who were promoting public policy that focuses less on pushing anti-abortion and other social agendas and instead focus on helping the poor. And keep in mind they’re essentially agreeing with the approach he’s been popularly said to have as a bishop of focusing on poverty first. The approach even makes some rational sense in that poverty contributes a great deal to numerous social issues.

    To me, this seems to indicate he’s at the very least willing to be pushed into a position of giving up on this sort of issue to gain political points. And that’s the nicest interpretation, with nothing to back it up.

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