White smoke over Rome ushered in a precedent-breaking papal appointment on
The incoming pontiff, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, will
be the first pope to choose the name Francis, evoking the Saint of Assisi, a
figure known for his commitment to the poor. The choice of name is fitting since
Bergoglio (pronounced ber-GOAL-io) is known for his outreach to the country’s
poor, lives modestly in a small apartment, rides public transportation and cooks
his own his own meals.
Bergoglio will also be the first pope to come from
the Jesuit order, known for its missionary activities and perhaps signaling the
importance the Church puts on outreach.
In addition, Pope Francis is the
first pontiff to come from Latin America, affirming the shifting demography in
the Church’s flock away from Europe, where parishes are dwindling in size, to
the Third World, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.
But is the
choice of Bergoglio good for the Jews? Though he was chosen for his big heart,
not his big mind, Bergoglio is undoubtedly a conservative. This is no surprise
since the cardinals who make up the conclave, the body that chooses him, were
hand-picked by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, both
Francis has opposed the Marxist-tinged liberation
theology that was born and flourishes in his native South America, though
Leonardo Boff, a founder of liberation theology, had some positive things to say
about his appointment. Bergoglio has also come out strongly against abortion,
calling it a “culture of death,” and against gay marriage and the ordination of
As archbishop of Buenos Aires beginning in 1998 and a cardinal
since 2001, he frequently tangled with Argentina’s governments over social
issues. In 2010, for example, he castigated a government-supported law to
legalize marriage and adoption by same-sex couples as “a war against God” and
attacked Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s efforts to
distribute free contraceptives.
As pointed out by Rabbi David Rosen,
director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, however, it is
“the sweetest of ironies” that often the Church’s conservatives turn out to have
the most positive outlook on Judaism. Rosen refers to this phenomenon as the
While liberals tend to have a “horizontal” worldview
that is characterized by openness to all faiths, including Judaism,
conservatives often have a fundamentally unique and quantitatively different
relationship with the Jewish faith even while being more theologically critical
of other forms of monotheism, including, for conservative Catholics,
Protestantism. That’s because Judaism, which predates Christianity, is viewed as
authentic. If the Church is pure, then its roots – Judaism – must also be
Bergoglio’s conservatism might make him less likely to take more
aggressive action than his predecessor against priests suspected of sexual abuse
of children or financial mismanagement in the Curia, but it could be a
contributing factor to his particularly positive relations with the Jewish
community in Buenos Aires, the largest in Latin America.
And the new pope
undoubtedly has deep ties with Argentina’s Jewry. Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector
of the Seminario Rabinico Latino-americano in Buenos Aires, wrote a book titled
Sobre el cielo y la tierra (“Between Heaven and Earth”) based on interfaith
dialogue with Bergoglio on topics such as God, fundamentalism, atheists, death,
the Holocaust, homosexuality and capitalism.
In 2005, Bergoglio was the
first public personality to sign a petition for justice in the AMIA Jewish
community center bombing case. He also was one of the signatories on a document
called “85 victims, 85 signatures” as part of the bombing’s 11th anniversary. In
June 2010, he visited the rebuilt AMIA building to talk with Jewish
He has also attended a Buenos Aires synagogue for Slichot
penitential prayers, as well as a commemoration of Kristallnacht, the wave of
Nazi attacks against Jews in November 1938.
Unlike John Paul II, who as a
child had positive memories of the Jews of his native Poland but due to the
Holocaust had no Jewish community to interact with in Poland as an adult, Pope
Francis has maintained a sustained and very positive relationship with a living,
breathing community in Buenos Aires.
Judging from that positive
relationship, his appointment appears to be good for both Catholics and Jews.