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September 12, 2019 6:11 am

Catholic Zionism? Not So Fast

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avatar by Dexter Van Zile


A general view shows thousands of Jewish worshippers attending the priestly blessing on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City September 26, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Writing in the September issue of Mosaic, Gavin D’Costa, a professor of Catholic theology at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, offers a hopeful view of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

His thesis is that we are about to witness the emergence of Catholic Zionism, “a stream of thought that has the potential to influence for the good the attitudes toward the State of Israel held by billions of believers around the world.” He bases his optimistic assessment on a number of documents issued by the Catholic church over the past few decades.

The first of these documents is, of course, “Nostra Aetate,” issued in 1965. This document declared that the church would no longer blame the Jews for the death of Jesus 2,000 years ago. D’Costa cites other statements that affirm the legitimacy of Divine promises to the Jews offered in Hebrew Scriptures and other Catholic statements, which declare that the Jews remain the chosen people.

In these texts, from which “there is no turning back,” D’Costa states that there is a basis for at least a minimalist Catholic Zionism going forward.

As a convert to Catholicism, I hope D’Costa is right — but I’m not so sure he is. Even D’Costa himself adds a qualifier:  “official Catholic Zionism would emerge quite quickly” if (and this is a big “if”) “the Israel-Palestinian dispute were resolved … with the full agreement of both parties and international support.”

With this qualifier, D’Costa implicitly acknowledges that Catholic doctrine regarding the Jewish people and their homeland is contingent on the theo-politics of the Middle East, where the political culture is shot through with Jew-hatred. Without meaning to, D’Costa is admitting that the Palestinians can, through their intransigency, tie the Vatican’s hands regarding its attitude towards Israel.

In the face of this qualifier, it’s reasonable to ask D’Costa the following question: “Of what use is this thing you call ‘Catholic Zionism’ once the Israel-Palestinian conflict is resolved? Israel and its Jewish inhabitants have been worthy (and in bad need) of the church’s support for years. Like Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, Israelis have been struggling with the reality of jihadist violence for decades. Why wait until this violence has been brought to an end before affirming Israel’s existence?”

The author is telling Jews that the Catholic church will fix its problems over the existence of the Jewish state once Muslims in the Middle East fix their faith’s problems with the Jewish people and their sovereign status. It’s akin to promising to fix the plumbing after the pipes have stopped leaking.

There’s also another problem that D’Costa needs to address. The generation of priests and bishops who have done the heroic work of implementing the teachings of Nostra Aetate in the daily life of the church are also the same people who have done a terrible job of protecting children from abusive priests who raped thousands of children over the past several decades.

The upshot is that the people who did great work on Nostra Aetate and institutionalized its teachings in the Church were also responsible for a great scandal that is polarizing the church today. One can argue that the elites in charge of the Catholic church did a better job fighting antisemitism than they did protecting the welfare and safety of children and families inside the church.

The implications of this are terrifying, but it’s a reality that the interfaith community needs to come to grips with, because the enemies of the Jewish people inside the Catholic church have already taken advantage of this problem. Nostra Aetate was passed by the Second Vatican Council, which made a number of other changes in church practices that have been blamed for the current crisis within the church.

Enemies of the Jewish people inside the church have started to take advantage of this reality. In 2010, E. Michael Jones, an inveterate antisemite who has repeatedly described the Jews as the source of all that is bad in the modern human condition, told a group of Catholics in Ireland that “the current scandals are being orchestrated by the church’s traditional enemies — Protestants and Jews — in order to destroy traditional cultures and make the world safe for capitalism and the universal rule of mammon.”

I hate to say it, but D’Costa’s suggestion that the cavalry comprised of Catholic Zionists is coming to save the day seems just a bit too pat and optimistic.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).

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