“We have been given arguably the most positive result one could want in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations,” Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, said about the selection of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina to head the Catholic Church.
On a conference call yesterday, Marans expressed confidence that Pope Francis—the name Bergoglio has chosen to go by—will continue the positive trend of Catholic-Jewish relations that has been in place for the past 50 years. “Pope Francis is no stranger to Catholic-Jewish relations,” Marans said, citing the fact that Argentina is home to 200,000 Jews and is the 7th most populous Jewish country in the world. “Now we have a pope, living, flourishing and growing as a Catholic leader side-by-side with a living, breathing, vital Jewish community that was not foreign to him.”
Marans explained that Pope Francis has a well-documented history of working with the Jewish community in Argentina, and was known to participate in Jewish community celebrations and visit synagogues during his tenure as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. After the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building—which killed 85 people and left hundreds injured—the pope reached out to the Jewish community, and later, visited the rebuilt site. “If one looks at the way he responded to the AMIA bombing—which was a virulent act of anti-Semitism—that he is willing to speak out, and given his background and the intimacy of his relationship with the Argentinian Jewish community,” Marans said, “I don’t have any doubts that he will continue on the path of his predecessors.”
Marans also pointed out that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis held a series of interreligious talks with the Argentine rabbi, Abraham Skorka, on topics such as God, the Holocaust and homosexuality, which were later published as the book, Between Heaven and Earth. And in the first hours after the announcement of his papacy, Pope Francis initiated a greeting to the Chief Rabbi of Rome, and invited Jewish leadership to attend his consecration ceremony this Tuesday.
However, the issue of Israel remains complicated. Marans said that Pope Francis has visited Israel before, and that it is likely that Israel is on his short-list of countries to visit. If he does make the trip, he would become the third consecutive pope to visit the Jewish State. At the same time, “The Vatican has been very cautious regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Marans said. “We would prefer that the Vatican be very outspoken in a pro-Israel, and less sympathetic view to the Palestinians, so that the fairness that we see not be a moral equivalency. But we need to remember that the Catholic Church today regarding the State of Israel and the conflict is not our primary challenge in interreligious dialogue. That dialogue, as you know, is elsewhere, particularly among certain elements of the liberal Protestant denominations and the divestment movement.”
While Pope Francis holds conservative positions on issues such as birth control, abortion and gay marriage, Marans noted that there are still many areas where American Jews and Catholics are aligned and can work together, namely, immigration reform, capital punishment and gun control. Just as importantly, Marans explained that the selection of Pope Francis is also a reminder for American Jews to strengthen their relationship with Latinos in the United States. “Forty percent of U.S. Catholics are Latino,” Marans said. “It behooves us as the Jewish community to work very hard on that relationship… This was a real shot in the arm to empowering not only Latinos in the United States who embrace Catholicism—as most of them do—but also to Latinos throughout the world, and the Jewish community needs to be paying attention.”
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.