Can Traditionalist Catholics Really Accept Catholic Zionism?

To embrace such a development will require them to put aside centuries of theological doctrine. Will they prove able to do so? Should they?

Pope Francis in Jerusalem in 2014. Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Pope Francis in Jerusalem in 2014. Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Sept. 23 2019
About the author

Kevin Madigan is the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the Harvard Divinity School.



How might a traditional Catholic respond to Gavin D’Costa’s essay in Mosaic describing and advocating a specifically Catholic form of Zionism? In what follows, I’d like to explore and answer that question by imagining, but hardly fantasizing, such a Catholic. Let’s call him T.

Though a traditionalist, T. is not a member of a reactionary or breakaway sect. He belongs to a Catholic church in communion with Rome. Demographically, he is in some ways like D’Costa (or me). Born or raised Catholic in 1950s and 60s America, he was educated in parochial elementary schools and at St. Thomas Academy, a Dominican secondary school. In the aftermath of Vatican II, Catholic high-school education typically included three to four years of Latin, which T. pursued while also studying theology in preparation for a possible entry into the priesthood. Today, long decades after leaving the seminary to marry, launch a career in the law, and begin a family, he remembers, imperfectly, the sounds and murmurs of the traditional Latin mass even as he attends English mass in his parish church almost every Sunday.

T. is a member not only of his city’s large Catholic Lawyers’ Association but also of the Secular Franciscan Order composed of lay people and priests. Friendly with his parish chapter of the philanthropic Knights of Columbus—which his six children make fun of as a hopelessly superannuated old boys’ club—he is no longer an affiliate. As a volunteer teacher for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, he has taken some of his secondary-school students—as he did his own children decades earlier—to Rome and the great medieval cathedral cities of France. He is now nearing retirement from the Catholic hospital he has long served as vice-president. His life, in short, is permeated with his faith.

Enter now R., a friend with whom T. has shared D’Costa’s essay. R., a high-school theology teacher at St. Thomas, is sympathetic with T. but more liberal, and occasionally taken aback by how traditional T. remains—how conservative, R. thinks, and sometimes even reactionary. In order to memorialize their conversations, along with his own reflections on D’Costa’s proposal, R. has composed a report. Reproduced below, it presents, in italics, quotations from D’Costa’s essay followed by T.’s reactions and, in parentheses (like these), R.’s own comments.


R.’s Report


Gavin D’Costa writes that Nostra Aetate, the 1965 document produced by the Second Vatican Council on the Church’s relations with other world religions, Section 4 of which is on the Jewish people, formally renounced the charge of deicide.

But T.—precisely because he embraces the tradition—understands, and remembers his priests maintaining, that Jews remain collectively guilty of deicide. Was it not for this sin that they were cursed and rejected by God? By the hand of Providence, so the Dominicans had taught him, the Temple was destroyed, and Jews routed from Judea, to which land, in the form of the modern state of Israel, their descendants today have no claim or right. Apostasy, failure to recognize Jesus as messiah, killing the Christ: these ancient sins deprived them of the land permanently. T. is not happy about this, but it is Catholic Truth, with a capital T; no individual or culture can bargain away this sort of truth, which is divinely revealed through the scriptures and magisterial teaching.

(R.: Those sympathetic with D’Costa, like me, recognize the position voiced by T. as classical Christian supersessionism or “replacement theology.” In repudiating, as do I, this doctrine of divine rejection and human contempt, D’Costa bases himself not only on modern conciliar and papal pronouncements but also on the teaching’s pernicious historical effects. But, for T., that teaching simply is the gospel, the crux of the wholly new message of Jesus, the heart of Catholicism, the point and pith of Christianity. Indeed, T. remembers one of his Dominican instructors saying that to accept anything like Catholic Zionism was “to concede validity to a religion [Judaism] made invalid by Christ.” T. winced as he recited these words, but he let them hang silently in the air.)


Supersessionism, according to D’Costa, has itself become officially invalid.

These sorts of statements by D’Costa (R.: I confess they sound oracular to me) once again challenge T.’s fundamental understanding of what the gospel teaches—and what the Christian religion is. Having abolished the Old Law, Jesus, the apostles, and their episcopal successors taught the New Law. The Law of Christ superseded the Law of Moses; the new covenant replaced the old, the gospel the law, the church the synagogue. Israel lost the promises of the covenant, which had been taken from Old Israel and given to the New and True Israel. The Israelites and their descendants had forsaken their favored position, as Esau forfeited his to Jacob, and lost it because of their rejection of Jesus as messiah.

“OK,” T. said. “Replacement theology has officially been declared invalid. But it has also been officially declared valid.” That is, Vatican II declared it invalid; but papal teaching for centuries had declared it valid. T. thought Pope Pius X’s peremptory response, quoted by D’Costa, to Theodor Herzl’s 1904 request for Vatican support—“The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people”—was heartless. Yet the pope was quite right: it represented authoritative ecclesiastical teaching expressed elsewhere by many popes, several ancient councils, and countless church spokesmen. (R.: I silently and reluctantly observed that the current Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches something rather like it.)

D’Costa’s assertion of the “official” invalidity of supersessionism, T. argued, “expresses a position that assumes what needs to be argued and proved.” “If two conciliar canons conflict,” he continued, “which is authoritative? The later rather than the earlier? What are the norms, internal to Catholicism, that allow you to favor one rather than another? Is this cafeteria Catholicism? I suspect it is.”

(R.: If T. was a bit wooden theologically, his legal education had left him alert to textual contradictions; it was not obvious to him how two contradictory papal pronouncements could both be true. His instinct was to believe that the earlier teaching was. Antiquity counts in religion. T. grasped that—and felt it.)

“And what if,” T. asked, “a pope in the 22nd century were to resurrect replacement theology?” Hadn’t popes before Pope John Paul II spoken infallibly on the issue?

(R.: Without knowing it, T. had grasped something about the origins of papal infallibility and why popes have both claimed and feared it. An idea essentially invented in the high Middle Ages, it was conceived by Franciscan theologians who hoped to tie the hands of future popes—that is, to make it impossible for any pontiff to revise Franciscan self-understanding. In fact, that is exactly what popes would do just years after Saint Francis died in 1226.

(Historically speaking, in my view, the teaching of Vatican II, while not wholly novel, was effectively revolutionary. Indeed, in traditionalist eyes like T.’s, this is its central problem, and also precisely why T. struggled with Cardinal Kirk Koch’s recent celebration of Nostra Aetate as a “fundamental re-orientation.” Let me express T.’s thinking in my own words. The Church cannot—does not have the power, philosophically speaking—to change objective truth; no man, and no institution does. Nor can it modify or defy documents, like the teaching of the First Vatican Council, a century earlier than the Second, that bound Catholics to honor sacred teaching “in the same meaning and the same explanation” with which the Church had putatively always communicated it. Whether or not a traditionalist is aware of it, this view assumes that dogma cannot essentially change or evolve over time. Indeed, T. believes a doctrine that does change is a false doctrine. Theologically, for him, the church is not a house of many mansions; it’s more like a carefully vetted gated community.)

T. pulled an old pamphlet from a desk file. Titled “Tradition Traduced,” it was put out by an organization tied to the Knights of Columbus, where T. had received it. He read out loud: “Vatican II produced essentially flawed documents and faulty teaching, none more so than Nostra Aetate; it, or the teaching that it expresses, represents a rupture with two millennia of church teaching. As [the French Jewish historian] Lazare Landau observed, ‘the Church’s teaching ha[d] indeed undergone a total change.’” (R.: T. did not appreciate that anti-Zionist Catholics could exploit the fact of Jewish enthusiasm for this “total change” to advance their own purposes.)


The New Testament did not invalidate the specific promises made to the Jewish people regarding the land of Israel. Over the years, T. has remedied his superficial seminary education in Bible by devotional reading. In his view, the apostle Paul laid the biblical foundations for what would later become supersessionist theology. He opened his Bible to Paul’s letters (1 Thessalonians 2:14). Jews “both killed the Lord Jesus . . . and have persecuted us . . . and are adversaries to all mankind.” He paraphrased an early verse in Acts addressed to the Jews (2:23): “This man [Jesus], delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.”

In light of such texts, T. had some difficulty with a Vatican commission’s statement, cited by D’Costa, suggesting that Christian and Jewish differences over the meaning of certain biblical texts were rooted in different interpretative starting points, not [in Jewish] blindness, stubbornness, or other alleged characteristics that had been historically imputed to the Jewish people. “So, both are equally valid?” he asked. (R.: I conceded his point that the Vatican statement was intellectually weak, a bit lazy).

With [the Jews], we [Catholics] believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept His revealed word.

“Jews and Catholics do not worship the same God,” said T. in response to this statement by D’Costa. “Nor” he emphasized, “do they read the same Bible.” (R.: This hard truth, I confessed, articulated forcefully from the Jewish side by the Bible scholar Jon D. Levenson, has rarely been taken as seriously as it should be.)

T. read from the “Tradition Traduced” pamphlet: “In an effort to be ecumenical, the conciliar and post-conciliar Church has ceased to be ‘truly apostolic . . . and Catholic.’” (R.: Indeed, in that ecumenical effort the Church not only confuses truth and error. It equalizes Jewish and Catholic truth and thus falls into a quintessentially modern and insidious form of religious promiscuity, one denounced by popes as “indifferentism.” T.’s conclusion was simple, emphatic, and, as a matter of history, right. Nostra Aetate opened the door “to a new theology unheard of in Church history.” Emphasis his.

(It was a rupture; it was essentially unheard of: inaudita, an adjective favored by Latin clerics for more than a millennium to dismiss thoughts with which they disagreed. T. grasped my imperfect effort to explain then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s distinction between a hermeneutic of rupture and a hermeneutic of continuity, but it left him dissatisfied. Whether it be scripture, conciliar teaching, or papal pronouncement, he wished to know which was true. As a matter of logic, they could not both be.)

The Church is still home to over a billion souls, and what she thinks and says matters. Here T. agreed with D’Costa. But which pope “speaks for ‘the Church’”? —an abstraction, T. observed, if ever there was one. (R.: I recalled a hyper-scholastic question from a graduate seminary: “What are the controls on unlimited revision of Church teaching?” It confounded me then, and still does.)

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