Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, in the Old City on September 21, 2023 (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill).

In the consistory of September 30, Pope Francis named twenty-one new cardinals (eighteen of whom will be electors) in an attempt to cement his legacy. One of the most interesting selections is that of Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, an Italian who was born in 1965 and has served as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 2020, presiding over Latin Catholics in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus.

Fluent in Hebrew and previously the custodian of the Holy Land, Pizzaballa is the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem to become a cardinal and to reside in Jerusalem. (The position was created by the crusaders in 1099 against the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and restored in the mid-nineteenth century.) All since 1847 have been of Italian origin, except Michel Sabbah (1987-2008) and Fouad Twal (2008-2016), who were the first two native speakers of Arabic, the language of the majority of their flock, to occupy the post.

The fact that the Patriarch of Jerusalem is now a cardinal means there will be a stronger relationship between Rome and Jerusalem, and more of a voice for the Church of Jerusalem in both Rome and the global Church. It also signals the Vatican’s desire to play a more active role in the Middle East. Of course, just what that means now—with Israel declaring war on Hamas after its October 7 attack on Israel—is up for question. The appointment of Pizzaballa couldn’t have come at a more delicate moment.

This was demonstrated the very day of the attacks, when the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement noting that the city “is currently mired in violence and suffering due to the prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights.” The statement did not take a direct position on Hamas, saying only that “we unequivocally condemn any act that targets civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, and faith.” Two days later, Israel’s Embassy to the Holy See responded with a written statement condemning the “immorality of using linguistic ambiguity in such circumstances.” After noting that “it is especially unbelievable that such a sterile document was signed by people of faith,” the statement made a direct reference to Pius XII and the Holocaust, and to the apparent failures of Catholics to learn from the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. Pizzaballa himself then issued a more forceful condemnation of Hamas on October 11.

But tensions between the Israeli government and the Vatican were still on display in the following days. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen slammed the Vatican for its focus on the situation in Gaza and what he perceived as the failure of the Holy See to condemn Hamas clearly and unequivocally. Then, on October 16, the day after Pope Francis called for the release of hostages and the creation of humanitarian corridors to help those under siege in Gaza, Cardinal Pizzaballa offered himself in exchange for those being held by Hamas.

How do the appointment of Pizzaballa, the war, and the diplomatic tension between Israel and the Vatican impact Catholic-Jewish relations in the ongoing globalization of Catholicism? Something to consider first is a shift in historical narratives. Though the relationship between Jerusalem and Rome has become stronger, it’s happened as the globalization of Catholicism has led to a shrinking of the “Jewish prism” in the historical and theological understanding of Christianity. For Catholics far beyond the Mediterranean, the journey of Christianity out of the Holy Land to Athens and then to Rome has less resonance than other historical-theological narratives. Also, the centrality and uniqueness of the Holocaust in the twentieth century—as historically and theologically conceived—is being relativized and redefined in terms of the horrors of slavery and colonization that preceded it. The point of comparison for the extermination of Jews during World War II is no longer just Stalinist Communism, but also the founding of Christianity in the Americas, with the arrival of devastating diseases and the cultural genocide of Native and First Nations people; and in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, with genocides by starvation. This development will need careful monitoring by both historians and theologians, as it is different from the ways in which, in the 1980s, German historians Raul Hilberg, Arno Mayer, and Saul Friedländer questioned the place of the Holocaust in history.

The day after Pope Francis called for the release of hostages and the creation of humanitarian corridors to help those under siege in Gaza, Cardinal Pizzaballa offered himself in exchange for those being held by Hamas.

But these changes are not just about relations between Catholics and Jews. They also impact contemporary theological reflection about the meaning of God, Christology, ecclesiology, and the importance of human rights in light of the Holocaust for basic self-definition of the Church. In contrast to the historical narratives embodied by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, World War II and the Holocaust are no longer the dominant hermeneutical key to interpreting the development of Catholic teaching in terms of relations with Judaism. The demographic and theological trajectories of global Christianity and global Catholicism, whose center of gravity is shifting to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and their diasporas everywhere, signal the diminishing supremacy of the master Judeo-Christian narrative. This makes the voice of the Church in Jerusalem particularly important, given its position between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world as an epicenter of the “pluralization” of historical narratives.

Then there is the ecclesial issue to consider—the future of the Church in Israel and Palestine. Cardinal Pizzaballa has been consistent in raising this in interviews he’s given in light of the uptick in anti-Christian vandalism and attacks in Jerusalem. He’s talked about the need to consider the demands of justice, truth, and forgiveness: “You cannot not talk about justice, where justice is denied, but if you only talk about justice it can become justicialism which can create other injustices. You must use words of truth, which can be of comfort, but you must also speak of forgiveness and reconciliation; otherwise, the prospects are closed and justice turns to revenge.” In a July interview with Vatican News, the patriarch discussed the situation of Christians: “We don’t want protection, but rights…we want to live as free citizens in a democratic state.”

Of course, the Catholic Church must balance the ever-adjusting relations between religion and politics wherever it has a presence. But in Israel, the Vatican doesn’t just play a role in the theological debates on the identity of Israel and Palestine; it also holds significant land, particularly in contested Jerusalem. One of the greatest tensions right now is whether or not those properties will be able to keep their special, tax-exempt status. The Church doesn’t want to push the issue too far, and in the aftermath of the attacks it has to tread even more lightly.

The third issue is theological. With the redefinition of the “Jewish prism” in global historical narratives, different Catholic positions have emerged, with Jerusalem at the center of the stage. This was already apparent at the June 2019 gathering at the Notre Dame Conference Center in Jerusalem, organized with the participation of the Latin Patriarchate. The gathering hosted Catholic theologians from Europe, the Unitrd States, and “Israel/Palestine/Occupied Territories,” and included Jewish Israeli and non-Catholic Christian Palestinians. The proceedings were published last year, and they demonstrate the delicate role of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. For example, Gavin D’Costa offered an exploration of different forms of compatibility between Catholic theology and Zionism, advocating “a minimalist theological affirmation of the State” of Israel by Catholics. German theologian Dirk Ansorge rejected a theological-sacramental Catholic approach to the State of Israel. David Neuhaus, SJ, “part of a Hebrew-speaking Church situated amidst an Arabic-speaking diocese,” affirmed the centrality of Nostra Aetate’s rejection of the teaching of contempt against the Jews, but emphasized how “Catholics engaged in the dialogue with the Jews must insist they cannot justify the Palestinians’ experience of discrimination and occupation in Israel/Palestine today, an experience rooted in how Zionism has been translated into harsh political realities in the State of Israel today.”

Then there is the ecclesial issue to consider—the future of the Church in Israel and Palestine.

In the very carefully worded preface to the volume, Pizzaballa stated that on the issue of the Land and the State of Israel, “the position of a Palestinian Christian is not significantly different from that of a Palestinian Muslim. A Catholic of Jewish origin does not necessarily share the views of a Palestinian Catholic.” There is a “range of views on this issue from scholars and theologians who are all Catholic.” He also noted that “to say simply that God has given the Land to the Jewish people, and that it is therefore theirs because it is written in the Pentateuch, is an assertion at odds with a Catholic approach.” In conclusion, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem affirmed that “the Church intends to dialogue with Judaism on the religious level only…. This approach to the political realm does not, I think, satisfy the concerns of most Jews. The Palestinian-Israeli question and the issue of the land is, for the Catholic Church, an entirely political issue and not a religious one.”

Different theologies of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the West have an impact on the Church’s relations with Israel. Catholicism can no longer rely on the momentum of spiritual rapprochement and theological ressourcement that ultimately led to Nostra Aetate. A recent study showed that while American Catholics’ attitudes toward Jews have improved greatly since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, young U.S. Christians tend to have a less positive view of Jews and of Israel than previous generations. The fact is that there’s always been, even after Vatican II, a lingering “soft supersessionism.” The danger today is that in the context of Catholic neo-integralist political narratives, the reemergence of supersessionism is fueled by traditionalist beliefs that theological rapprochement with Jews at Vatican II was a “watering down” of Catholic doctrine. At the same time, especially among some Anglo-American Catholic theologians, there is a push for a “Catholic Zionism” (a “minimalist” Zionism as distinct from Protestant Zionism, according to D’Costa), as well as the normalization—even by some Israelis, including former top security officials—of the term “apartheid” to describe Israeli policies.

There is an essential tension in the different views of the role of Catholicism in Israel: the Catholic Church as a third party that can make peace in a conflict that is seen as largely between Jews and Muslims; the Church as host of some form of “Catholic Zionism” going beyond the purely “religious relations” with the Jews; and a Church rooted in liberation theology, which takes the side of the poor and which sees the small Arab Christian community as essential for the global Church—as “leaven in flour.” It is growing more difficult for these visions to coexist. Pope Francis’s appointment of Patriarch Pizzaballa as cardinal underscores Jerusalem’s significance in post-colonial global Catholicism. It will have an important impact on the complicated relations between the Church, Israel, and the Jewish people.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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