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.