Reflections from a Roman Catholic on “Understanding Christian Support for Israel ”

Philip A. Cunningham

Boston College
March 14, 2007



It is the mission of our Center for Christian-Jewish Learning to bring the academic resources of a major Catholic university to bear in the fostering of mutual understanding between Christians and Jews. On the Christian side, a 1974 Vatican document insisted that Catholics “must strive to learn by what essential traits Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.”[1] Since the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, is so central to Jewish self-understanding, it is a topic that must be explored in Christian-Jewish dialogue.

But since that part of the world is convulsed by violence and misery, I believe that a Catholic university research center such as ours has additional responsibilities. Situated in a Catholic university, it is our obligation to have the goal of peace and the realization of fundamental human rights foremost in our minds. Situated in a Catholic university, we must encourage informed and respectful conversation among the diverse viewpoints grappling with the present convoluted situation.

I want to add that this subject touches on many complex and deep-seated issues that I venture to comment upon only with great trepidation. These remarks are too brief and restricted to have any hope of being adequate for the topic.

The official approach of the Roman Catholic Church to relations with Jews distinguishes between politico-historical and religious dimensions. This distinction between politics and theology operates in a peculiar way in Roman Catholicism, since – due to the vicissitudes of history – the Vatican today functions as a nation-state with a diplomatic corps as well as being the spiritual center of the Catholic community. Thus, both the Holy See’s Secretariat of State and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews each have their respective roles to play in terms of official Catholic Church engagement with the State of Israel, and these roles are not entirely separable.

1. Politico-historical Considerations

To begin with politico-historical matters, I would reluctantly agree with those who say that a key issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is whether or not a Jewish state somewhere configured on biblical Eretz Yisrael ought to exist in the modern world. I say “reluctantly” because one could have hoped that the goal of a “two-state solution” might by this time have achieved some sort of widespread agreement among all the relevant parties. Yet, such indications as a recent study of Palestinian school books[2] or the invective of the President of Iran[3] (apparently intended to drum up popular Iranian support for his administration and greater Iranian influence in the Middle East) offer evidence that the prospect of wiping the State of Israel off the global map is widespread and even indoctrinated into many people. I hasten to add that this is part of a much larger problem; namely, the encounter of the Muslim world with modernity. More on that below.

On this basic question on the existence of a Jewish state, official Catholic teaching is plain. By establishing formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel in 1993, the Holy See recognized “the right of the State [of Israel ] to carry out its functions, such as promoting and protecting the welfare and the safety of the people.”[4] Likewise, numerous statements over the years by many conferences of Catholic Bishops have pleaded for a two-state solution, as expressed most recently in a combined Jan 18, 2007 statement by the heads of several national Catholic bishops’ conferences:

Our belief in one God compels us to work for the welfare of two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, and members of three religions – Jews, Christians and Muslims—who belong to one family of God. As bishops and pastors, we affirm our Holy Father’s recent address to the diplomatic corps in which he said, “The Israelis have a right to live in peace in their state; the Palestinians have a right to a free and sovereign homeland.”[5]

Relating this to the title of these remarks, when I hear the phrase Christian “support for Israel,” I take that to mean support for the State of Israel to exist. It does not mean automatic support for this or that policy of this or that Israeli administration. I believe this to be the position of the Holy See. That position would also include support for the human rights of Palestinians, but not automatically of this or that action of the Palestinian Authority. This interest in advancing everyone’s well-being is reflected in the care taken in the bishops’ statement I just quoted to speak of the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.

It seems reasonable to conclude that peace will remain out of reach until the final goal of a two-state solution is sincerely pursued by all the relevant parties.

But it is inadequate to leave things at that because there are potent forces that work against the widespread acceptance of this goal. Western Christians should keep in mind that the actions of a parade of superpowers over the past one hundred-fifty years have led to the present situation. To take just one example, in 1916 Britain, France, and Russia secretly negotiated the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov agreement to divide the Middle-East among them after the end of World War I, this despite the earlier British McMahon Letter that promised to recognize Arab independence. Likewise, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union armed various Middle-East nations as pawns in their global competition. And time does not permit discussion of all the negative consequences of the United States ’ current misadventures in the region! Small wonder that many Middle-Easterners came to regard the foundation of the State of Israel as an imperialist colonial intrusion by a West seeking to atone for the Holocaust, and not the product of the same principle of self-determination that inspired many anti-colonial independence movements, including Arab ones.

I think the culpability of the West needs to be recalled by those Western Christians who, rightly frustrated by the present intolerable status quo, quickly embrace one-dimensional initiatives or engage in simplistic sloganeering such as “End the Occupation Now!” or “God gave them the Land!” that one-sidedly delegitimate this or that party. It seems to me that we Christians in the West need to be more humble and recognize that we do not operate with an absence of self-interest. There is certainly much to be criticized and even condemned in terms of the actions of the Israeli government, the leaders of the Palestinians, extremists of various ideologies, and neighboring countries. But our own communities are implicated as well. The overwhelming political, financial, and technological presence of Western culture has had an inevitable destabilizing influence on centuries-old Middle East Muslim society, including the imposition of the concept of nation-states.

Finally in terms of politico-historical matters, some commentators point out that the designation “Palestinian” is of recent vintage and that a nation-state governed under self-rule by “Palestinians” has never existed. This also has implications for the appropriateness of the term “Occupation” since the West Bank that came under Israeli control during the 1967 “Six-Day War” was then called “Trans-Jordan” since it was part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In 1988, Jordan renounced all claim to that territory. Its population then truly became stateless.

But I suspect that this is all of limited value. As history shows, the development of a new social identity around which a people can coalesce and define themselves can occur in only a few generations. This clearly has already happened with Palestinians, whose defining self-narrative has partially been generated by the events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel.

2. Religious Considerations

To turn to the theological side of things (since we are considering Christian attitudes toward Israel ), there have been over the centuries two Christian theological approaches toward a Jewish State. Supersessionism dates from the second century and holds that Jews have lost any right to the Land of Israel because their status as God’s people has been superseded by the Christian Church. Restorationism, a product of post-Reformation era ways of reading the Bible, anticipated a Jewish ingathering to their ancestral homeland preparatory to the return of Jesus Christ as sovereign Lord. Restorationism has historically not been as influential in Roman Catholicism as in certain strains of Evangelical Protestantism. Instead, Catholic attitudes have been dominated by supersessionism. Beginning with the 1965 Second Vatican Council declaration, Nostra Aetate, the Catholic magisterium (teaching authority) has repudiated supersessionism and affirmed repeatedly that God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures.

With this affirmation comes the recognition that there are no positive precedents in the Catholic tradition to help a post-Nostra Aetate Church understand the importance of the Eretz Yisrael for Jews. Supersessionism insisted that since “the Jews” were cursed by God to homeless wandering because of Jesus’ crucifixion, they had lost any claim upon the Land.

The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews discussed this in 1985:

The history of Israel did not end in 70 A. D. (cf. Guidelines, II). It continued, especially in a numerous Diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness - often heroic - of its fidelity to the one God and to "exalt Him in the presence of all the living" (Tobit 13:4), while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the heart of their hope (Passover Seder). Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in Biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship (cf. Declaration of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 20, 1975). 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. 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. We must in any case rid ourselves of the traditional idea of a people punished, preserved as a living argument for Christian apologetic. It remains a chosen people, "the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles" (John Paul II, 6 March 1982, alluding to Rm. 11:17-24).[6]

This paragraph sets forth what has generally been (in the past three decades or so) the Vatican ’s highly nuanced distinction between the theological and politico-historical aspects of Christian attitudes toward the State of Israel. It could be summed up in these three points:

  1. Catholics must no longer think of Jews as punished and so divinely detached from Eretz Yisrael.
  2. The continued existence of the Jewish people, B’nai Yisrael or ‘Am Yisrael is God’s will.
  3. Catholics should respect and seek to understand Jewish attachment to Eretz Yisrael, but the existence of the modern State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) should not be interpreted by Catholics primarily in religious or biblical categories, but according to international legal principles.

To elaborate on this third point: the State of Israel is a nation-state that is not co-extensive with the covenanting community of b’nai Yisrael, even though Eretz Yisrael is a defining reality for the Jewish people as a whole. (This, incidentally, is consistent with the State of Israel's self-understanding as a democratic secular state, not a theocratic one.) Thus, criticism of Israeli policies should not be predicated on some unique expectations placed on a Jewish state, but on values and principles that are applied in similar fashion to any other nation’s government. And when we are speaking of a nation that is involved in an ongoing conflict both with some neighboring states and with extra-national entities, then such criticism must also reckon with the actions of the other parties to the dispute and with the historical events that shaped it.

I want to conclude these very cursory remarks by expanding on this phrase in the 1985 Vatican text: “We must in any case rid ourselves of the traditional idea of a people punished.” The habit of blaming Jews for some contemporary crisis has a long and sorry history in European Christian culture. Jews were accused in Medieval times, for example, of poisoning wells to spread the Black Plague, of kidnapping Christian children for murderous rituals, of complicity with various streams of invasions from the east, and, more recently, of global conspiracies to promote (contradictorily) both capitalism and communism. It would be naïve to assume that such an inherited patterned reflex might not still exert an influence on some Christians. At least it is a possibility that must be guarded against.

I am not speaking here of overt antisemitism. Nor am I saying that the charge of alleged antisemitism should silence critics of the State of Israel’s behavior during some incident. But I am cautioning that a culturally engrained habit of thinking unfavorably of Jews might be at work when I hear some American Christians holding up the State of Israel to an ethical standard that is hardly ever applied with the same vigor to other nations – China ’s assimilation of Tibet comes to mind. Nor are the same high standards so rigorously or consistently applied to our own country in acts of self-criticism. What singles the State of Israel out for such particular attention? Might the legacy of Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism be at work even in those churches that have renounced supersessionism? Has their work to reform anti-Jewish theologies and teachings been only partial or superficial? I don’t know if there’s any empirical way to answer such questions, but I believe that Christians must recognize our anti-Jewish legacy as still holding the potential for what Catholics might call “an occasion of sin.”

Parenthetically, I might add that Christians have a moral obligation to condemn the widespread use of historic Christian antisemitic images and stereotypes in the Moslem world,[7] at least if we are sincere in “making a firm purpose of amendment” for our past sinfulness.

Having said that, I also want to caution against a potent Islamophobia that seems to be operative among some Christians and some Jews, though no doubt for different reasons and in different ways. For Christians, neither anti-Jewish prejudice nor anti-Muslim prejudice can be sanctioned in the churches.

I normally tend to conclude interreligious remarks with an edifying quotation. That has proven difficult in this case because hopes for a peaceful solution to the present crises seem dim. As a Catholic Christian, it seems to me that the present intolerable situation only makes more urgent the work of interreligious dialogue. And so I end with these words of Pope John Paul II during his visit to Jerusalem in 2000, especially intended for those of us in the Boston College community who feel impelled by our religious commitments to speak or write about the Middle East conflicts:

[R]eligion is the enemy of exclusion and discrimination, of hatred and rivalry, of violence and conflict. Religion is not, and must not become, an excuse for violence, particularly when religious identity coincides with cultural and ethnic identity. Religion and peace go together! Religious belief and practice cannot be separated from the defense of the image of God in every human being. Drawing upon the riches of our respective religious traditions, we must spread awareness that today's problems will not be solved if we remain ignorant of one another and isolated from one another. We are all aware of past misunderstandings and conflicts, and these still weigh heavily upon relationships between Jews, Christians and Muslims. We must do all that we can to turn awareness of past offenses and sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be nothing but respectful and fruitful cooperation between us.[8]


1. Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, No. 4” (1974), Preamble.   

2. Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook, “From Nationalist Battle to Religious Conflict,” Palestinian Media Watch (Feb. 8, 2007):

3. See, e.g., CNN News, “Iranian president inflames tensions with Israel” (April 14, 2006):

4. Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel (December 30, 1993), Art. 3.

5. Breaking the Hold of Fear, Anger and Despair in the Holy Land: Communiqué of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land.

6. Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, VI, 25.

7. See, for example, a collection of cartoons assembled by the Anti-Defamation League, " Arab Media Review: Anti-Semitism and Other Trends January - March 2006," available at:

8. Address at the Jerusalem Interreligious Meeting with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Sheik Taysir Tamimi (March 23, 2000), 4.