In a recently published book, Sergio I. Minerbi, formerly of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaks of the Catholic Church as “the chief opponent” of the Zionist movement past and present, and he identifies “the real reasons underlying” this “hostility” as “immutable theological positions” (The Vatican and Zionism: Conflict in the Holy Land 1895-1925, Oxford). Minerbi offers no sustained argument for this viewpoint—indeed, he makes no theological analysis of Catholic doctrine—but simply presumes it as self-evident.
Yet in 1987 the Holy See, at a meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, stated categorically that “there exist no theological barriers” to improved relations between itself and the State of Israel, though it conceded that there are serious diplomatic and historical difficulties still to be overcome. Is the Vatican deceiving itself and others on this question? My own studies of relevant Catholic teaching both historically and in the present suggest that while the ancient Christian “teaching of contempt” toward Jews and Judaism may have had an influence early on in the reactions of the Holy See to, for example, Herzl's initial plea for public support of Zionism, such considerations were never really at the heart of official Catholic attitudes. They were in any case soon outweighed by more pragmatic considerations, as the Holy See attempted to influence the course first of the British Mandate and then of the UN partition plan in a way protective of the rights both of access to the holy places and of the Christian minorities of the Middle East.
Indeed, a recent comprehensive analysis of the diplomatic maneuverings and public positions of the Holy See from the end of the nineteenth century to the present, Andrej Kreutz' Vatican Policy on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Greenwood Press, 1990) comes to this same conclusion. Although he, like Minerbi, notes a “hostility” to certain elements of Zionist aspirations, Kreutz acknowledges that “the Vatican's lack of official objection to the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine greatly influenced various Catholic countries in their political support for the partition plan” in 1947. It was precisely the votes of Catholic, especially Latin American, countries that put the UN vote over the top and made possible the creation of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel for the first time in almost two millennia. Thus when the Holy See had its most opportune moment (had it so wished) to oppose Zionism actively, it did not. Rather, it acted discreetly but decisively to facilitate the culmination of the Zionist dream.
Kreutz does note, quite correctly, that the element .of the UN's partition plan that seems most strongly to have produced this “friendly” response by the Holy See to the idea of a Jewish State was the proposal, never implemented, to internationalize the city of Jerusalem. Even today, as both Kreutz and Minerbi report, the Holy See does not consider the disposition of the city to be fully resolved, and it deeply desires a say, within the framework of international law, in that negotiated resolution, no matter who holds actual sovereignty over the city.
So there remain difficulties in Vatican-Israeli relations, but ones that can be overcome through creative negotiation insofar as the Holy See is concerned. The bottom line is that the Holy See is and always has been open to such compromises in working out the difficulties. Were its policies based on “immutable” theological doctrines, no compromise would be possible. Catholic doctrine, by its nature, cannot be compromised by the Church whose very essence lies in its mission to proclaim its truths.
There can be no question of “unproclaimed” or hidden doctrines of the Church—such as Minerbi appears to have in mind—lying behind Vatican policy. On issues of doctrine, what you see is what you get. The Holy See has no objections in principle, theological or otherwise, to the existence of a Jewish State in or Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land. But it does have an enormous stake both in terms of its own self-interest and as a matter of moral principle both in the holy places and, as Kreutz rightly emphasizes, in the Christian communities of the Holy Land as living witness to the events of salvation history that took place there. These motivations alone, to apply Ockham's razor to the question, are more than sufficient to explain the public postures and private initiatives of the Holy See with regard to the Middle East.
Throughout this century, as both Minerbi's and Kreutz' studies make clear, these motivations have remained remarkably consistent, whether the individual Popes, such as Benedict XV or John Paul II, personally favored the aspirations of the Jewish people or, as in the case of Paul VI (at least according to Kreutz), those of the Palestinians. While Minerbi and Kreutz—one an Israeli, the other a Catholic with rather obvious sympathies toward the Palestinians—differ in their interpretive stances, they tell essentially the same story. The Holy See recognizes and acknowledges the full rights of the Jewish people to sovereignty and statehood. At the same time, it urges the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people, many of whom are Christians, to self-determination. Therefore, the disputed territories, Jerusalem not the least among them, need to have their status resolved through negotiations leading to binding international law. The outcome should recognize the religious freedom and rights of all three monotheistic traditions indigenous to the area: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
This, I submit, is an eminently reasonable posture (being, it might be noted, virtually the same as that of the U.S. government). Within it, one can condemn, as the Popes have consistently done, Palestinian terrorism without rejecting the legitimacy of Palestinian peoplehood, even as one can condemn Israeli heavy-handedness in the administration of the territories without rejecting the validity of the Jewish State or its necessity as a place of security for the Jewish people.
One does not need to invent, as Minerbi and others attempt to do, some esoteric Catholic doctrine to explain or understand why the Holy See has done what it has over the years. Such exercises only cloud the real issues. They also, by raising among Jews the false hope that a simple doctrinal adjustment by the Church (rather than real accommodation by Israel to the reality of Palestinian peoplehood) will resolve the issues diplomatically, do a real disservice to the Jewish community both in Israel and here in America.
The good news in all this is that there are no problems in the equation that cannot, in theory, be resolved to the benefit and satisfaction of all parties concerned. The bad news, of course, is that those pragmatic accommodations seem tantalizingly just out of reach.
Eugene J. Fisher is Director for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.