The Catholic Thing
The Holy See, Israel, and Western Culture Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Monday, 26 January 2009

Several observers have noted the change in tone of official Vatican statements on Israel in recent years. Beyond rhetoric, two specific aspects of this pope’s record bode well for improved relations with Israel, building on his predecessor’s success in improving Church relations with the Jewish people. One was Pope Benedict’s speech to the United Nations, where he called for the advancement of human rights based on a universal morality. The pope endorsed the only enduring foundation for human rights, the natural and God-given dignity of the human person. This view of the person grows out of Jewish and Christian thinking and establishes a key historical and cultural link between the Church and the Jewish state.

The second positive aspect is the pope’s shift away from inter-faith dialogue, as a theological search for enough common ground to reduce differences, in favor of an emphasis on inter-cultural dialogue. Jews, religious or secular, reject the belief that Christ was the messiah. Christians are defined by that belief. That irreducible difference has led not just to misunderstanding, but to catastrophe over two millennia. While we can hope not to see a return to forced conversions in Christian (or post-Christian) lands in the near future, and while we can and should emphasize what is common to the faiths and their close relationship, inter-religious dialogue inevitably has limits based on real differences that matter to real people.

But inter-cultural dialogue, in the case of Jews and Christians, becomes a matter of intra-cultural dialogue that can elevate the intellectual and moral common ground which should dominate the relationship between the two faiths, and between Israel and the Church. This dialogue can transcend ephemeral political fashions and mitigate serious concerns on issues from Pope Pius XII to the wording of several sensitive prayers in Catholic liturgies concerning the Jewish people. Even for secular Jews and for secular denizens of historically Christian countries, the cultural connection should be promising. They and we are products of a shared Western culture. The shared culture should be a decisive element in bringing Israel and the Church closer at a time when both would benefit from mutual support against common enemies and for promotion of common ideas of right. Such a dialogue does not exclude Muslims but rather offers a genuine basis for dialogue with them as well, as the success of inter-cultural efforts between Muslim thinkers and the Vatican in the last year attests.

With this cultural and intellectual framework established, 2009 could be a positive year for Israeli-Vatican relations at the practical level. By far, the most important event will be the pope’s projected visit to Israel and the Middle East. If his record in the United States, Australia, and other countries is any indication, his combination of intellectual clarity and authentic human warmth will be both strengthening for his Christian flock in Israel and Palestinian areas, and encouraging for Israelis as they seek support, security, and understanding. It could mark a major step in the cultural dialogue he seems intent on establishing.

To prepare for that visit, successful completion of obscure but important diplomatic agreements would be extremely helpful. In 1993, Israel and the Holy See signed a Fundamental Agreement that established diplomatic relations between the two states. This was a major step forward, but key implementation documents on taxation and property dispute resolution were left for further negotiations. Those negotiations have languished and produced distrust between the two parties. The issues are arcane but important, with the Vatican seeking assurances of legal protection for holy sites and Church property as well as a stable long-term tax status, while Israel wants to fit the Church’s interests into its broader structures of governance on tax and property issues. Each side has grumbled that the other seeks unfair advantage and refuses to compromise. Underlying the protracted impasse is a sense on each side of bad faith on the part of the other, and a suspicion by each that the other does not really accept the legitimacy of its authority in its respective sphere.

Press reports last month noted an accelerated schedule of negotiations early this year, possibly leading to a resolution of these issues by the time of the pope’s visit. Catholics and Jews should applaud this and make it known, loudly, that the United States, which has long supported the negotiations, would welcome such a development. It would remove at the practical level a major source of distrust between Israel and the Vatican, clearing the way for fresh thinking on larger political and cultural questions. It would also be a significant step towards the natural affinity that should mark relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state. And, in combination with the pope’s visit and progress towards intra-cultural cooperation, it would be a bright spot for Israel and the Holy See in 2009.

Joseph Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Brad Miner, January 26, 2009
These are hopeful signs. Too bad then that Richard Williamson, one of the recently reinstated bishops from among the followers of Marcel Lefebvre, is a holocaust denier. I'm not sure what Benedict XVI's thinking on this is, but, whereas it is certainly good to bring the traditionalists back into communinion with Rome, it does nothing for Catholic-Jewish relations when the Church appears to tolerate a bishop who praises "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
written by Kirk Kramer, January 26, 2009
Occasionally even bishops go off their rocker. An archbishop of Hue in Vietnam in the last century, Abp Thuc, went bonkers & caused great embarrassment to the Church. The world is littered with lunatic schimatic bishops consecrated by Thuc when he was not in his right mind. Williamson is nutty as a fruitcake, & just as grave an embarrassment.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters