Israel and the Vatican

January 05, 1994

The agreement between Israel and the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations this year must be seen in many dimensions. In all, it is a positive step, an improvement in the ability of different peoples to gain the riches of human values from human contact.

At one level, this is a step in reconciliation of Christians and Jews and of the Catholic Church and Judaism. The Vatican refused to recognize Israel on its independence in 1949. The reason varied, being first a requisite for the internationalization of Jerusalem, and later for Palestinian independence. But the church had a history of anti-Semitism that was not faced and repudiated until the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.

Pope Paul VI briefly visited in Israel in 1964. The next year the Vatican Council issued an edict that condemned anti-Semitism and ended the blaming of Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. In 1968, Pope Paul VI called for international guarantees of access to religious shrines, in effect reducing what the church asked for Jerusalem. Pope John Paul II prayed in a Rome synagogue in 1986. American Catholics, who live in a religiously diverse society, played a leading role in pushing for reconciliation.

On another level, this is a development in practical relations between states. Its origin may be traced to a joint statement -- made May 7, 1992, at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore -- by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Inter-Religious Consultations. They urged progress toward Vatican recognition of Israel. It was the 14th meeting between the two bodies since 1971, but the first public support of recognition by an agency of the Vatican.

This was followed within three months by establishment of a joint Israeli-Vatican commission to establish relations. The agreement on Dec. 30, 1993, flows from its work. A highlight was the meeting last February between Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, in his capacity as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But while this was a long, orderly process, it was made urgent by events. Israel's historic accord with the PLO means that decisions will be taken by them on matters the church cares deeply about. One is secure access for all to the holy shrines. Another is protection of the Christian minorities in the states of the Middle East.

The Catholic Church has an important role to play in both matters, which it can do only by talking to Israel formally. The Vatican would have reduced its influence by continuing to withhold recognition. Instead, it has made a major advance in interfaith reconciliation, in the relations of states, in Israel's world standing and in the church's role as advocate of the rights of Christians. It is a win-win-win-win deal.

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