US Catholic Faith in Real Life

USC Book Club: On Heaven and Earth

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August 2014:

On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century

By Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka

Review: Long before the “culture of encounter” became a signature phrase of Pope Francis’ papacy, Jorge Mario Bergoglio lived it in his ministry in Buenos Aires. One of the most fascinating records of his open-minded embrace of dialogue and friendship across different backgrounds is the book On Heaven and Earth, which captures his conversations with his good friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

Covering a wide range of topics—from God, prayer, and the future of religion to atheists, science, women, poverty, globalization, same-sex marriage, and abortion—these conversations provide a window on the thinking and new approaches with which Pope Francis has been surprising the world. Although it covers controversial topics, this book is short on newsy sound bites. Instead, grounded in both participants’ deep love of scripture, it models the kind of honest heart-to-heart that the pope’s culture of encounter invites all of us to emulate.

—Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, Executive Editor, U.S. Catholic

Image Books says: In this unique interfaith conversation, Pope Francis and his close friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka share thoughts on a wide range of today’s important topics, including religion, politics, education, and prayer.

Hardcover: $22.00
eBook: $10.99

Available at bookstores or from Image Books, a division of Random House: 800-733-3000 or shop online at

Order now from Image Books.

General Book Club guides


Questions for Discussion

In this thought-provoking book, Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, longtime friends, share their thoughts on religion and the challenges facing our world in the twenty-first century. Both men are deeply committed to promoting interreligious dialogue and in this book the two discuss various theological and worldly issues—God, atheism, science, education, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, capitalism, globalization, and more. Written before Pope Francis was elected to the papal office, On Heaven and Earth is a piece of history, a firsthand view of the man who, in March 2013, became pope to 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.


On Dialogue

1. Cardinal Bergoglio says we often succumb to attitudes that prevent us from dialoguing with each other (see p. xiv). What are some of those attitudes? What are some instances you can think of where you’ve observed them?

2. What is required for true interreligious dialogue to occur?


On God

1. Bergoglio says the initial religious experience is that of walking (see Genesis 12:1). With this in mind, how does he describe the way one encounters God? What does an encounter with God look like?

2. What can we say to people about God, when today the idea of God is so profaned and so diminished in importance?

3. What can we learn about questioning God and the experience of suffering from Job’s experience, according to Bergoglio and Skorka?

4. Bergoglio describes what he calls “the Babel syndrome.” What is this, and what are some evidences of this in our world today?


On the Devil

1. Bergoglio says that, in his experience, he feels the devil whenever he is tempted to do something other than what God wants for him (see p. 8). How do you sense the devil or see evidence of his fruits in your life and world?

2. Describe what Bergoglio calls “man’s battle on Earth.”


On Atheists

1. Why do you think Bergoglio says that when he speaks with atheists, he discusses social concerns with them, but not the problem of God’s existence unless they bring it up?

2. Bergoglio says that in the experience of God, “there is always an unanswered question, an opportunity to be submerged in faith.” What unanswered questions have you encountered in your experience of God?


On Religions and Religious Leaders

1. Skorka says that doubt is a necessary requirement for faith—that faith actually emerges from one’s feelings of doubt. Where have you struggled with doubt, and how has it strengthened your own faith?

2. Bergoglio said that the justice of the “integral religious man” creates culture; St. John Paul II boldly said that a faith that does not produce culture is not a true faith. How is culture produced by faith different from the “idolatrous cultures” we see in society today?

3. Why does Bergoglio emphasize the importance of initial discernment when one feels called to a religious vocation? What does this discernment process involve?

4. List some of the qualities of a great leader according to Bergoglio and Skorka, and then contrast this with their descriptions of a bad leader. Can you now think of a current example of a good leader? A bad leader?

5. How can you tell a “false prophet” from an authentic religious leader?

6. Bergoglio says he has a natural distrust of phenomenal healers with their revelations and visions. Why do you think he feels this way? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

7. What do you believe about the issue of physical healing? How do faith and medicine fit with each other?


On the Disciples

1. What are some ways the Church facilitates the formation of a person who decides to answer a religious vocation? List the four pillars of formation Bergoglio mentions and give a short description of each one.

2. What is the difference between a true vocation and someone who is mistaken in their discernment?

3. Why does Bergoglio say that the worst thing that can happen to a priest is to be worldly? How does he define a “light priest” or a “light bishop”?

4. How can priests and religious today keep from getting caught up in what is trendy in their quest for communicating true spirituality to people?

5. Along the same lines, how can faithful lay Catholics live in the world without being carried away by the spirit of the world? In your own life, how are you able to achieve this? What struggles do you encounter?

6. How do you feel about the Church’s stand on celibacy for priests? What are the pros and cons? Do you agree that relaxing that rule would be beneficial because it would encourage more vocations? Why or why not?

7. Why does Bergoglio say that the problem of pedophilia is not linked to celibacy? Do you agree? Why or why not?


On Prayer

1. Skorka says that, according to Jewish law, prayers become more powerful if they are recited together in a group of at least ten Jews. What has been your experience with group prayer? How are the prayers said during the Liturgy different than just praying on your own?

2. Bergoglio says that courage, humility, and adoration are all essential elements of prayer. Describe how these elements come into play in your own prayer life.

3. Bergoglio defines worldliness as “narcissistic, consumerist, and hedonistic.” How does this worldliness creep into the Church today? Where do you see it in your own family? In yourself?

4. Bergoglio says hypocrisy is like “schizophrenia for the soul.” What are some steps you can take to keep from falling into it?

5. What does true repentance mean, according to Bergoglio?


On Guilt

1. Describe in your own words the two types of guilt described by Bergoglio (see p. 65).

2. Why is being overly scrupulous unhealthy for us? How can we avoid this?

3. Why did St. Augustine call the sin of Adam and Eve the “happy fault”?


On Fundamentalism

1. Rabbi Skorka asks Cardinal Bergoglio, “What is the role of the priest in Catholicism?” What threefold answer did Bergoglio give?

2. Describe the differences between being a good teacher and an authoritative “boss.”

3. In your own words, explain what Bergoglio means by the term “fundamentalist.” Why does he say fundamentalism is not something God wants? How does fundamentalism take one away from the living God?

4. Many people think they can bribe God somehow into giving them divine protection. Have you ever found yourself trying to bribe God? Describe the situation and what you learned from it.


On Death

1. Define the differences between the Jewish and Catholic views regarding original sin and what happened in the Garden of Eden.

2. Skorka says that death is life’s greatest mystery. How do you view death? What effect does your view of death have on the way you live your life here on earth?

3. Bergoglio says that man receives an inheritance from God and then is meant to leave behind something better. How does this belief affect the choices someone makes versus the person who lives only for the moment?

4. What kind of inheritance do you see yourself leaving, not only to your children but to the world as a whole? What steps are you taking now to secure that inheritance?

5. How does Bergoglio describe the experience of “seeing God,” as Moses did in the burning bush?

6. Have you ever sensed the reality of an afterlife? Describe how, and also how this affected you.

7. How is anguish linked to the fear of death?

8. How do you feel about Bergoglio’s statement, “There is no anesthesia for anguish, but there is the capacity to bear it”? Do you agree with him? Have you experienced the capacity to bear tremendous suffering or anguish?

9. Bergoglio says that we have a creative responsibility to fulfill the command of God to “grow, be fruitful, and subdue the earth.” In your own life, what avenues has this creative responsibility taken?

10. Describe the difference between hope and optimism, according to Bergoglio and Skorka.

11. What is quietism, and why does Bergoglio say that it is dangerous?

12. Are there goals in your life that you have not been able to achieve? Do you wish you had chosen a different career path, perhaps? How do you deal with these unfulfilled desires?


On Euthanasia

1. Bergoglio describes two types of euthanasia: active and covert. What are the differences between them, and how does covert euthanasia affect the elderly in our society today?

2. How does Bergoglio’s response to the issue of suicide differ from Skorka’s? Who do you agree more with?

3. Have you ever known someone who committed suicide? What effect did this have on those closest to him or her? How did you process it?

4. How is “debilitating futile life support” different than “active euthanasia”? When should extraordinary medical methods be used in the case of someone who is ill?


On the Elderly

1. Skorka makes the point that, in our worldly society, the elderly often are seen as disposable. What evidence of this do you notice in your life? How are the elderly treated in your extended family? Your parish? Your neighborhood?

2. How can you help the elderly in your life to feel more a part of society? How could you provide opportunities for them to share memories about themselves, their culture, their ancestors? What value might this bring to you and future generations?

3. Cardinal Bergoglio says that he would like to age gracefully, like a vintage wine, not one gone sour. Can you think of an older individual in your family, neighborhood, or parish who fits that description? Can you think of someone else who is full of bitterness? What do you think makes the difference between the two?

4. If honoring one’s parents were easy, God would not have needed to give us the fourth commandment. How do you show honor to your parents? Do you struggle with this, and if so, why and in what ways?

5. What kind of inheritance have your ancestors left for you—not only materially but spiritually? What special wisdom have they imparted to you about life?


On Women

1. In Catholic tradition, the priesthood passes through men. Bergoglio says women have another function in Christianity, reflected in the figure of Mary. Describe that function. What are its key components?

2. Do you agree that the fact a woman cannot be a priest in the Catholic Church does not make her less than a male? Why or why not?

3. An ancient second-century monk noted that there are three feminine dimensions among Christians: Mary the mother of Jesus, the Church, and the Soul. How might the feminine presence within Christianity be emphasized more visibly, given these dimensions? Do you believe chauvinism has contributed to its hiddenness? Discuss.

4. Why do we speak of the Catholic Church in feminine terms?

5. Why and how does feminism detract from the dignity of women? Bergoglio calls it “chauvinism with skirts.” What do you think he means by this? Do you agree?

6. What similarities exist between Catholic and Jewish theology regarding women?


On Abortion

1. Bergoglio says that the moral problem with abortion is of a pre-religious nature—a scientific problem, not a religious concept. What does he mean by this, and do you agree with him? How could his definition change the way you look at abortion?

2. In our society, many people talk about abortion as if it were no big deal, as if it were normal. How does this reflect on the value we place on the sanctity of life?

3. How informed are you on the issues surrounding abortion? Is your opinion based on knowledge of the subject, or is it formed by the popular opinions voiced through the media?


On Divorce

1. Marriage until death is a very strong value within Catholicism. Nevertheless, how has the Catholic Church changed toward those who are divorced in recent years?

2. Skorka says that, in the Jewish religion, divorce is not considered a matter of faith as it is in Catholicism; Jews take a more fluid position that that of Catholics. What does he mean? Describe in your own words the differences between how these two religions look at the issue of divorce.

3. How is divorce looked at in your own family? What are your views on it? If a friend came to you who was struggling in his or her marriage, what advice would you give?


On Same-Sex Marriage

1. How might approaching the issue of same-sex marriage from an anthropological study and analysis inform how we understand the issue of same-sex marriage?

2. Berogoglio says that we are meant to speak clearly about values, limits, commandments, but we are not to engage in spiritual or pastoral “harassment.” What does he mean by this? How would this affect the way Catholics interact with homosexuals?

3. Do you have any personal experience of trying to relate with love and respect to those who have a same-sex marriage? What challenges have you encountered? What lessons have you learned?

4. If the issue about marriage about two people of the same sex is not based on religion, but rather on anthropology as Bergoglio insists, how does this change the way Catholics might relate to homosexuals?


On Science

1. How should we view science and religion? What part has each played in the development of our civilization?

2. Skorka says that science seeks to understand the “how” of things, while religion tries to understand the “why.” Bergoglio says that science must be respected and encouraged, but should not overstep its bounds into the transcendent. What do you think he means by this? What evidence do we see of this in today’s culture? What is the result?


On Education

1. Both Bergoglio and Skorka agree that religious instruction should be a part of education in schools today. How do you feel about public schools teaching a religious point of view of life and in history?

2. What happens if children don’t hear about God? How does this shape their worldview?

3. Do you think sex-education should only cover issues of anatomy and physiology, or should it include basic values? Why or why not?

4. Describe the concept of transcendence. Why does Bergoglio say it is essential that we communicate this idea to our world?

5. God gave parents the right to educate their children in religious values. What do these values include? What kind of cultural and religious inheritance have you received from your parents? If you have children, what religious values are you passing on to them, and what resources are helping you to do so?

6. Bergoglio makes a distinction between a professor and a teacher. What are the differences between them? How can we assist men and women to be true educators?


On Politics and Power

1. This chapter talks about the concept of mestizaje, which in Spanish means “the blending of races and cultures that brings about a uniquely rich, varied cultural identity. What evidence of mestizaje do you see in the United States today?

2. Bergoglio says in Argentina they live as brothers, despite the fact that there is always “a crazy bomb thrower, some extremist.” What lessons can the United States learn from Argentina, especially in light of the many school shootings that have happened in recent years? How can we live as brothers and sisters without undue fear?

3. What part do you think religion should play where politics is concerned? Should it be on the sidelines, as Skorka suggests, becoming involved only when certain situations arise? What situations would those be?

4. According to Bergoglio, what is the difference between Politics (with a capital P) and politics (with a lowercase p)?

5. How does the media influence the news they report? How do they portray religious leaders’ words?

6. What is clericalism, and why should priests and bishops avoid this? What evidence, if any, of clericalism do you see in your own parish or diocese?

7. Bergoglio says that the Church defends the autonomy of human events. What do you think this means, and what are some examples?

8. How should politics be an elevated form of social charity? How can credibility in the political arena be regained?

9. Skorka suggests that everyone read about the various political platforms and use analytical skills to differentiate among them. How much research do you do for an upcoming election? How much effort do you spend in order to understand the competing platforms? How is this honoring democracy?

10. What means can we employ to safeguard values that may be in jeopardy without becoming overly scrupulous and preaching against groups or individuals?

11. Bergoglio says our “Homeland” is our patrimony. What does he mean by this? What images help us understand this concept?

12. How do you see religious leaders and politicians ideally working together?

13. What responsibility do you think Christians have to get involved with the political issues of the day? How involved are you with local politics in your area? What did you learn?

14. How can we understand the concept of power in an anthropological way? What is the difference between healthy power and its misuse?

15. Describe the qualities of a “mediocre person with power.” Why is this dangerous to those this person leads?

16. Bergoglio talks about the “sin of careerism.” What is this, and how does it manifest itself? Do you see any evidence of this in the Church today?


On Communism and Capitalism

1. Describe the differences between Communism and Capitalism, and then describe how each one is an “opiate.”

2. What are some of the manifestations of worldly people who manipulate religion? What does this type of “religion” look like?

3. Catholic doctrine says that one cannot exempt oneself from fighting for progress in this life by using paradise as an excuse. How can you balance this with those who passively entrust themselves to God, expecting him to act?

4. Think of some challenges you’ve faced in the past or are currently dealing with. What do you think God expects from you in such a situation?

5. When God told man to “have dominion over the Earth” in Genesis 1:28, what do you think he meant? What does this mandate mean for us today? Do you agree with Rabbi Skorka that this means we should live life here “as fully as possible”? Discuss what living life fully looks like.


On Globalization

1. How does Bergoglio define the term globalization?

2. How does his definition differ from an imperialist and liberal definition?

3. Skorka talks about the “destructiveness of materialism.” Discuss the ways materialism is destructive and how globalization might contribute to this.

4. According to Bergoglio, what is the purpose of globalization?


On Money

1. Skorka says that the Bible contains “an economic plan,” found in the Book of Leviticus. Discuss some ways that plan is still relevant for individuals and society today.

2. What does Bergoglio say about business owners who put the revenue from their business in foreign bank accounts? Why does he say this is a sin?

3. Define the concept of social debt. Why does Bergoglio say this is an important concept for Catholics?

4. How does Bergoglio explain the way the Vatican manages its finances?

5. Why does Bergoglio say that the worst thing that can happen to a religious person is living a double life? In your experience, have you encountered such a person? What were some of the consequences that person experienced?


On Poverty

1. Bergoglio says: “The attitude we must have toward the poor is, in its essence, that of true commitment.” He adds that it must be “person to person, in the flesh.” In your own life, how committed are you to helping the poor? What kind of personal contact do you have with individuals struggling with poverty?

2. Don Bosco created a new model for the destitute children he cared for by creating technical schools for them to attend. Why was this preferable to sending them to local public high schools?

3. Skorka defines charity as “assistance that is urgently needed and extended to those in need quickly and immediately.” List some ways that you practice charity in your day-to-day life.

4. Do you think of having a job as affirming your human dignity? How might looking at work this way transform your day-to-day experience in the workplace?

5. Define what is meant by “protective paternalism,” and explain why this is “a great danger” to the poor.

6. Read again Bergoglio’s story about the gold Rolex watch. Why did he feel so strongly about this, calling it a “caricature of charity”?

7. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, who does Jesus say is the true neighbor? In your own neighborhood, what ways do you find to be that true neighbor? Can you think of someone who has been that kind of a neighbor to you?

8. List some of the ways Catholic social justice can be practiced in society today. Of these ways, is there one that strikes a chord with you more than others? What could you do to get involved?

9. Why does Bergoglio say the greatest dispossession for someone is being denied the dignity of work? With so much unemployment in our society today, have you seen evidence of this sense of dispossession in your own life or the life of a family member? What consequences has this had?

10. In your community, can you think of examples of Christians and other religions working alongside each other to serve the poor? How effective is this? Are there ways you can think of to reach out in other ways?


On the Holocaust

1. This chapter begins with a question: “Where was God during the Holocaust?” How would you answer this question?

2. How do you explain the fact that man has free will and autonomy with the idea of God’s involvement in human affairs?

3. Both Bergoglio and Skorka agree that some questions do not have answers in this life. What is your reaction to this? Why do we feel the need for an explanation?

4. Bergoglio says that Jesus is in every suffering person; we complete what is lacking in Christ’s passion. Do you see Jesus in those who are suffering around you? What could be lacking in Christ’s passion? And when we suffer, how can we help complete that lack?

5. How did the Church act during the Holocaust? What did they do to stop the Nazis? Do you think they could have done more? Explain why.

6. Describe how Pope Pius XII acted during this time. Do you agree with how he handled the situation and the choices he made?

7. How did St. John XXIII open the way for a worldwide dialogue about the Holocaust? What risks did he take? How did he speak out? What can we learn from his actions?

8. How would you describe the differences between Pius XII and John XXIII?

9. Define “interreligious dialogue.” How do you interact with those who practice other religions? What kind of conversations do you have with them?


On the 1970s

1. During the 1970s, how did the Catholic Church in Argentina act? What good did Catholics do? What mistakes did they make?

2. How does seeing the Church as made up of saints and sinners impact the way you view the Church as a whole?

3. What are the key lessons we can take away from this chapter? When you observe injustices around you, even small ones, what can you do to make a difference?


On Some Historical Facts: The Conquest, Socialism, and Peronism

1. Bergoglio says that when we look at the Church’s participation in the Spanish Conquest, we have to understand the historic interpretation from the hermeneutic interpretation of that time, or we distort history. Explain in your own words what he means by this.

2. What is your understanding of the reasoning behind the Crusades? Does looking at it from a cultural context change the way you may have thought about it?

3. Why does Bergoglio say that we cannot analyze history from an “ethical, purist point of view”? How should we look at history?

4. Why do the ultranationalists in Argentina criticize Bergoglio, accusing him of heresy?

5. Skorka says that it’s very difficult to define where faith ends and idealogy begins. He wonders if sometimes those who seem to be fighting against God are really fighting against religious structures. Do you see any evidence of this in the Catholic Church today? 

6. How do some believers live their religion in such a way that they become “walls” instead of “bridges”? Do you see any evidence of this in Catholicism today?

7. Bergoglio speaks about “the trap of becoming ideological.” What do you think he means by this?

8. Bergoglio makes this statement: “You cannot defend the people by killing the people.” What does he mean by this?

9. Define Peronism, and explain what can we learn from the Church’s response to it.


On the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Other Conflicts

1. What do you think about Skorka’s suggestion that the Gaza Strip be transformed into the Hong Kong of the Middle East? What does he mean by this, and how would this look?

2. Bergoglio says when ancient Egyptian monks had a conflict, they put themselves in the other person’s place so they could discover what was not working well inside of themselves. Bergoglio says that this is the way to resolve animosities and find a way through conflict. Think of a conflict you are experiencing currently. By putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, what might you discover? How could this change the dynamics?

3. Bergoglio makes the statement that the media, by putting things in black and white, always favors conflict over unity. What current evidence do you see of this today?

4. Bergoglio says favoring conflict only puts obstacles in the path toward unity, but “to search for ways” leads to unity. Think of a current conflict in society today. What are some ways you can come up with that could lead toward unity and resolution?

5. Given what Bergoglio says about the media, how should we read the newspapers or listen to the evening news? How can we know what is happening in the world without being misinformed and influenced by the media?

6. Since conflict has been with us since the beginning of time and is to be anticipated, how can it be resolved according to the Word of God?

7. Explain what Bergoglio means by a “true philosophy of conflict.”

8. How did the German theologian Oscar Cullman suggest that the different Christian denominations could come together? Do you see evidence of this in your city or town?


On Interreligious Dialogue

1. How did Bergoglio revolutionize the Te Deum Masses? What changes did he make, and what impact did this have on interfaith dialogue?

2. Skorka congratulates Bergoglio for trying to “break old, vicious cycles,” and he says this is both our work and our challenge. Discuss some ways you meet this challenge in your own life, family, and community.


On the Future of Religion

1. In our increasingly secular society, do you believe that, as Skorka says, religion will always have a future? Discuss why or why not.

2. As society and culture change, what impact do you think this might have on the forms religion will take? How could these changes impact the Catholic Church?

3. St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Do you see evidence of this restlessness in yourself? How has this sense of restlessness led you to encounter God? Do you think you will always have some restlessness while you are on this earth?

4. How does the future of religion relate to the future of mankind? Can one exist without the other? Why or why not?

5. Bergoglio says he is in favor of a return to “parochialism.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree with him? How would this look in your own parish or diocese? What are the potential benefits, and are there any pitfalls?

6. How can culture shape religion without changing or watering down essential dogma? Describe this using some current examples you see around you.

7. A sense of belonging gives life to a parish. In your own parish, how connected do you feel? What could you do to foster a greater sense of belonging there—either for yourself or others?

8. Have you ever felt like escaping from the world and living an isolated contemplative life? Why does Bergoglio say instead that Catholics are meant to engage the world, that Christianity involves a commitment, not an escape?

9. Explain the true power of religious leadership. Can you think of some examples of true leadership?

10. What is Bergoglio’s perspective on the shortage of religious vocations?

11. Describe how the true reformers in the history of the Catholic Church are the saints. What have they accomplished?

12. What happens when hedonistic, consumerist, and narcissistic culture infiltrates Catholicism? Why does Bergoglio say he fears this most of all? What is the solution to this? List some evidences of that solution today.

13. Explain the difference between evangelization and proselytism. What is proselytism, and why is it dangerous?

14. What attitude should we take toward new religious movements in the Church? What makes a new movement authentic? Have you been involved in any spiritual movement within the Church? If so, what has been your experience?