In a series of conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Catholic cardinal of Buenos Aires who was elected pope in March, worried that too often “we are better able to identify ourselves as builders of walls than as builders of bridges.” The conversations, which were published as the book On Heaven and Earth and recently translated and released by Image Books, are meant to reintroduce the concept of dialogue while modeling it. One of the translators of On Heaven and Earth, Alejandro Bermudez, director of ACI-Prensa, the world’s largest Catholic news agency in Spanish, as well as the executive director of Catholic News Agency, speaks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: First things first: Did Pope Francis attack capitalism when he recently spoke to diplomats?
ALEJANDRO BERMUDEZ: Honestly, I am surprised by the fact that so many are actually asking that question. His criticism was clearly aimed at the cult of money over human beings. He was attacking the cult of the golden calf over the greatness of the human, even entrepreneurial, spirit. Is that capitalism? Not as I understand it, and certainly not the one that is compatible with the Social Doctrine of the Church. Let’s address the concern or implication directly: The pope is not a socialist.
LOPEZ: In On Heaven and Earth, the man who would be Pope Francis says: “The loss of credibility in the political arena must be reversed because politics is a very elevated form of social charity.” Redeeming politics would take nothing short of a miracle, wouldn’t it?
BERMUDEZ: You bet! You pretty much summarize the way that then-Cardinal Bergoglio felt about politics — to the point that he was tempted, as he himself confesses, to give up all hope. But it is a miracle worth trying for, especially since it will only come as a heavenly consequence of consistent human cooperation. In short, we just cannot give up.
LOPEZ: When he talks abou the lack of a “culture of encounter,” Cardinal Bergoglio is speaking about the culture in Argentina specifically, but this “absence of dialogue” is at the root of a lot of problems throughout the world, isn’t it?
BERMUDEZ: You are right. The truth is that dialogue, even among those who should share common principles, has turned into ranting and talking past one another. In the book, the cardinal speaks about Argentina and how in the last decade the once-Catholic flavor of the culture — of listening to one another, of spending quality time with family and friends — has been replaced by a hectic culture of short messages, boilerplate exchanges, and harsh responses. I don’t think he is surprised to find now, as the universal shepherd, that this is a global problem.
LOPEZ: Can those who have been badly catechized, as most of the last few generations of Americans have been, really engage in a dialogue about faith?
BERMUDEZ: I think it is much harder, but the capacity to dialogue requires mostly cardinal virtues, meaning human virtues. The lack of catechesis is indeed a major problem, but it is even worse when the uncatechized have become “unhumanized.” That’s why, I believe, Pope Francis speaks of the tremendous value of human virtues. Not because he is giving up on preaching the Christian theological virtues, but because we are facing the grave challenge once described by Pius XII: “We need to transform the world, from savage into Human, from Human, into Divine.”
LOPEZ: In the book, Cardinal Bergoglio separates the issue of abortion from religion,saying that the “right to life is the first human right. Abortion is killing someone that cannot defend himself.” Can we make such assertions when abortion is often considered to be a controversial issue?
BERMUDEZ: He is making a simple point we can all agree on: When we Catholics defend human life, we are not “imposing our religious beliefs upon others.” This is the argument that feminists have been constantly using in Latin America to make the point that the “modernization” of our nations requires a separation between church and state, and thus the legalization of abortion because it is a “human right.” Cardinal Bergoglio is simply saying that the right to life of the unborn is a human right, not a religious conviction, and therefore it has nothing to do with the separation between church and state. We would be imposing our beliefs on others if we, say, would want the police to enforce going to Mass on Sunday. Not going to Mass on Sunday without a valid reason, we Catholics believe, is a mortal sin. But we don’t enforce that through secular law! The same cannot be said of abortion or gay “marriage”: They’re not in conflict with a chiefly religious belief, in Pope Francis’s mind, but with natural law.
LOPEZ: I tend to think there is a crisis of discernment in the U.S. Is this part of the reason Pope Benedict and Pope Francis keep talking about the “encounter with Christ” and prayer?
BERMUDEZ: Absolutely! Pope Francis’s conviction is that renewal in the Church has less to do with policy changes — which he will bring, just wait, you’ll see — than with personal conversion. The structure of the Church is to serve the “conversion business.” That’s the Church’s real business. Without the conversion of hearts, the change of structure is as futile and messy as changing the baby’s diaper without cleaning him up. This is my metaphor by the way, not the pope’s.
LOPEZ: In On Heaven and Earth, Cardinal Bergoglio says: “Maybe [the Devil’s] greatest achievement in these times has been to make us believe that he does not exist and that all can be fixed on a purely human level.” Why is he so obsessed with the Devil?
BERMUDEZ: If his focus on the Devil is an obsession, well, I think we should all be obsessed. The reality of the existence of the Devil is so overwhelming, especially in the unexplainable evil of our day, that is easier for me to understand how a person can not believe in God than how one can not believe in the Devil. In any case, Pope Francis believes that taking the Devil out of the equation is more irrational than making long-term plans believing that nothing will ever go wrong. Any company would immediately fire a manager that naïve.
LOPEZ: Cardinal Bergoglio said to the Rabbi Skorka: “In the experience of God there is always an unanswered question, an opportunity to be submerged in faith. . . . God always is being sought and found. We are presented with this paradox: We seek Him to find Him and because we find Him, we seek Him. It is a very Augustinian game.” How can we better communicate this? Through the culture? In our lives?
BERMUDEZ: Cardinal Bergoglio believes that this paradox can only be transmitted by personal and collective witness. More Christians filled with the joy of being in this cycle of love will give the Church more credibility in the world. It will make those seriously looking for joy in their lives see the “secret” of Christian joy. Pope Francis does not believe that testimony itself will convert people, but he does believe it is the best beginning to a process of conversion.
LOPEZ: What are you most keeping an eye out for with Pope Francis? What can we expect to see more of? Should we expect surprises?
BERMUDEZ: Pope Francis is an absolutely genuine man. There is nothing fake or staged in his gestures and his simplicity. But he is also a firm, forward-looking, decisive shepherd. He is already surprising the world. But believe me, the best is yet to come.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.