I am bewildered by the fuss created around Pope Francis’s recognition of the State of Palestine. Vatican City is a sovereign, territorial entity. It is an independent city-state and its head of government is the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope. What makes the Vatican different from other states is both its size (44 acres in area) and its designation as the current physical location for the supreme religious authority of the world’s 1,200 million Catholics. The Holy See is separate from but also central to the Vatican city-state. It is both administration and government – its political and diplomatic infrastructure is based in Vatican City and headed by the Pope. Crucially, what makes the Holy See different from other sovereign entities is that it is the locus for ecclesiastic authority and therefore, for worldwide followers of the Catholic Church.
Once this is understood it is possible to appreciate that the Vatican directs policy but also it is responsible for the way that the worldwide Church is viewed by outsiders. The other side is that it also shapes the way that 1.2 billion Catholics view the rest of humanity.
I can summarise that recent history at least through the following Papal profiles:
Pope Pius XII may or may not have intervened on behalf of Jews and other groups that were persecuted to their deaths by the Nazis during WW2, but what condemns him is his failure to make a loud and consistent vocal objection to the policies of the Nazis. It is futile to now speculate about what may have been; we can only understand the power of that central authority and crucially, that it was not publicly exercised. That failure is a shameful, loathsome, wholly unforgivable ethical silence.
There could never be an excuse for shutting out the cries of the tortured and the murdered, no matter who they were.
Pope Paul VI pushed through Nostra Aetate in late 1965. It passed by a vote of 2,221 bishops in favour of the declaration and was opposed by 88 bishops. It repudiated the charge of Jewish deicide; rejected an attitude of the Church that all Jews were eternally damned and condemned antisemitism in all its guises. It highlighted the bond that Catholic and Jew shared and it rejected Supersessionism, the idea that one faith is made obsolescent by the creation of another. It was this theological justification that fuelled millennia of prejudice and persecution. There has been nothing similar in any of the other churches (Eastern Orthodox or Protestant) that make up another billion adherents of Christian faith and many of which, to this day believe in a toxic and genocidal replacement theology. Nostra Aetate was followed in 1974 and 1985 by further guidance. After almost 1,900 years of Church persecution all this was nothing short of a revolution.
Still, it was only in 1994 that Pope John Paul II established diplomatic relations with Israel. Diplomatic relations was acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Zionism as a right of Jewish expression. In 1903 Theodore Herzl attempted to gain Papal support for the Jewish homeland from Pope Pius X and was refused. In 2014 Pope Francis visited Herzl’s grave.
The Islamic world understands the Vatican because it represents political interests projected through theological power. Most of the Catholic Church’s adherents live in countries with shaky democratic traditions where superstition and prejudice are barely distinguishable from their understanding of the obligations required by their faith. The power of the leader of the church to change attitudes is limited to small, incremental changes adopted over long periods of time.
The papacy took a century to recognize the legitimacy of Zionism. The prejudice of almost two millennia of officially sanctioned church persecution won’t disappear overnight or even over decades. It will take much longer. It seems the State of Israel received nothing aside from Papal recognition while the Catholic Church, with its vast Israeli real estate holdings apparently, now pays no taxes on any of them. Expressing gratitude for an end to being hounded, persecuted and murdered, it would be difficult to eloquently understate just how perverse this idea of being grateful for small mercies really is.
The State of Israel talked up the benefits – it said that a tourism bonanza would follow on from the exchange of treaties. After all, if, as a result of that treaty, Israel were to witness an increase in Catholic tourism to “the Holy Land” of even a half of one-per cent of all Catholics, that would represent a trebling of the record year for inbound tourism to Israel. In fact, for Israel at least, there have been no discernable benefits.
Politically, there is no benefit to be had for the Catholic Church to improve its ties with Israel. The only benefit was the (enormous) financial benefit which Israel, it seems, gave away for nothing tangible in exchange. Vatican policies in this region can have no effect on the lives or safety of Christians in the area but they can damage Christian interests by giving Muslims any excuse to escalate their policy of ethnic cleansing against Christians.
Fear of a backlash against Christian communities in lands with significant Muslim populations has created an atmosphere of appeasement throughout the world. There are numerous examples of Christian communities that have suffered significant persecution because of real or imagined slights against the Muslim faith.
The whole purpose of diplomacy is to represent, protect and where possible, to further, the interests of the state in the conduct of their foreign relationships. Israel has been consistently out-maneuvered throughout its diplomatic history because it has failed to view foreign policy as worthy of investment in either people or funding, or, to view the practice of statecraft as worthy of its long-term attention.
We could argue that befriending Israel would tangibly benefit the Vatican by increasing its influence over Israeli policy but the record of nations in international diplomacy is one of short-sighted (not always lucrative) self-interest and policies pursued in the interest of venal national prejudice and historical chauvinism.
Two events that caused controversy in Israel should not have done. Canonizing two nineteenth century nuns who lived in the Holy Land is a reminder that Christianity may be physically erased from the Muslim world but will be spiritually, eternally remembered, for as long as there are Church followers. It was tokenism. It was concerned with Arab persecution of Christians in the Near East. Second, whether the Pope called President Abbas a “Man of Peace” or not is irrelevant. All the newspapers carried the initial reports that he did and those reports are all that are important. Any subsequent denials serve only to fill space. Pope Francis helped President Abbas to score points against his Hamas rivals in Gaza, and diplomatically, in the media war against Israel.
We may appreciate the pontiffs comments that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel and their right to exist is guilty of anti-Semitism” as reportedly made in conversation with Portuguese-Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman. But what counts is the public profile of comments – what is prominently reported and what is ignored by the mainstream press (because it does not help to support an antisemitic agenda).
Israel has been consistently misrepresented and slandered over decades in the global press using precisely this method of information dissemination. Pope Francis did not publicly protest vicious persecution, torture and murder of Christians in Muslim lands; he is unlikely to highlight Islamic antisemitism. Nor is he going to represent our side against our enemies in his treatment of this international conflict.
It seems that it is not in his interest to do so.