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Zionism, Christian history, and the pope

Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said goodbye at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv at the end of the pope’s visit to the Holy Land in May 2014.KOBI GIDEON/GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE/European Pressphoto Agency

Pope Francis recently declared that attacks not just on Jews but on the State of Israel are equally anti-Semitic. In a late-October address to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II decree that transformed relations between Jews and Catholics, the pontiff concluded: “The State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.” Largely lost in the coverage of his remarks was any historical perspective on the degree to which Francis decisively overturned statements made by influential Catholic theologians, and by popes, on Zionism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What had been the authoritative Catholic view on Zionism reaches back to the fifth century and to the church father, Augustine of Hippo. For Augustine, Jews had been exiled from their land and dispersed among the gentiles for their guilt in the death of Jesus. There they would be condemned to wander and to live, until the end of time, in a state of anxiety, misery, and servitude to gentile emperors and kings. This "doctrine of Jewish witness," which underscored the sole responsibility of Jews for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, tried to explain why they had been exiled from their homeland (though the historical truth, little known, is that large numbers of Jews lived in the land in Augustine's time).


It would be hard to exaggerate the catastrophic impact of this line of thinking. Not only was it the ideological seed for a history of calamities, a history in which Jewish communities, over the centuries, were murdered in the first three crusades, killed by the thousands for supposedly poisoning wells and causing the Black Death, forced to convert or emigrate, ghettoized, and made to wear stigmatizing clothing by popes. This Augustinian "theology of the Jews" was also the dogmatic ground for Catholic opposition to Zionism. Indeed, the Vatican did not recognize the State of Israel until December 1993. When Theodor Herzl, perhaps the most important father of modern Zionism, asked Pope Pius X to lend his support to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, the pontiff infamously responded, "Non possumus" ("We cannot"). This was the beginning of what seemed, until Francis' historic remarks, to be indefinite papal opposition to Zionism.

No pontiff was as actively opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland as the controversial wartime pope, Pius XII. After successfully persuading many that Jews were aggressors and belligerents — this just years after the few survivors of Hitler were struggling to establish a homeland to ensure them basic security — he issued no fewer than three encyclicals opposing the State of Israel. The Church began to associate Zionism with Communism and other impious movements and to regard Israelis as contestants for the same territory: what the Church proprietarily regarded as "the Holy Land." The statements of Pius XII put a seal on anti-Zionist attitudes that began with Herzl's unhappy meeting with the pope in the early 20th century.


While Pope Francis visited the State of Israel in 2014, he made no statement like the one he recently expressed. But in his October remarks, he stated, "To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism." Only against the lachrymose background of centuries of theological anti-Judaism, persecution, ghettoization, genocide — and, above all, papal opposition to Zionism — can we appreciate the import and novelty of the Holy Father's declaration on anti-Semitism and the State of Israel. In historical context, Francis' statement must be perceived for the welcome and fundamental reversal it is.

Kevin Madigan is professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School and author, most recently, of "Medieval Christianity.''