Despite Progress, Work Remains for Next Pope on Israel-Vatican Ties

February 18, 2013 1:40 am 1 comment

Benedict XVI at the Western Wall. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

The sudden resignation announcement of Pope Benedict XVI left the world stunned. For Israel, the end of Benedict’s tenure as Pope concludes nearly two decades of remarkable progress of relations between the Vatican and Israel. But Benedict’s resignation also raises uncertainty over the future, regarding the next Pope’s policies and issues over the Church’s relationship with Zionism and support for the Palestinians.

Despite centuries of mutual mistrust and severe anti-Semitism, early Zionist leaders understood the political importance of the Catholic Church in the Middle East. In 1904, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, met with Pope Pius X and sought his support for their endeavor. Herzl, however, did not receive the support he was looking for.

“We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it. The Jews have not recognized our Lord; therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will have churches and priests ready to baptize all of you,” Pope Pius X told Herzl, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Vatican’s position on Israel changed very little. The concept of Zionism was little understood within the Church and was contrary to traditional Catholic doctrine, which held that the Jews were destined to wander the Earth for their involvement in the death of Jesus. Diplomatically, the main concerns of the Church  related to sovereignty over Catholic holy sites in Israel, including the status of Jerusalem, which had been divided between Israel and Jordan following the 1948 War of Independence. The Church favored an international solution to the Jerusalem issue.

Approval of the reforms known as Vatican II in 1965, however, brought profound changes to the relationship between Catholics and Jews. Most important was the declaration of Nostra Aetate, , which changed the Church’s position on deicide, no longer blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. But despite the theological shift, the Vatican still did not change its position on Israel.

“A strong concern at that time for Vatican officials was the safety of Middle Eastern Christians and their holy sites in the region amid the Arab-Israeli Wars,” Dr. Ruth Langer, professor of Jewish studies at Boston College and associate director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, told JNS.org.

This concern led to relations with Israel being completely left out of the discussion during Vatican II.

Still, the relationship began to improve on both the Jewish-Christian and Israel-Vatican fronts under the leadership of Pope John Paul II.

Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland in 1920, John Paul II was profoundly shaped by his experience of witnessing the Holocaust first-hand as a young man. As Pope, he repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust and established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

John Paul II’s efforts culminated with a trip to Israel in 2000, where he publicly apologized for centuries of Catholic persecution of Jews and placed a note in the Western Wall asking for God’s forgiveness.

Nevertheless, important theological and diplomatic issues between Israel-Vatican remained, including issues such as Palestinian statehood.

“The establishment of Israel-Vatican relations in 1993 was heavily tied to the Oslo Accords and the expectation of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Langer told JNS.org.

Benedict XVI largely continued his predecessor’s outreach to both the Jewish community and the state of Israel. He also became the first pontiff to declare a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ. In his book Jesus of Nazareth-Part II, Benedict forcefully explained both biblically and theologically why there is no basis in Scripture for blaming Jews for Jesus’s crucifixion and death, the Associated Press reported.

Benedict XVI’s tenure also included a celebrated 2009 trip to Israel where, like John Paul II, he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the Western Wall.

“During his period (as Pope) there were the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate, and we hope that this trend will continue,” Ashekenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger conveyed through his spokesman after Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement, Reuters reported.

“I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” Metzger said.

More recently, Israel and the Vatican finalized a historic agreement that formalized relations between the two nations. It included agreements on the status of the Catholic Church in Israel, sovereignty over Catholic sites, taxation and expropriation. Most significantly, the agreement also included an official seat for the Pope in the room where Jesus’s Last Supper is believed to have been held, resolving a large point of contention between Israel and the Vatican.

“I think we will look back on Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate as very significant in consolidating the amazing achievements in Catholic-Jewish relations,” Rabbi David Rosen, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, told Vatican Radio.

Yet, despite all the progress between Israel and the Vatican, some remain skeptical of the Vatican’s Israel policies, especially in light of its support for Palestinian statehood at the UN last November.

“The Vatican policy under the last two Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has been very simple: theological dialogue with the Jews and political sovereignty for the Palestinian Arabs. Both popes visited Auschwitz and the synagogues, they both left a paper in the Wailing Wall, all important events, but they have also been pioneers in the Palestinian project, which is essentially a Trojan horse to dismantle the Jewish State,” Giulio Meotti, a Italian journalist and author of The New Shoah, told JNS.org.

While she was more optimistic than Meotti about Israel-Vatican relations, Langer explained to JNS.org why the Vatican is concerned with Palestinian issues.

“There is a strong tendency within Christian theology to be concerned with the underdog and with people who are suffering. Currently, there is a perception within the Church that Israel is a mighty country and that the Palestinians are suffering,” she said.

“There are also a number of Palestinians who are Catholic as well,” Dr. Langer added.

As of 2009, there were an estimated 44,000 Israeli-Arabs who are Catholic and 17,000 Palestinian Catholics remaining in the West Bank, according to Reuters. While those numbers are relatively small, a large number of Palestinian Catholics have been disproportionately represented within the Palestinian national movement and have played a significant role in shaping the Church’s attitude towards Israel. One of their most important spokesmen is the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.

Twal generated controversy during last year’s Christmas celebrations when he declared, “Christmas is also a celebration of … the birth of the state of Palestine,” Israel National News reported. Twal’s remarks came amid the November 2012 UN General Assembly resolution upgrading the Palestinians’ status.

The next Pope will be faced with a decision on whether or not to continue the theological and diplomatic progress his two predecessors made with Israel and the Middle East. Work remains on developing a deeper understanding of Zionism in the Catholic Church. While the Church has come a long way from its first encounter with Zionism in 1904, including the repudiation of its teaching on deicide, reconciling Zionism within Church doctrine remains an outstanding issue for the next Pope.

“There still is not an easy way for Catholics to understand the reason why the Jewish people are connected to the land of Israel [Zionism]. This is a topic of dialogue right now between Jewish and Catholic leaders, but it is still preliminary,” Langer told JNS.org.

1 Comment

  • The issue between the Church and Israel is the Catholic belief that Christianity has “superseded” Judaism in Gd’s redemptive plan. Proof of supersession is that the Jews were expelled from Judaea, punishment for rejecting Jesus, and according to supersessionary theology, never to return until they accept him.

    Israel’s establishment as a Jewish state demonstrates that the “never to return” piece of that is wrong. If Israel’s existence disproves supersessionism, then any faith that remains committed to it has called itself into question.

    That is the challenge facing the Church today. Can it retain supersessionism in the face of a Jewish state of Israel? John Paul’s concept of an older-brother–younger-brother formula allows Catholics to accept the existence of a Jewish state of Israel without being forced to conclude that Catholic theology is false, and is the only formula to date that doesn’t require Catholics to endorse a second Holocaust, and by implication the first one.

    The Church’s policy on Palestinians is less connected to doctrine and thus more flexible. If they ever have to recognize that the Palestinians are committed to a second Holocaust, they will have a difficult decision to make: either revert to supersessionism with a vengeance and endorse killing Jews or abandoning the Palestinian cause. It is this decision that gives the fate of supersessionism its significance.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Relationships Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    British relationship expert Andrew Wallas said Kaballah practitioners are likely to be less satisfied in their personal relationships than other couples, Britain’s Daily Mail reported Wednesday. “All the research is that individuals who have an interest in psychology or spirituality or who practice something like Kaballah (the branch of Jewish mysticism popularized by Madonna) are less likely to have satisfactory relationships,” he said. “A lifetime spent doing self-improvement workshops can just be a case of someone running away from reality.” [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Meet New York’s 6’7″ Jew Who Will Rap for You (VIDEO)

    Meet New York’s 6’7″ Jew Who Will Rap for You (VIDEO)

    He’s a 6’7″ Jewish freestyle rapper who roams the streets of New York delivering his rhymes to unsuspecting passersby. Te’Devan, who calls himself the “6’7″ Jew who will rap for you” was recently profiled by the Gothamist blog. In a video posted Monday on YouTube, as part of the website’s No Your City eight-part series created by Nicolas Heller, Te’Devan is seen rapping about “not trying to conform to the status quo” and his mission to “be what I’m supposed to be.” [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.