Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In 1965, in Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable. Lumen Gentium had done the same the year before, concurring with what St. Paul says about biblical Judaism in Romans 11:29 (“For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable”). In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II identified biblical Judaism with post-biblical Rabbinic Judaism. The Catholic Church thus sees contemporary Judaism as remaining in a covenant relationship with God: heir to the gifts, promises, and callings of God.

Many open questions remain, however. How is it that Judaism, long thought to have been invalidated by the coming of Christ, is now considered valid? Then, the very concept of ­Judaism is large and complicated. Reform, Conservative, Liberal, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox: Which best represents “Judaism”? Christian doctrine teaches that the promise of the messiah is realized in Jesus, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was right in saying that this central Christian affirmation need not cast doubt on the validity of the Jewish covenant. But what this means isn’t always clear.

Political tensions linger as well. The most prominent concerns Zionism. What is the status of the land promised to Israel in the Bible? More than two-thirds of the biblical mentions of the covenant are explicitly linked to the promise of the land. Is that gift still valid? Middle Eastern conflict makes the question perilous to answer. Yet as Catholics we must venture an answer, as I propose to do, albeit tentatively.

First we must consider God’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12, 15, 17). Key figures, including Moses, never enter the land. They are hardly less Jewish for it. The people exist first; Israel is a nation before it becomes a place. Moreover, the boundaries of the land are not stable. It is a large area in Genesis 15:18–21, and smaller in the ­various accounts of Deuteronomy 1:7, 7:22, and 11:24; Numbers 34:1–15; Ezekiel 47:13–20; and Exodus 23:28–29. Scholars dispute whether these boundaries are determined by God or by historical context and political conditions. Thus, whatever we say theologically about the land of Israel, we must not imagine that we can establish modern borders on the basis of biblical texts.

Our reticence is supported by the story of Abram and Lot. In Genesis 13:5–13, a dispute over the land arises between them. In order to resolve it amicably, Abram offers Lot first choice of territory. Lot chooses the finest portion and Abram is content. Peace and justice have been restored, at a cost to Abram. Some portion of what God gives may need to be sacrificed for the sake of God’s ideal of peace. We may perhaps see the strong peace initiatives taken by earlier Israeli governments as conforming with the spirit of this story. Certainly, the story reflects the Bible’s broader concern for the stranger in the land, which is expressed more than thirty times in the Old Testament. These expressions are often accompanied by an account of why this solicitude is so important: “You know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Borders matter, but so do the needs of the stranger. Palestinians are not strangers in the land of Israel, but a biblically informed Catholic Zionism, when it thinks theologically about their predicament, should include a commitment to hospitality.

God’s gift of the land to Israel requires moral and cultic purity (Lev. 18:24–8; Deut. 28:15–68; Num. 35:34; Josh. 24:14–24). Moral purity requires treating the stranger justly, a duty God’s chosen people often fail to uphold. Yet they remain God’s elect. Modern Israel can be part of God’s plan even though it is, like any nation, far from pure, cultically or morally. Imagine judging the Catholic Church by the criteria of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which describes the Church as the “spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb.” The failure of the Church to live up to that high standard does not mean we should reject Catholicism. By analogy, just because modern Israel can be criticized does not mean we should not be Catholic Zionists.

The unconditional gift of the election of the Jewish people is the theological foundation of Catholic Zionism. But this affirmation must not become a cause for complacency. Leviticus 18:28 contains a stark warning: “If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” Catholic Zionists should resist the eschatological confidence of many Protestants who imagine the State of Israel as the fulfillment of prophecies about the end times. Modern Israel may, alas, be “vomited” from the land. One hopes and prays not. But we must acknowledge that there is a dramatic and tragic element in our waiting for Christ’s return in glory, when Israel will become a light unto the nations.

In the New Testament, the Church is never called the “New Israel.” The eighty usages of “Israel” ­usually refer to the Jewish people, their polity, or the land. For St. Augustine, Israel “after the flesh” was expelled from the land as punishment for its rejection of Jesus Christ. The exile and wanderings of the Jewish people served God’s providential purpose of advertising the Scripture that would lead the nations to Christ. But the Church had become the sole ­recipient of God’s promises.

In the modern era, close attention to key New Testament themes has led the Church to reject this supersessionist view and reconsider the proper disposition of Catholics toward the Jewish people, and toward the establishment in 1948 of a Jewish state. Many New Testament texts support the notion that Catholics should endorse ­Zionism. Jesus himself was a Jewish Christian ­Zionist. The Gospels situate his ministry in relation to the land, both at the beginning and at the end. The birth narratives enact the people’s exile in Egypt followed by the Holy Family’s return to the land from Egypt (Matt. 2:13–23). During his ministry, Jesus never leaves the land. He is concerned with Israel, his people (Matt. 15:22–28). He leaves the task of going “to the ends of the earth” to the Church gathered around him after the resurrection. The Church’s mission conforms to expectations regarding the Jewish messiah. Christ makes Israel—the people and the land—a light to the nations so that all will worship Israel’s God. 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.

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. 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. But many of Jesus’s teachings link the Jews to the land of Israel. Take, for instance: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Many biblical scholars argue that this verse is better rendered: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” Matthew was drawing on Psalm 37:11, wherein the Hebrew ‘erets refers to the land of Israel, not to the world. Other verses in Psalm 37 repeat the phrase “inherit the land.” The land of Israel is the clear referent.

After the resurrection, in Acts 1:6–8, Jesus affirms the restoration of the “kingdom to Israel.” Any Jewish listener would know that his reference here is to the land. Jesus is not the only one to focus on land. St. Paul cites the gift of the land in Acts 13:19 as one of God’s mighty acts culminating (but not concluding) in Jesus Christ. The same Paul calls these acts “irrevocable” in Romans 11:29, and as the Old Testament makes clear, one of these acts is the gift of the land. These and many other passages point to one thing: The 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.

True, some New Testament references seem to cut against this emphasis on the particularity of the land. For example, the temple is identified as the risen body of Christ, which is located wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. Yet it has been a fundamental dogmatic affirmation of the Church that Christian universalism is grounded in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. And just as Jesus Christ remains central in his particularity, so do the land and the Jewish people, both of which shaped his earthly life.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission affirmed the promise of the land in 2001. It acknowledged differing traditions regarding the significance of the land in the New Testament but concluded that none of these traditions negates the promises of the Old Testament. The Commission maintained: “It should not be forgotten . . . that a specific land was promised by God to Israel and received as a heritage.” The Catholic Zionism I am proposing affirms that promise and recognizes the providential importance of the establishment of the State of Israel.

A responsible Catholic Zionist, however, must balance affirmation with the justice that is demanded in the Bible, thundering through the Old and New Testaments. Palestinian Christians write about the cost of exile and their loss of land. Discerning how to address those concerns in ways consistent with Jewish return remains difficult. A Catholic Zionist acknowledges the limitations imposed by harsh ­political realities. But Palestinian concerns cannot be dismissed.

Then there is the thorny matter of the nation-­state. Some Christian Zionists, such as Pat Robertson, say, in effect: “If you oppose the State of Israel, you oppose God.” This collapses into a single concept the Jewish people, the promised land, and the modern nation-state of Israel, a conflation without historical or theological warrant.

Historically, Zionism did not advance a single view of the nation-state. Mainstream Zionist leaders including Leon Pinsker, Vladimir Jabotinsky, ­Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, and David Ben-­Gurion envisioned the future Jewish state in Palestine as either binational or part of a larger multinational framework. Since 1948, Zionists have told a different, more teleological story that culminates in the State of Israel as we now know it. Nevertheless, many contemporary Jewish Zionists, left and right, are sharply critical of the actions of the Jewish state. There is no question that there must be some form of governance for Jewish people in the land of Israel. This is the biblical vision. But a Catholic Zionist need not be committed to the claim that this form of governance must be the nation-state as currently configured.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI took up the issue of the nation-state in 2018: “A strictly theologically-­understood state—a Jewish faith-state [Glaubenstaat] that would view itself as the theological and political fulfillment of the promises—is unthinkable within history according to Christian faith and contrary to the Christian understanding of the promises.” That is, Catholicism withholds any eschatological endorsements of the State of Israel. Benedict 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. Within a Christian frame of reference, the nation-state cannot “fulfill” God’s promises. For Christians, Jesus is the fulfillment in the “already” of his death and resurrection and the “not yet” of his second coming. Nevertheless, ­Benedict continues, a biblically informed way of thinking can, indeed, recognize that the State of Israel “expresses God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel.”

My Catholic Zionism follows this line of theological analysis. It affirms that the Jewish people rightly seek a form of governance suited to their well-being in the land of Israel, though what that form should be is a matter of legitimate debate. 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. This tentative stance toward the State of Israel does not mean ambivalence or lack of support when Israel’s existence is threatened. Drawing upon the moral resources of the Catholic tradition, a Catholic Zionist can engage controverted questions of politics and policy in contemporary Israel with an attitude of affirmation. Catholic social doctrine favors ­democracies—and the present mode of governance in Israel makes it one of the few democracies in the region.

Catholic Zionism differs from the forms of Protestant Zionism that require a literalist exegesis of Revelation 20:2, which describes a thousand-year period of Messianic rule during which Satan is “bound” and his power restrained. Catholic Zionism does not see the creation of Israel in 1948 as inaugurating the end times. The death and resurrection of Jesus did that. Catholic Zionism does not support an “apocalyptic” showdown in the Middle East. Nor does it partake of the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, or anti-Palestinian sentiments sometimes found among Christian Zionists. Finally and most importantly, the Catholic Zionism I endorse supports the right of Palestinians to their sovereignty and ­self-determination, regardless of the failings and bad faith of some ­Palestinian leaders.

Catholic Zionism shares one central feature of Protestant Zionism, however: It affirms that the promise made to Abraham in Genesis matters in our time. 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. A maximalist Zionist view, to be found among some Protestant groups, speaks of the borders of “Greater Israel” and concludes that in no part of that territory may sovereignty be shared with Palestinians. It tends to the deification of the present State of Israel as the executor and shape of God’s plan, and claims that the eschaton started in 1948. A more modest Zionism says otherwise. The borders of Israel, its form of government, and the place of the Palestinian people and their political autonomy within the land remain open questions. These questions must be answered prudently, justly, and peaceably.

Developing a consensus about Catholic Zionism will not be easy. Some will worry that any Zionism necessarily tends toward Protestant Zionism. A Catholic Zionism, even of the minimal sort, will be resisted by many Muslims and some Middle Eastern Catholics and Christians. It is also 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. But more importantly, though the Church must be concerned for the safety of Christian communities in Muslim countries, it cannot be silent about the gospel promise of new life in Christ, which, as St. Paul teaches, relies upon the trustworthiness of God as manifest in the irrevocable promises to the people of Israel, promises that include the land.

Catholic Zionism lacks the full-throated endorsements of the State of Israel that characterize many forms of Protestant Zionism. But this “agnosticism” on eschatology need not entail an agnosticism about the creation of modern Israel. As a Catholic, I find strong theological warrants for affirming the establishment of the State of Israel as a safe place for the Jewish people. The existence of the Jewish state is a sign of God’s fidelity to his people, and it secures the land in which they may live justly according to the Torah. 

Gavin D’Costa is author, most recently, of Catholic Doctrines on the Jewish People after Vatican II.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.