The State of Israel plays a complicated role in the relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism, between the church and the United States, and between different elements within the church itself.
For the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the State of Israel, some top advisors to President Trump, members of his cabinet, and U.S. senators and members of Congress are attending the opening of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem later this month. Pope Francis expressed grave concern about the decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem when it was announced in December.
The Vatican’s concern over the status of Jerusalem is only one aspect of the growing tension between the Christian churches and the State of Israel over the past six months. In February, Christians in the Holy Land protested against a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed land-expropriation law. The Church of Holy Sepulcre was shut down for three days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally backed down.
Rome looks at the anniversary of the State of Israel with a complex perspective very different from that of Evangelical Protestants in the United States. In less than fifty years, the Vatican has moved from opposing the Zionist movement, to a de facto recognition of the State of Israel, to a de iure recognition. In 1947, the Vatican supported UN Resolution 181, which called for the “internationalization” of Jerusalem. In the encyclicals In multiplicibus curis (1948) and Redemptoris nostra (1949), Pius XII expressed his wish that the holy places have “an international character” and appealed for justice for the Palestinian refugees. In its May 15, 1948 issue, the official newspaper of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote that “modern Zionism is not the true heir to the Israel of the Bible, but a secular state…. Therefore the Holy Land and its sacred places belong to Christianity, which is the true Israel.” The description of Christianity as the “true Israel” (verus Israel) is a reminder that it wasn’t until decades after the Shoah that the church fully recognized the connections between supersessionism, theological anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism.
Vatican II helped reconcile Catholicism and Judaism. But the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel remained complicated. During his trip to the Holy Land in Jordan and Israel in January 1964, Paul VI was very careful never to utter the word “Israel,” thus avoiding even the suggestion of recognition. The questions of who should control the Holy Land and whether to recognize the State of Israel were not addressed by Vatican II’s Nostra aetate, whose drafting was closely scrutinized not only by bishops, theologians, and the Vatican Secretariat of State, but also by diplomats, spies, and Arab and Jewish observers. Vatican II ended before the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent occupation of Palestinian territories, which permanently changed the geo-political situation in the Middle East. From then on, Israel was in firm possession of the whole of the Holy Land west of the Jordan River, including all the Christian holy places. This led the Vatican to modify its position in a pragmatic way. In an address to cardinals in December 1967, Paul VI called for a “special statute, internationally guaranteed” for Jerusalem and the Holy Places (rather than internationalization). We cannot know what Vatican II would have said if the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the capture of Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem (and the Old City) had taken place before or during the council. But we do know that Arab states and Arab Catholic bishops and patriarchs at Vatican II were strongly opposed to anything that sounded like a recognition of the State of Israel.