If you wonder why Roman Catholics in the public eye are a little sensitive about the review of the Edgardo Mortara memoir, it may have something do with the Vatican’s not-so-great history with European Jews or the state of Israel. Massimo Faggioli reminded readers of Commonweal of that vexed past:
Rome looks at the anniversary of the State of Israel with a complex perspective very different from that of Evangelical Protestants in the United States. In less than fifty years, the Vatican has moved from opposing the Zionist movement, to a de facto recognition of the State of Israel, to a de iure recognition. In 1947, the Vatican supported UN Resolution 181, which called for the “internationalization” of Jerusalem. In the encyclicals In multiplicibus curis (1948) and Redemptoris nostra (1949), Pius XII expressed his wish that the holy places have “an international character” and appealed for justice for the Palestinian refugees. In its May 15, 1948 issue, the official newspaper of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote that “modern Zionism is not the true heir to the Israel of the Bible, but a secular state…. Therefore the Holy Land and its sacred places belong to Christianity, which is the true Israel.” The description of Christianity as the “true Israel” (verus Israel) is a reminder that it wasn’t until decades after the Shoah that the church fully recognized the connections between supersessionism, theological anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism.
Vatican II helped reconcile Catholicism and Judaism. But the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel remained complicated. During his trip to the Holy Land in Jordan and Israel in January 1964, Paul VI was very careful never to utter the word “Israel,” thus avoiding even the suggestion of recognition. The questions of who should control the Holy Land and whether to recognize the State of Israel were not addressed by Vatican II’s Nostra aetate, whose drafting was closely scrutinized not only by bishops, theologians, and the Vatican Secretariat of State, but also by diplomats, spies, and Arab and Jewish observers. Vatican II ended before the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent occupation of Palestinian territories, which permanently changed the geo-political situation in the Middle East. From then on, Israel was in firm possession of the whole of the Holy Land west of the Jordan River, including all the Christian holy places. This led the Vatican to modify its position in a pragmatic way. In an address to cardinals in December 1967, Paul VI called for a “special statute, internationally guaranteed” for Jerusalem and the Holy Places (rather than internationalization). We cannot know what Vatican II would have said if the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the capture of Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem (and the Old City) had taken place before or during the council. But we do know that Arab states and Arab Catholic bishops and patriarchs at Vatican II were strongly opposed to anything that sounded like a recognition of the State of Israel.
But that is the sort of corner into which you can paint yourself when you are a church with temporal power (that is, the Papal States) and with assumptions that you should be at the “running things” table.
A spiritual as opposed to a political church doesn’t have such worries. Add some amillennialism and you can even free yourself from the evangelical Protestant habit of trying to determine the date of the Lord’s return by monitoring developments in the Middle East. Like the Confession of Faith says (chapter seven):
5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.
6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.
Now that the coming of the kingdom of grace is no longer bound up with a Jewish state, people are free to support Israel as an outpost of democracy without a whiff of immanentizing the eschaton.