Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Catholic Zionism

In the current issue of First Things, there is an article by David Shushon arguing a case for Zionism based on Christian (i.e. Catholic) theology (link). I'm not sure who this author is. The byline states that he is a student of Jewish theology and his name sounds somewhat Sephardic. But the article is written from a Catholic perspective. Towards the end of his theological discussion, he addresses the Catholic Church's responses throughout the twentieth century to Zionism and the State of Israel:
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Until the Holy See exchanged ambassadors with the State of Israel in 1993, Jewish leaders viewed the diplomatic position of the Catholic Church through the lens of the prior ecclesiastical anti-Semitism. In fact, the Vatican throughout has reacted to, rather than guided, events in the Middle East. It delayed recognizing Israel mainly out of concern for the safety of ­Christians in Arab countries, and it changed its ­position only once the Oslo Process got underway, in order to secure a place at the table.

The historical record does not reveal a consistent theological stance toward the projected or actual ­Jewish state on the part of the Church. Many things influenced the Church’s view of the State of Israel, among which theology appears to have been the least important. Though in 1917 Benedict XV seemed sympathetic, he later turned sharply against Zionism. According to Sergio Minerbi’s account in The Vatican and Zionism, practical rather than religious concerns reversed the pope’s original sympathy.

One of these concerns was the disposition of the holy places. Christians had ruled Jerusalem for the three centuries between the conversion of Constantine and the Muslim conquest in 638, and for another century after the First Crusade took the city in 1099. The Zionists saw the Christian holy places as buildings rather than as territory. Under other circumstances, this matter might have been negotiated, but the 1919 British Mandate in Palestine put the Vatican on the defensive. The Church feared that the British authorities would favor Protestant organizations in Palestine over the established Catholic community. Moreover, the Vatican’s pastoral relation to Christian Arabs appeared at risk.

After 1948, the safety of Christian Arab minorities in the Middle East dominated the concern of the Holy See. The danger was not imagined: In 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, threats of reprisals against Middle Eastern Christians greeted the first drafts of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document that expressed the Church’s modern view of the Jews. With the ­delicate position of Arab Christians in mind, Augustin Cardinal Bea, charged with drafting the document, was at pains to separate Jewish religion from the State of Israel. As he told the council:
Since we are here treating a purely religious question, there is obviously no danger that the Council will get entangled in those difficult questions regarding the relations between the Arab nations and the State of Israel, or regarding so-called Zionism. . . . As regards the Jewish people, it must again and again be made clear that the question is in no sense political, but is purely religious. We are not talking about Zionism, or the political State of Israel, but about the followers of the Mosaic ­religion, wherever in the world they may dwell.
The issues that preoccupied Vatican diplomacy before 1993 have become moot. The Christian communities of the Middle East have almost disappeared in the face of growing hostility from the Muslim majority. Although the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem continues to voice Arab hostility toward the State of Israel, the winnowing of its flock has reduced its importance. A small but active presence of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the State of Israel is growing in relative importance. The Vatican is building a Catholic community in Israel both to accommodate the growing number of Christian citizens of Israel as well as to strengthen the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Under the 1993 and subsequent agreements with the Vatican, Israel has given Catholic institutions in Israel full legal status. The Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967, meanwhile, has made Israeli protection of the territory surrounding the holy places of Jerusalem the only practical solution. Officially, the Catholic Church might prefer Jerusalem to be an international city, but in practice Israel offers the best guarantee of Christian interests.

The State of Israel no longer has to go to modern Rome to repair what ancient Rome destroyed, as ­Benedict XV suggested in 1917. Nonetheless, the living Rome and the restored Jerusalem remain what Franz Rosenzweig called “laborers at the same task.” The ­survival of fifteen million Jews in a dangerous world depends in good measure on the sympathy of two ­billion Christians.

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