A Holy Book

Article excerpt

Byline: Mac Margolis

A pope and a rabbi begin a conversation ...

Newly enthroned, his papal whites barely wrinkled, Francis I has taken the Roman Catholic world by storm. Vaticanistas parse the pontiff's every gesture and genuflection, but the good will toward the new pope is hard to miss. "Humble," "simple," "unpretentious," and "a compassionate conservative" are a few of the characteristics he's been assigned, though it may be prayerful thinking. The fact is precious little of substance has been revealed about what the simpatico Argentine cleric actually believes.

Until now.

It turns out there's plenty to mine, and the best part is not locked away in church archives but spelled out in a series of conversations between Jorge Mario Bergoglio and his fellow Argentine, Rabbi Abraham Skorka. For 20 years, the archbishop of Buenos Aires and Skorka, leader of the Latin American Jewish Assembly, carried out a public conversation, parts of which aired on television. An edited version of their exchange Sobre el Cielo e la Tierra (On Heaven and Earth) was published in Spanish in 2010 and reissued last year by Random House.

But in the rush to interpret the new pope, few of the instant oracles have bothered to read it, it appears. It's a shame because On Heaven and Earth is a rich, nuanced conversation between two like-minded spiritual leaders, who also are close friends. The subjects--decanted from the decades-long dialogue--range from atheism and ecology to the Holocaust and the dirty war in Argentina, with asides on the philosophical musings of Saint Augustine, Maimonides, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Karl Marx.

Though cordial to a fault--they appear to agree on everything--the exchange is packed with insights into Bergoglio's thinking, and many of the best passages stand out as a clear refutation to the facile labeling the Vatpack journalists have indulged in since white smoke first curled over the Sistine Chapel.

Bergoglio's positions are hardly those of a starched conservative. On matters of social justice and poverty, he sounds positively radical. …