As the leaders of the Palestinian people prepare to petition for recognition as a nation-state at the United Nations, Catholic America can find its way though a confusing political history by following the church’s lead. As in many complicated issues, Catholic teaching is expressed in broad generalities with clear moral implications. More heat than light will likely be generated about Palestinian statehood as a political football, so here are a few yard markers to keep opinion within the boundary lines of facts.
Vatican policy is to treat both Israelis and Palestinians as equals. After terrorists raided the Israeli city of Netanya in July 2005, Benedict XVI incurred criticism from Ariel Sharon for not immediately condemning the action. But the Vatican explained: “… Attacks against Israel were sometimes followed by immediate Israeli reactions not always compatible with the norms of international law. It would, consequently, have been impossible to condemn the former and remain silent on the latter.” In May 2009, Benedict XVI visited Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and stated in Bethlehem: “The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.” So for those faithful to the Magisterium, a two state solution is essential for peace.
Peace was part of the concern of the Holy See as far back as 1948, when modern Israel was founded. Pius XII wrote two encyclicals on these questions: In Multiplicibus Curis in October of 1948 and Redemptoris Nostri Cruciatus in April of 1949. The Vatican’s questions, however, were not about the right of Jews to have a state, but what would happen to the Holy places revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. This seems to have been a misplaced anxiety today, because Israel has been a trustworthy guardian of all those places.
At the time of the founding of the Jewish state, the pope also questioned then how peace –the “tranquility of order” –would survive in a geographic area so fraught with conflict. Some in the early days felt that only Jews could be trusted to control the government of Israel, since ceding any political power to non-Jews, the thinking went, could endanger the Jewish people. The pope’s dilemma was how the church could accept the right of Jews for their own state without also accepting the indictment of Christianity as irreformably anti-Semitic. Likewise, support for Palestinian rights had to be hedged against interpretations that Arab terrorism against Israel was justified.
In 1993, after many negotiations, the Vatican and Israel established the permanent embassies representing full recognition of the state of Israel, although Popes Paul VI and John Paul II met not only with Jewish leaders like Golda Meir and Shimon Peres but also 12 times with Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. The evenhandedness of the Vatican has persisted despite ongoing criticism from both sides.
The 2011 UN vote to recognize a Palestinian state, whether vetoed in the security council or not, is going to the general assembly, where it is likely to prevail. Commentators have not been lost for words about whether this is good for Obama and the Democrats or for the GOP in 2012. Trudy Rubin was the one expert I was able to find who was more concerned about the people whose lives will be impacted by the vote than U.S. politics.
Most Catholics, I think, want to have their cake and to eat it, too. That is, we want peace between the Jews and Arabs but we don’t want to be forced into taking sides in a contentious issue. So also for the Vatican,which has taken no stance on the UN vote while still holding forth for the ultimate settlement in favor two states. On this issue, look to the church for moral principles rather than for instructions on how nations should vote.