— by Jonathan Kremer
Interfaith dialogue is often a challenge. A participant may feel a need to be “politically correct,” to pull punches, or to make every effort to present their own religion in the best light possible. True dialogue enables participants to “lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth,” in the words of Pope Francis, without compromising one’s identity.
The book On Heaven and Earth is a collection of uncompromising dialogues between then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a community rabbi and rector of the Conservative Jewish center Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires.
The conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka covered a wide range of subjects, including God, religious leadership, prayer, same-sex marriage, science and Argentine political history. They agreed on much: the arrogance of the atheist and the unquestioning believer, religious leaders as teachers and guides, and the dangers of fundamentalism. They even concurred — after a charged exchange — that the Vatican must open its archives, so that lingering questions about the Church’s actions during the Holocaust might be answered.
Cardinal Bergoglio seems to offer an olive branch to same-sex marriage — religion “does not have the right to force anything on anyone’s private life” — even as he affirms the Church’s view that “every person needs a male father and female mother” to properly shape one’s identity. On that subject, Rabbi Skorka hails Argentina’s separation of civil and religious marriage.
These conversations were held in private, initially as a way for the Cardinal and rabbi to get to know each other better. The book idea grew out of those talks. Indeed, the book reads like a series of written exchanges, with comments that range from a single sentence to a couple of pages, rather than like conversations held over a cup of coffee.
This review’s author found much of the discussion to be interesting and enlightening despite the less-than-fluid writing (which could be an issue of translation). On Heaven and Earth is accessible to most readers, even those without much grounding in either Catholicism or Judaism, and anyone with an interest in contemporary Catholicism or in Catholic-Jewish (particularly Conservative) dialogue will benefit from it.
As the subtitle of the American edition — “Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century” — indicates, the rabbi’s views will not get the most scrutiny. Pope Francis has made a largely positive impression since his election in March; his approachable manner and down-to-earth speaking style, along with his calls for economic justice, have endeared him to many of the Church faithful. He is said to be aiming at reforming the inflexible Vatican bureaucracy, and dealing with issues of Vatican finances and transparency. His views are of prime interest to the Catholic world, and this volume offers many of those views, with the buffer and occasional challenge of Rabbi Skorka’s thoughts.
Toward the end of the book, the Cardinal writes, “A Christian community that transforms itself into a temporal power runs the risk of losing the religious essence.” It will be interesting to see how Pope Francis, now in charge of the world’s most powerful religious institution, succeeds at maintaining — or reinvigorating — its “religious essence.”
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (future Pope Francis) agrees Vatican’s World War II archives should be opened:
What you [Rabbi Abraham Skorka] said about opening the archives relating to the Shoah seems perfect to me. They should open them and clarify everything. Then it can be seen if they could have done something, to what extent it could have been done, and if we were wrong in something we will be able to say: ‘We were wrong in this.’ We do not have to be afraid of that. The objective has to be the truth. When one starts to hide the truth, one eliminates the Bible. One believes God, but only to a point. One is not being fair. We must not forget, we are sinners and unable to stop sinning, even though it is also true that God does not want it like that; He loves us with his mercy, but if I do not recognize that I am a sinner, His mercy does not get to me, it does not reach me. We must know the truth and go to those archives.