In 1904, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was granted an audience with Pope St. Pius X. His purpose in meeting with the Pope was to gain support for the founding of a Jewish state in what was then known as Palestine. As Herzl recorded in his diary, the Pope gave an unfavorable response, saying: “We are unable to favor this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem – but we could never sanction it. The ground of Jerusalem, if it were not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the head of the Church, I cannot answer you otherwise. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. And so if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize
all of you." ( This response might smack of “anti-Semitism” to modern ears, which are ultra-sensitive to criticisms of Zionism. However, as Catholics, we should give deep consideration to the theological and moral implications of the words of this pope-saint. While many Protestant groups are now giving wholesale support of Zionism, Catholics must recognize the inherent dangers to their faith that Zionism presents.
First of all, as Catholics, we must recognize that the Catholic Church is the New Israel. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing the Vatican II decree entitled Ad Gentes, refers to the Church in this way, stating, “Jesus instituted the Twelve as ‘the seeds of the new Israel and the beginning of the sacred hierarchy’” (paragraph 877). Likewise, in his first epistle, St. Peter applies terms formerly reserved for the Jewish people to the followers of Christ, thus explicitly pointing out the Church’s place as the New Israel: “you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2:9). Clearly, we can see that it has been the traditional Catholic understanding that this title, “New Israel,” belongs to the Church. Implicitly, the Jewish people are no longer “the chosen people” or the “most beloved children of God.” To confirm this, the temple of Jerusalem was providentially destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD. This essentially destroyed the old Israel as a nation, because without a temple, it could no longer offer sacrifices to please God.
Today, there are even some Jews who recognize that the diaspora, or dispersion of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, was a divine punishment for their apostasy. Groups such as the Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist movement of orthodox Jews, profess a belief that the Jewish people have no right to the land of Israel, given to them by the generosity of God in the Old Testament, because they were not faithful to God’s covenant. This was the general understanding of Catholics at the beginning of the 20th century, as well. On the Neturei Karta website, they state, “The Creator gave us the Holy Land thousands of years ago. Yet, when we sinned, He took it away and sent us into exile. Since that time our task is to wait for Him to send the Messiah. At that time, the Creator alone, without any human being lifting a hand or saying a word, will bring us together and take us out of exile.” Also on their website, one may find pictures of orthodox Jews, complete with traditional locks and long beards, standing at protests burning Israeli flags and holding signs with slogans like “Judaism Rejects Zionism” and “We are against ‘Israel’ because we are Jews.” Arguing that Zionism is a novel idea without precedent in Jewish tradition until the end of the 19th century, these anti-Zionist orthodox Jews hold that all Jews had this understanding of the diaspora previous to the modern manifestations of Zionism.
The Neturei Karta and other orthodox anti-Zionist Jews make an observation that all Catholics and Protestants should also make: the modern state of “Israel” has no right to the name “Israel.” The name “Israel” was given to the land promised to the descendents of Abraham. It is a name that represents the Old Testament covenant between God and the Jews, so it has a clear connotation of religious obligation. However, at the root of modern Zionism is the idea that the Jews, religious or not, have a right to the land once called Israel. This is an idea that does not hold water in orthodox Judaism or traditional Catholicism. The modern Zionist state is secular in nature, only giving lip service to religious observations. It turns Judaism into a matter of race and culture rather than religion. In fact, anti-Zionist Jews claim that the majority of Zionist Jews are atheists. Thus, to call the modern Zionist state, which does not hold the essence of ancient Israel (i.e. the covenant with God), by the name of “Israel” is to mock both Judaism and Christianity. To accept its use of the name “Israel” would be like conceding to a pretender the crown of a rightful heir.
For the majority of the modern Israeli state’s short history, the Vatican did not maintain formal diplomatic relations with the Israeli government, nor did it even recognize its right to exist. The reasons behind this are unclear, but on December 30, 1993, the Vatican reversed this policy and formally recognized Israel, opening diplomatic relations. This decision seemed to fly in the face of what Pope St. Pius X told Theodor Herzl 89 years earlier. How could the Church, which represents Christ, give consent to the existence of a state that bases itself on the premise that the Jews are still “the chosen people” with a right to the land of Israel, despite their apostasy and failure to accept the Messiah? Such an act seems to give assent to the false idea that Jews do not have to convert and recognize Christ as the Messiah (an idea that has been popular among some high-ranking Church prelates).
Regardless of the prudence of this decision, the Vatican has consistently remained critical of Israel’s repressive policies towards Palestinians (both Muslim and Christian). This is an absolutely necessary measure, because the Church, as the ultimate moral authority on earth, must maintain its moral credibility. If the Vatican is going to accept Israel’s right to exist, it must at least hold Israel to the same moral standards that it holds any other Western country.
While the Vatican has been openly critical of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians, it seems that some American Catholics, who have been tainted by the pro-Zionist political influences that dominate American politics, would have us overlook the injustices committed by the Israeli government. George Weigel, a prominent Catholic political commentator, is a prime example. Weigel has consistently lauded the Vatican’s efforts at dialogue with Israel, while rarely, if ever, acknowledging the rights of Christian and Muslim Palestinians to dwell there. In fact, Weigel was a co-signer of a pro-Israel statement that appeared as an advertisement in the New York Times on March 17, 1996. The advertisement was entitled “We stand with Israel.” Summarized, the statement expressed support for Israelis made victims of Palestinian violence. However, the statement made no mention of the manifold, internationally-recognized acts of violence and human rights violations made by the Israelis against the Palestinians. It thereby gave the illusion that Israelis are the only victims of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is most disturbing is that two American bishops and four archbishops also allowed their names to appear on the statement. Such actions do incredible harm to the moral credibility of the Church, especially in the eyes of those who know the details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Because of Israel’s heavy influence on world politics, Catholics must be prudent in their approach to the question of Zionism. In a time when most Europeans see Israel as a threat to world peace , American Catholics, in particular, need to be cautious about allowing “national policy” to be their moral compass in matters of international politics. For the sake of the one true faith, Catholics must not come down on the side of injustice, irreligion, and apostasy.
(For more on George Weigel see my letter to the Arlington Catholic Herald.) ed.
December 6, 2003
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