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Rome and Zion (Part Three)

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“Is God acting providentially in the emergence of Israel in 1948? I think so, and I think the Catholic magisterium is pointing toward that answer as well,” wrote in 2019 University of Bristol Catholic theology professor Gavin D’Costa. The views of this adviser to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales indicate the increasingly positive position of Zionism in the Catholic Church, even as it continues to struggle with a previously discussed history of anti-Zionism.

“The existence of the Jewish state is a sign of God’s fidelity to his people,” D’Costa reiterated in a 2020 First Things article. “The foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 has theological significance. By the providence of God, Jews now have a right to live freely and practice their religion in the Promised Land,” he wrote. There “they may live justly according to the Torah.”

The Jewish state therefore exemplified God’s continuing plans for the Jewish people according to Catholic doctrine, D’Costa argued:

Catholics accept that the Jewish people still have a providential role to play, and their return to the land of Israel may be part of the still-to-be-completed redemptive plan. A theologically grounded openness to this possibility is the seed of Catholic Zionism.

D’Costa warned against any attempt to separate Judaism from the Jewish homeland. “It is tempting to think of the Jews as a people with whom Catholics ought to have warm relations, but who need have no link to the land of Israel and whose friendship has no implications for Zionism,” he wrote. “But many of Jesus’s teachings link the Jews to the land of Israel” and “early followers of Jesus knew that the land was central to the gospel, both in its promise to the Jewish people and in its relationship to messianic restoration and final redemption.”

The Vatican appears to have embraced D’Costa’s position. His graduate student, Alex J. Bellew, noted in his 2021 masters’ thesis that at various

points in his Papacy, John Paul II theologically affirmed the bond of the Jewish people to the Land and, tentatively, offered a theological understanding of Jewish statehood in the Land.

D’Costa likewise has highlighted Pope Francis’ 2014 visit to Israel. There he “made remarkable symbolic gestures that advanced Catholic-Jewish understanding. Most significantly, he laid a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism. No other pope has even visited Herzl’s grave.” Thereby “Francis’s action unambiguously endorsed not only Israel’s right to exist but also the importance of its self-determination as a specifically Jewish nation,” D’Costa observed.

Zionism for D’Costa did not, however, mean not criticizing Israel or accepting any state boundaries as foreordained. “Modern Israel can be part of God’s plan even though it is, like any nation, far from pure, cultically or morally,” just like the Catholic Church, he argued. Meanwhile the “flourishing of the Jewish people in the land of Israel is providentially willed by God, but that flourishing need not entail the particular political forms currently in place.”

In such Catholic Zionism, the Israeli state performed pragmatic, and not spiritual, functions, D’Costa argued:

Catholicism withholds any eschatological endorsements of the State of Israel. [Pope] Benedict [XVI] does not deny that God has a hand in the ingathering of the Jewish people to the land promised them, but he will not accept Israel as a political messianic state. To do so would give divine authority to a nation-state—a dangerous conceit.

Yet “Catholic Zionism, even of the minimal sort, will be resisted by many Muslims and some Middle Eastern Catholics and Christians,” D’Costa trenchantly cautioned. As he wrote in 2019,

most Christians of the Middle East are hostile to any theological claim affirming Israel’s biblical gift of, and duties in relation to, the land. Some Palestinian Arab Christians have argued that to accept such a claim would mean that the displacement and refugee status of many of their own people might thereby be said to have been willed by God. Another factor is the acute awareness among many that, were they to express any such theology, their own and their communities’ safety amidst Muslim majorities would be even further endangered.

“To a great extent, this temptation has prevailed at the Vatican, where theological openness to Judaism has competed with the concerns of the Arab Christian churches that were united with Rome in the nineteenth century,” D’Costa has observed. Thus, Catholic Zionism is

likely to be shunned by Rome’s church diplomats, who juggle a wide range of concerns in their efforts to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East and promote a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the Holy See’s policy of mediating among all communities to secure Christian safety in the Middle East has not met with much success. It certainly has not secured a peaceful and just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In short, Catholic reticence about Zionism hasn’t made the Church an effective broker of peace in the Middle East.

British commentator Daniel Johnson in 2019 concurred with D’Costa’s political analysis. “In their own implacable resistance to overtures from Israel, leading Palestinian Christians in particular have tended to be, as it were, more Islamic than the caliph,” Johnson noted. Qualifying D’Costa’s praise of Pope Francis, Johnson wrote that Israel’s boundaries

indeed, became an issue when Pope Francis visited the Holy Land in 2014. Unlike John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who had visited Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank in that order, Francis made a point of entering Israel only after the West Bank.

“All of this symbolism was designed to remind Israelis that the pope took no cognizance of Jerusalem’s status as their capital, or of any Israeli presence beyond the pre-June 4, 1967 borders,” Johnson explained. “Under today’s first non-European pope, the Vatican seems more interested in protecting its global interests, especially in Muslim countries, than in promoting a political theology that could form the basis for a Catholic Zionism,” he noted. Villanova University theology professor Massimo Faggioli similarly critiqued the rudimentary state of Catholic theology concerning modern Israel:

.....–Vatican II church came to accept the reality that the Christian holy sites were inside the Jewish state of Israel, but this remained a fairly pragmatic development. The church has yet to develop a real theology of the Holy Land.

Aside from the Catholic Church’s relations with the Middle East, D’Costa also discerned continuing hostility to Judaism within the Catholic Church as an obstacle for Zionism:

A more difficult, less acknowledged, and still lingering problem lies within the Catholic Church itself, in the form of its own deeply anti-Jewish theological traditions. Whatever an official teaching to the contrary may be, ideas and attitudes possessing a long historical pedigree rarely change overnight.

The modern Catholic outlook on Jews and Zionism is truly mixed. While various Catholics such as the writer Michael Sean Winters proclaim their Zionism, a 2011 Vatican conference promoted anti-Israel invective. Surveyed global Catholic attitudes towards Jews are not necessarily optimistic, as a 2018 review noted.

Nonetheless, at least in the United States, Faggioli sees the Star of David in ascent, for

there is no guarantee that Christian Zionism will not become as influential among American Catholics as it is among American Evangelicals. You can already find it in some conservative Catholic groups.

Zionists can only hope and pray that such developments portend the future for the Catholic Church, the world’s largest grouping of Christians. Reconciled to Zionism, the Catholic Church could be just as influential as an Israeli ally as the Vatican was in fighting Communism. Both Christian and Jew should recognize their common heritage in Zion and “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122).

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