Francis & the Jews

White smoke over Rome ushered in a precedent-breaking papal appointment on Wednesday.

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 hardline conservatives.

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 women.

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 “vertical” approach.

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 pure.

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 leaders.

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.