The New Catholic Zionism

Protestant evangelical Zionism has a centuries-old pedigree. Could Catholic Zionism, evolving over the last half-century, become official Church teaching?

Pope Francis at the Western Wall in May 2014. Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Pope Francis at the Western Wall in May 2014. Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Sept. 9 2019
About the author

Gavin D’Costa is professor of Catholic theology at the University of Bristol (UK). He advises the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Vatican City. His latest book, Catholic Doctrines on the Jewish People after the Second Vatican Council, is forthcoming later this year from Oxford University Press.

Despite the drastically falling rates of religious affiliation and practice in advanced Western countries—and despite the claims of secularists that religion has altogether caused quite enough trouble in the world and should best be ignored or kept private—religious faith itself has stubbornly declined to disappear.

Not only has the world’s population at large continued to be deeply religious, if not increasingly so, and not only has secularism, for its part, compiled its own record of shame in terms of tyranny, persecution, and bigotry, but the deep convictions instilled by religious faith have inspired any number of history’s noblest achievements for the betterment of humankind.

In what follows, I want to bring to the fore a little-known development in, specifically, modern Catholic thought that has the capacity to render a wholly positive service of its own. The development in question is the salutary emergence of, in brief, 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.

Its story is best told in parts.


I. The Two Faces of Christian Zionism


Most people, if asked to reflect on the state of relations between Christians and Israel, will instinctively mention the ardently pro-Israel and pro-Zionist sentiments not of Catholics but of evangelical Protestants: sentiments that in several instances have helped to shape British and American politics.

And people would be right to do so. Thus, when asked in a 2013 Pew survey of American religious attitudes whether God gave Israel to the Jewish people, more white evangelical Christians (55 percent) than Jews (40 percent) answered in the affirmative. Of that same group of evangelicals, 72 percent sided exclusively with Israel on the Israel-Palestinian dispute, compared with 49 percent of the general U.S. public.

These solidly pro-Israel opinions reflect a biblically-grounded phenomenon that sports a long pedigree and that has been called, simply, Christian Zionism. In its British version, it is associated historically with such “restorationist” figures as the Earl of Shaftesbury in the early 19th century and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George in the second decade of the 20th century. In 1917, this deep-seated impulse played a role in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration that, without “prejudice to the civil and religious rights” of non-Jewish communities in the land, promised British government support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

In the U.S., evangelical Christian enthusiasm for the return of the Jews to the Holy Land received a large national boost when in 1891 the Methodist minister William Blackstone presented to President Benjamin Harrison a “memorial” urging official American backing of the restorationist project; the document was accompanied by the signatures not only of hundreds of Christian leaders but also of prominent public figures from John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan to senators, congressmen, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. A second, updated version of the “Blackstone Memorial” was later delivered, through the good offices of Justice Louis D. Brandeis, to President Woodrow Wilson, whose consequent endorsement of the Balfour Declaration it helped secure.

Over recent decades, American evangelical support for the Jewish state has developed into a many-branched and somewhat unwieldly tree. Some branches believe that the creation of Israel in 1948 and the “ingathering of the exiles” have fulfilled biblical prophecy concerning the “last days.” For some this portends Armageddon—that is, a final cataclysmic battle between the forces of light and darkness (with Islam sometimes standing in for the latter), culminating in the second coming of Jesus. Not a few branches believe that the redemptive end will be accompanied by the voluntary conversion of (some, many, or all) Jews to Christianity. This is not to take notice of more recent counter-trends, especially salient among younger American evangelicals, of disaffection from or even hostility to the Jewish state—a troubling development in itself but not our concern here.

The development of Catholic Zionism should be of deep interest not only to Israel and its worldwide supporters but to anyone interested in religion and politics.

If this is one face of Christian Zionism—a Protestant face—the Catholic Zionism that I am about to describe presents a different face. It, too, views the foundation of Israel in 1948 as part of the biblical promise of land to God’s chosen people, and views the ingathering of that people as a sign of God’s fidelity to His promises. But the maximalist beliefs held by some conspicuous forms of Protestant Zionism, as in their envisioning of the end times and their recruitment of Jews and “Israel” as instruments toward that vision’s fulfillment, are eschewed in the Catholic conception.

It may be asked: on what basis do I claim that the Church is in fact heading toward such a specifically Catholic form of Zionism? I claim it on the basis of evidence pointing in that direction and in repudiation of a long history of Catholic anti-Jewishness.

I also claim that this development is of great significance and should be of deep interest not only to the state of Israel and its worldwide supporters, Jewish and Gentile alike, but to all individuals and governments attentive to trends in public opinion relating to religious and political affairs. In addition, in a Europe threatened—haunted—by the return of anti-Semitism, it is nothing short of countercultural in the most auspicious sense of that word. Despite undeniable turmoil within Catholicism itself today, the Church is still home to over a billion souls, and what it thinks and says matters.

The gestation of this new approach begins in 1965 and gets a special push forward in 1980. Since then the process, which still awaits its full unfolding, has continued to gain traction. The evidence for it is to be found scattered in official Church documents that few read and that fewer, other than professional theologians like myself, are equipped to place in context or assess for their weightiness. But the evidence is both remarkable and unmistakable; as for the theological development to which it attests, that, in my view, is unstoppable.


II. The Origins of Catholic Zionism 


The new impulse in Catholic thinking about the Jews and Judaism became visible in the early 1960s at the Second Vatican Council in Rome, conceived and convened by Pope John XXIII. Like the first Vatican Council, held a century earlier, this one was an authoritative forum for modern Catholic teachings on a range of subjects. In its many sessions, bishops discussed the nature of the Catholic Church, the status of other Christian groups, the significance of world religions, the issues of atheism and secularism, and the importance of religious freedom. The results of these deliberations became incorporated in many teaching documents; for our purposes, the key such document is Nostra Aetate (1965), and the key section is number 4, on the Jewish people.

The proposal that was to become section 4 of  Nostra Aetate met serious hostility even before the discussion draft was released to the Council. (In a sure sign of its contentiousness, its substance was leaked to the New York Times ­despite every Council member’s having taken a solemn oath of confidentiality.) Inevitably, the positive statements in the text, which specified that they were addressed only to “religion”—that is, Judaism—were interpreted instead for support of the state of Israel. Most Middle Eastern governments, as well as the leaders of those countries’ Christian communities, quickly expressed their opposition to the draft.

The American bishops came to the rescue of the draft proposal, and Pope Paul VI (who in 1963 had succeeded John XXIII) came up with a solution: nothing touching on politics must be said in the document, and whenever anything was said in section 4 of Nostra Aetate about the Jewish religion, something must also be said about Islam in (the much smaller) section 3.

That still left plenty to be debated, and it was nothing short of a miracle that the text was eventually decided upon and then put forth as part of the Catholic Church’s official teaching. Most importantly, Nostra Aetate formally renounced the charge of deicide made against the whole Jewish people either alive at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion or since.

That charge had led a checkered and blood-stained history. In popular Catholic culture the Jewish people, having been deemed guilty of killing God, were thereby eternally worthy of retribution in kind: a retribution historically exacted on Jewish communities by inflamed mobs. By contrast, in the influential revision of Saint Augustine (354-430 CE), although the Jews had indeed forfeited their status as God’s chosen people, and in fulfillment of biblical prophecy had been condemned to lose their homeland, they were specifically to be kept alive in order to wander the earth as witnesses to the truth of Christianity.

In its own way, Augustine’s theology may be said to have provided an unintentional bridge to Vatican II’s new teaching, itself based on a New Testament text. Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul affirms that the Jewish people as a whole, of whom Paul himself was one, are and remain elect, “for God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). This verse would play a key role in the radical turn for the better in Catholic-Jewish relations starting with the publication of Nostra Aetate in 1965.

If Jews en masse were not guilty of deicide, and if the promises made to them by God were irrevocable, did that not imply a new status for the Jewish people?

One problem, however, was that Nostra Aetate seemed to have rendered the Jewish people a museum relic—associated in the Council text with Judaism in the biblical and early Christian periods, not with later or modern living Judaism. Yet if, first, Jews en masse were not guilty of deicide, and if, second, the gifts and promises made to them by God were irrevocable, did that not imply a new status for the Jewish people, not only in antiquity but for all time thereafter?

This question was a subject of much debate in the years after the Council. And even at the Council itself, as I’ve already hinted, the advances of Nostra Aetate were hardly free of minority opposition. Its teaching about the Jewish people formed one of many reasons for a small but influential group of Catholics to leave the Church altogether in protest. The rebels were led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who founded the schismatic Society of St Pius X. Contending that the Church had fallen into error in its new teachings about the Jewish people, Lefebvre pronounced invalid not only the Council but also any pope who would subsequently deem its teachings authoritative—that is, all of the popes since 1965.

Fragments and echoes of this split remain in place today; indeed, the radical anti-Vatican II position, however minuscule, continues to attract new adherents and sympathizers. This alone may help explain why fifteen years would pass from the time of the Council before the implied but missing link—in the form of that necessary new status for the Jewish people today, and not least for the Jews in the land of Israel—would be forged officially.

That major step was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in Mainz, Germany on November 17, 1980.


III. Co-Inheritors of the Covenant


As is well known, John Paul was a major force in moving the Catholic-Jewish relationship forward. From his early days in Poland he had retained deep personal friendships with Jews, and he also knew first-hand the depth of Polish Catholic anti-Jewishness. In Mainz, addressing an audience made up of the country’s Central Council of Jews and the German Rabbinical Conference, he made the connection that had been missing at the Second Vatican Council: if the biblical promises were irrevocable, then they applied not only to Judaism in Jesus’ time but to Judaism now.

Thus, the pope spoke explicitly of the relationship “between present-day Christian churches and the present-day people of the covenant concluded with Moses” (emphasis added): a teaching he reiterated on numerous occasions, as would his two successors, Pope Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis.

The Jewish people’s unbreakable covenant with God, avowed explicitly by John Paul II, would be reiterated as well by his two successors.

Benedict, for example, speaking in 2006 at the Great Synagogue of Rome, restated the unbreakable covenant relationship in these words:

The people of Israel have been liberated many times from the hands of their enemies and, in times of anti-Semitism, in the dramatic moments of the Shoah, the hand of the Almighty has supported and guided them. The favor of the God of the covenant has always accompanied them, giving them the strength to overcome trials. To this divine loving attention your Jewish community, present in the city of Rome for more than 2,000 years, can also render testimony.

In saying this, Pope Benedict was well aware of the World War II ravaging of the Roman Jewish community by Italian fascists, many of them Catholics, in tandem with the Nazis who themselves enjoyed a sizable German Catholic following. He clearly also saw rabbinic and modern Judaism as in continuity with the biblical people Israel, and affirmed God’s support and guidance of this special people.

For his part, Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013) praises at length the Jewish community’s living covenant with God:

We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity. As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God. With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept His revealed word. . . . God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with His word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism.

Among the passages of special significance here, Francis’s explicit exemption of the Jews from the category of “those called to turn from idols” have signaled to many observers an end to Catholic missionary activity among Jews. Clearly, Judaism was to be regarded not like any other “religion” but as enjoying, with Catholicism in particular, an active covenantal relationship with “the true God.”

When popes repeat teachings, those teachings slowly enter the bloodstream of the Church even if they have not formally been pronounced as binding doctrines that must be held by all Catholics. In that sense, there can be no going back. The Catholic Church now recognizes the Jewish people as the co-inheritors of the covenant to which God remains faithful.


IV. A Full-Fledged Catholic Zionism


And this takes us in turn to the present-day heart of the matter: the place where theology, politics, and history are inextricably and intractably entangled. What does the story I’ve been recounting here mean for Zionism—that is, to the promise made by God to His people regarding the land of Israel? If the Church now teaches that the Jews have a valid covenant, what of this, crucial part of that same covenant?

This question used to receive a very clear answer. The older narrative can be seen in a reported conversation between Pope Pius X and Theodor Herzl in 1904, shortly before Herzl’s untimely death.

For Pius, the return of Jews to their land could have no theological significance. In response to Herzl’s request for Vatican support of Zionist aspirations, Pius replied: ‘We cannot give approval to this movement. . . . As the head of the Church I cannot tell you anything different. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.”

When Herzl raised humanitarian considerations, emphasizing “the distress of the [European] Jews” rather than Zionism as either a religious or political project, Pius responded with a summation of the Catholic viewpoint:

Either the Jews will cling to their faith and continue to await the messiah who, for us, has already appeared. In that case they will be denying the divinity of Jesus and we cannot help them. Or else they will go there [to Palestine] without any religion, and then we can be even less favorable to them. . . . The Jewish religion was the foundation of our own; but it was superseded by the teachings of Christ, and we cannot concede it any further validity.

In brief, Judaism was invalid as a religion, and non-religious Zionism was invalid due to its secularism. I cite Pius’s comments because, as we have seen, the theology underpinning them—the theology epitomized in the phrase “supersessionism” or “replacement theology”—has itself become officially invalid. But do the removal of Pius’s presuppositions and the restoration in Catholic minds of a special status for Judaism and the Jewish people lead to a different view of the land and of Zionism?

The short answer is: not yet. The obstacles in the path, both external and internal, are many.

Many Middle Eastern Christians still believe that the Jewish people are no longer “chosen” and that Christians now hold the status of the “new Israel.”

For one thing, 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.

And then there is the impact, still powerful in this part of the world, of nearly two millennia of theological anti-Semitism: in short, many Middle Eastern Christians believe that the Jewish people, having rejected Jesus, are no longer “chosen” and that Christians now hold the status of the “new Israel,” the “people of God.” Although this is the view officially condemned by the Vatican in Nostra Aetate (1965), most of Middle Eastern Christianity, as Samuel Tadros has written in Mosaic, “has firmly rejected Nostra Aetate.

For its part, the Vatican still seeks to maintain full communion with the churches of the Middle East, most of which are neither Catholic nor Protestant but instead represent some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, among them (again in Tadros’s words) “the dozens of Orthodox churches that broke off from European Christianity as a result of theological debates in the 5th century or the Great East-West Schism of 1054.”

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. Nor, when it comes to the Hebrew Bible’s promises to Israel specifically regarding the land, is the western Catholic Church itself of one mind.

And yet, if the obstacles are there and cannot be wished away, it is essential not to lose sight of the benefits that a full-fledged Catholic Zionism would confer.

First and foremost, in articulating and teaching its support of Israel, the Church would be faithful to the truth it has received—such fidelity being, after all, its raison d’être, and sufficient reason in and of itself. Next, and in line with this, 1.313 billion Catholics (2017 statistics) would now be taught by their spiritual leaders not just to acknowledge Israel’s legal and diplomatic status vis-à-vis the Church—formalized in the 1993 Fundamental Agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and the Holy See—but to cherish Israel as part of God’s plan. For while the 1993 agreement was no small step, it falls short of a theological rationale, which is, or should be, the pulsing heart of the Catholic Church.

Nor is that all. Catholic Zionism would also gain for Israel a transnational ally with no political or commercial interests in the region apart from peace and justice—as well as, naturally, concern for the safety of Christian communities. Right now, when it comes to the safety of Christian communities in the Middle East, by far the outstandingly favorable track record has been compiled by, in fact, the state of Israel itself. An explicit teaching would signal the presence of a new peace broker in the region: a broker with influence in an area of the world, including Africa, where the Church’s reach and influence are growing, and one with the additional advantage, in this context, of having consistently upheld the rights of Palestinians and both legally and diplomatically supported a Palestinian state. An explicit teaching lauding the existence of Israel would thus underline, for each community, the Church’s concern for the interests of both.

Whether Jews and the state of Israel would welcome such a development is of course unknown. The immediate reaction of Palestinians and other Arab communities, on the other hand, is probably more predictable. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that the once-automatic support of Arab states for the Palestinian leadership is not what it used to be, and neither is the degree of grassroots Palestinian support for the Palestinian Authority itself, not to mention Hamas. The economic and power demographics are shifting, and shifting in a direction favorable to the prospects of peace in the region.

Moreover, whatever the obstacles to a Catholic Zionism’s becoming explicit and official teaching, informally and implicitly it is already on the road to that end.


V. The Biggest Pieces of the Puzzle


This brings us back to the evidence for the growth of Catholic Zionism that I alluded to at the start: evidence residing not only in post-Vatican II speeches and papal pronouncements of the kind I’ve cited but also in several different official documents whose cumulative significance has yet to be recognized and which, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, have to be fitted together in order to see the image more clearly. Here I’ll adduce four examples.

The first is Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), the work of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. This commission was established in 1974 to maintain positive relations with the Jewish people and to disseminate the Catholic Church’s teachings concerning those relations.

Picking up on Pope John Paul II’s 1980 teaching that emphasized Israel’s continuity from biblical through rabbinic and modern times, Notes subtly overturned the Augustinian tradition according to which the sole purpose of the Jewish Diaspora was to act as a universal witness to Christian truth. It also acknowledged, explicitly, the biblical promise of the land of Israel, noting that “the history of Israel did not end” with the Roman conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Rather, according to Notes, that history continued,

especially in a numerous Diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness—often heroic—and its fidelity to the one God . . . while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the hearts of their hope (Passover seder).

This allusion to the age-old and never relinquished hope of a return to the land is pregnant with meaning for contemporary history. In addition, the mention of the seder acknowledges a shared biblical tradition and point of connection between Jews and Christians, and that leads to another teaching:

Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship.

This last point, neither denying nor affirming a positive Catholic reading of the relevant texts in the Hebrew Bible, was crucial, since at the time there had as yet been no formal Vatican investigation of these texts and it was thus premature to pronounce on the matter. That pronouncement would come later, as we’ll see; in 1985, the commission had to make do with this:

The existence of the state of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law.

That is to say: Israel had a legal right to exist that was underwritten by international law and in that sense supported by the Catholic Church. On the surface, such a formula would appear to lend little support, or no support at all, to any form of Catholic Zionism. But I would argue that we have here another step in an evolving Catholic teaching according to which “the state and its political options” were to be distinguished from “the Jewish people and the land.”

Affirming “the state” theologically would have run into two objections, one real, the other spurious. The real one was that the Catholic Church is hardwired to be suspicious of endorsing any state “theologically,” for doing so would compromise its political neutrality as enshrined in the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Or, to put it in more familiar terms, such an endorsement, by underwriting a specific secular order, would run counter to Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22: 21)—that is, to separate politics from religion.

The more contrived objection in 1985 was that affirming the Jewish state would endorse not only the then-sitting Israeli government but future governments and their “political options” as well. As an expression of Catholic caution, the worry may be quite understandable, but as an objection it is finally weak. For one thing, very few Jews themselves, and perhaps even fewer Jewish citizens of Israel, would countenance any such blank check. For another, stronger thing, the Jewish people and the land of Israel could not be tethered together as one without some form of governance, which could have been recognized in principle without endorsing any prudential judgments made by that governance. But in 1985 the very fact that the Vatican still had no formal diplomatic relations with Israel made such a distinction almost impossible.

Most importantly in terms of my argument for a nascent Catholic Zionism, this section of the commission’s 1985 Notes clearly indicated that the continuation of the Jewish people in the land was part of “God’s design”; repudiated the Augustinian tradition that the Jews have been punished by dispersion to serve Christian purposes; and implicitly indicated that permanent dispersion was not part of God’s design:

The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God’s design. We must in any case rid ourselves of the traditional idea of a people punished, preserved as a living argument for Christian apologetic. It remains a chosen people.

In official Catholic documents, any critique of ancient theological traditions (“we must in any case rid ourselves of the traditional idea,” etc.) is quite unusual. It is thus worth noting that by 2015, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the same commission would produce a document that once again would explicitly criticize traditions that it acknowledged to be at the heart of the Church’s own theological culture:

On the part of many of the Church Fathers the so-called replacement theory or supersessionism steadily gained favor until in the Middle Ages it represented the standard theological foundation of the relationship with Judaism.

To come upon critiques of the “Fathers” and the “Middle Ages” may not be so uncommon in certain Protestant documents; in Catholic documents, it is still startling—and another sign of the strength of this incipient strain in Catholic thought.


The second document in this same strain, an address by John Paul II to a Jewish audience in Brasilia, dates from 1991. Quoting Ezekiel 34:13 on the ingathering of the exiles, the pope offered a prayer for the people and state of Israel:

May our Jewish brothers and sisters, who have been led “out from among the peoples and gathered from the foreign lands” and brought back “to their own country,” to the land of their ancestors, be able to live there in peace and security on the “mountains of Israel,” guarded by the protection of God, their true shepherd.

Popes have authority to teach the Catholic worldview, not to parrot what their audiences might believe or wish to hear. In this statement, the pope was interpreting a historical event in 1948—the creation of a new state—as a theological event, without at the same time underwriting its “political options” or actions. By recognizing the religious significance of the ingathering of the Jewish people to their land, he was putting into place another piece of minimalist Catholic Zionism.

By recognizing the religious significance of the ingathering of the Jewish people to their land, the pope was putting into place another piece of minimalist Catholic Zionism.

The third piece: in 1993, as mentioned earlier, the Vatican sealed a legal and diplomatic Agreement with Israel, as it has done with many countries before and after. The 1993 agreement, a kind of treaty, followed immediately upon the 1993 peace accords signed in Washington by Yitzḥak Rabin and Yasir Arafat. The Vatican had intended to conclude a similar agreement with the Palestinians, but the emergence of the Palestinian Authority and the deep turmoil within and around its leadership delayed that matter for years.

Note, however, the discreet theological underpinnings in the preamble to the 1993 agreement with Israel, which affirms the encompassing religious dimension of Catholic-Jewish relations:

Aware of the unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews. . . .

Language like this is not to be found in any other Vatican diplomatic agreement. In the 1985 edition of Notes, the Vatican had wanted to disentangle “the Jewish people” from “the state.” Here, just eight years later, it recognizes that this disentanglement is not entirely possible or desirable. As Msgr. Claudio Maria Celli, undersecretary for foreign affairs, remarked in his official speech, the agreement must be “acknowledged to have a fundamental religious and spiritual significance—not only for the Holy See and the state of Israel but for millions of people”—that is, for millions of Catholics and Jews—“throughout the world.”

The fourth piece of the puzzle fell into place with The Jewish Scriptures in the Christian Bible, a 2001 report by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. This commission is made up of expert biblical scholars and is presided over by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

In sections 56-57, two crucial moves were made. First, the commission said that the New Testament did not invalidate the specific promises made to the Jewish people regarding the land of Israel. It acknowledged that in some areas of theology, such as whether the Jewish messiah had arrived, there were irreconcilable differences between the two communities. But it made very clear that many of these differences arose from different interpretative starting points, not from blindness, stubbornness, or other alleged characteristics that had been historically imputed to the Jewish people.

Second, the commission saw the Hebrew Bible’s land promises as enduring—as is the nature of all of God’s promises—while also contingent on the moral and religious behavior of the people who were destined to become a light to the nations. It acknowledged, however, that the working-out of the existing people’s calling within the land would inevitably take time and be fraught with difficulties. As the Bible testifies, this has never been an immediate or straight-line process. Finally, it addressed the question of the biblical stipulation to the Israelites entering the land to destroy the enemies resident there. While in principle criticizing aggressive violence yoked to religious purposes, the commission linked this particular teaching to its historical context.

The Biblical Commission’s mandate was limited to reading biblical texts. It was not asked to apply these texts to modern history, and especially not to the events of 1948 surrounding Israel’s coming into being as an independent state. But in effect the commission provided the biblical grounding that had been missing from previous perspectives supportive of an emerging Zionist teaching, and thereby gave essential ballast to any Catholic position on the matter.


VI. Will the Church Say it Aloud?


Put these four parts of the jigsaw puzzle together and you have the basis of Catholic Zionism. An integrated case is there to be made, and it can be made persuasively.

Will the Catholic form of Zionism ever be publicly taught by the Church? I think it will be. Catholics need to inspect their history and ask themselves whether they should choose silence or instead be faithful to biblical truth, to the promises made to Israel. The only question is when that might happen.

So let me finish with a speculation. If the Israel-Palestinian dispute were to be resolved tomorrow, with the full agreement of both parties and with international support, I believe official Catholic Zionism would emerge quite quickly. In 1964-65, the forces arrayed against the Catholic Church’s speaking out positively about the Jewish people seemed destined to prevent anything like Nostra Aetate. The Catholic Church found a way forward; it could do so again.

After all, Catholics believe in miracles—officially.

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