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Monday, March 30, 2009

Benedict XVI and the State of Israel

David P. Goldman, a self described "writer in New York" who also writes as Spengler, writes today at the neoconservative journal First Things, Benedict XVI and the State of Israel. (Relevant excerpts are appended to this post.)

As usual, Goldman attempts to convince Catholics that Church acceptance of the State of Israel is a matter of fundamental theology, but he can only do so by fudging distinctions and avoiding basic issues:

1. First he baldly states his desired conclusion: "the Jewish presence in the Holy Land [is] a theological matter" for the Church.

2. Next he attempts to buttress that conclusion, citing Benedict's personally expressed sympathy for "the Jewish people’s aspirations to live in its homeland."

3. However, he is forced to acknowledge that the Church's official position (as opposed to Benedict's personal sympathies) is that "Officially, the Catholic Church instructs, 'The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law.'” [my emphasis] In other words, the Church's position toward the State of Israel is that its existence is not a religious matter and should be viewed "according to common principles of international law." Which is to say, the Church views the State of Israel, qua state, as it views any other secular state.

4. In face of these clear distinctions--personal sympathy for the Jewish people v. status of the State of Israel; the State of Israel NOT to be viewed in a religious perspective v. TO BE viewed according to "common principles of international law"--Goldman must fudge. He does so by citing the notion of Israelite election--the idea that God chose or "elected" Israel and granted certain described Middle Eastern real estate to Israel in perpetuity, no matter what the then current or future residents of the real estate might think. However, according to the repeated and carefully nuanced statements of the Vatican and of Benedict, which Goldman does cite, Israelite election is "a call"--but not a call to statehood. Rather it is a call “to communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the one, true and unique God.” Missing from this Church vision of election is the matter of a promise of specific Middle Eastern real estate.

5. Thus Goldman must obfuscate: "Theologically it is difficult to separate the election of the people from the promise of the land, and Benedict’s commitment to Israel seems strongly grounded in theology." Goldman doesn't attempt to explain why it is "theologically ... difficult" to draw a distinction which the Church and Benedict have repeatedly drawn. The reason the Church is able to draw such a distinction is because it is not wedded, theologically, to a literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Israelite scriptures (the "Old" Testament). The accounts of Israelite scriptures are thus seen by the Church to prefigure not political but rather spiritual realities which are for the good not of a specific ethnic community but for all men--the call of Israel is a call to service, to be the vehicle of God's self revelation in Jesus. For the Church, God's calling of Israel is no more a call to statehood than is the political existence of Vatican City a matter of Catholic theology. Recognizing the historical challenges involved in any treatment of the Israelite scriptures, the Church sees the stories of Abraham and Moses as prefigurative and as preparatory for God's intervention in history in Jesus of Nazareth.

6. Goldman, writing from a Zionist perspective, prefers to read the Israelite scriptures as in the nature of a real estate contract: God promised us this land in exchange for our foreskins; we've been faithfully circumcising our boys all these years, ergo, the land is ours. No doubt, in a similarly fundamentalist vein, Goldman also endorses the Deuteronomic ideology of Holy War, which entails genocide of entire peoples. But it would be a mistake to view Goldman's concerns as simply a matter of biblical exegesis. The reality is that his concerns are purely pragmatic: his concern is to use his obfuscations of Christian theology to convince Christians that support for the State of Israel--come what may--is a fundamental tenet of Christianity as such: that one cannot be Christian without unconditionally supporting the State of Israel. This leap of "faith" is easy enough for many Evangelicals to make, and has translated into powerful American political support for Israel. Goldman has set himself a more difficult goal. His ambition is to convince the largest religious body in the world, the Catholic Church, to accept his definition as its own self definition. The goal is difficult, but if successful the rewards, measured in political influence, would be potentially enormous.

7. The difficulty that many Christians, including Catholics, have in articulating these distinctions is sadly rooted in the pervasive influence of Protestant interpretations of the Bible. Goldman, in his persona as Spengler, has correctly characterized Protestantism (at least in this respect) as "a Judaizing heresy." All the more reason for the Church to devote additional effort to a more explicit formulation of its theology of revelation. The Vatican and Benedict personally have shown a determination to prevent a Zionist hijacking of its theology on an official level, but it seems to me to be desirable to eliminate popular confusion which has become more widespread as ecumenical contacts between Catholics and Evangelicals have become more common.

Relevant excerpts from the article follow:


Benedict XVI and the State of Israel

By David P. Goldman
Monday, March 30, 2009, 12:01 AM

...

It is hard not to see an evolution in Vatican policy towards Israel, from a pragmatic approach to the problems of religious constituencies, to explicit theological sympathy for the Jewish State. Benedict XVI is first of all a theologian, and he views the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as a theological matter.

In 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, Benedict XVI told Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, “The Holy See is united with you and thanks God for the full realization of the Jewish people’s aspirations to live in its homeland, the land of its forefathers.” Meeting with the Israeli rabbinate on March 12, the Pope affirmed the election of the Jewish people “to communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the one, true and unique God.” Theologically it is difficult to separate the election of the people from the promise of the land, and Benedict’s commitment to Israel seems strongly grounded in theology.

The Magisterium of the Church does not take an explicit position on the question of Jewish statehood. Officially, the Catholic Church instructs, “The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law,” in the formula given in “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985). But the Church also knows that Israel is more than just another small country like Finland or Ecuador, for the very next sentence of the 1985 document cites John Paul II’s recognition of the theological significance of Jewish survival: “The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God’s design. . . . It remains a chosen people, ‘the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles.’”

...


UPDATE:

Rabbi David Rosen has an article in the Jerusalem Post this morning which echoes, in part, Goldman's ideas about Zionism and the Catholic Church: Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews. To Rabbi Rosen's credit, he gets several important points right about the recent controversy over the SSPX Bishop Williamson's conspiracy theories regarding the Holocaust:
The Vatican and the pope have made it clear that the lifting of the excommunication ban is not a reinstatement of these bishops, who will not be accepted back into the church until they affirm the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which include the positive teachings on Jews and Judaism. But above all the pope has not only reaffirmed the Church's unqualified repudiation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, he has reiterated the importance of Holocaust education and he has especially repeated his own profound commitment to continuing the path of his predecessor in advancing Catholic-Jewish relations.

Those who are familiar with Pope Benedict XVI's record will not at all be surprised by this.

Rabbi Rosen has written extensively on the topic of Catholic - Jewish relations, so it shouldn't be surprising that he got this right, but on the other hand many others who should have, didn't.

Toward the end of his article, however, Rabbi Rosen offers the following summation:
Not everyone in the Church has appreciated the central role that Israel plays in contemporary as well as historic Jewish identity. Pope Benedict XVI does, and he fully realizes that the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel is inextricably bound up with the relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.

Of course this is not without its complications both in terms of the interests of the local Church in Israel and the Palestinian territories and the Holy See's interests within and in relation to the Arab world and Muslim society as a whole. These often conflicting interests are obviously substantially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of course it's true that the the Vatican's position with regard to Israel will inevitably affect the views, generally speaking, of Jews toward the Catholic Church--given, as Rabbi Rosen says, "the central role that Israel plays in contemporary as well as historic Jewish identity." However, as we've seen, the Catholic Church is determined, come what may, to maintain its distinction between the Jewish People and the State of Israel. That distinction is central to the Catholic Church's own identity.

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