The web is buzzing with the comments made at the end of the Vatican Synod last week by the bishop in charge of preparing the Synod’s public message. Said the bishop:
The Holy Scriptures cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands… We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people – all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people… Even if the head of the Israeli state is Jewish, the future is based on democracy… The Palestinian refugees will eventually come back and this problem will have to be solved.
Horrified Christians from many denominations, including Catholics, have flooded the web with objections, denunciations, and expressions of concern that these sentiments would be proclaimed from the Vatican. Israeli officials and media outlets have registered their own objections.
There are some things worth noting. First, the statement by the bishop doesn’t actually represent the doctrine of the Catholic Church or even the points made by the report of the Synod. The Synod’s official product (now being contemplated by the Pope) contains no references to such freighted concepts as “return of Jews,” “displacement of Palestinians,” “Palestinian refugees coming back,” “promise (to the Jews) nullified by Christ,” or “no longer a chosen people.” See here for a good unpacking of the slanted media coverage that has magnified false implications about this. And see here for a run-down by the group “Catholics for Israel” of the Church’s actual doctrinal position on God’s Old Testament promises to the Jews (hint: it regards them as perpetual and unbroken, according to Vatican II).
Second, however, the attempt by Church officials to clarify things has been notably weak. A Vatican spokesman stated tersely that the bishop’s comments “did not reflect the overall consensus of the Synod.” That has an unsatisfactory ring to it, considering the bishop in question clearly veered into the very practice he decried – using interpretations of the “Word of God” for political purposes – when he spoke of the “promised land” and the Jews’ status as the “chosen people” being nullified by Christ. He adduced these points, specifically, as justification for a political position on the “Palestinian” question.
But this aspect of the situation leads to a third observation, which is that, in light of political conditions today, the Catholic Church seems to have a growing dilemma arising from its modern-era (post-18th-century) ecclesiastical rapprochement with Eastern churches. The bishop who spoke out of turn last week is a Melkite Greek Catholic from Lebanon, Cyril Salim Bustros, who has served as the Eparch (or bishop) of the Melkite Church in the USA (in Newton, Massachusetts) and was appointed Metropolitan of Beirut in July of this year.
Readers may remember that the Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church was the individual issuing blessings for the “all-woman” flotilla planned throughout the summer to depart from Lebanon for a bout of anti-Israel blockade-busting. The Patriarch himself is located in Antioch, but there has been a very troubling trend of anti-Israel politicization in the recent appointments in Beirut and Galilee as well. Bustros’ selection for the metropolitan position in Beirut this year followed the selection in 2006 of Archbishop Elias Chacour for the diocesan seat in Galilee. As this French writer recounts (I apologize that this is only available in French), the 2006 choice amounted to a referendum within the Melkite Greek Catholic episcopate on the question of whether to promote clerics who take political stands against Israel, or to affirm that the church’s future lies with less politicized leaders who are more devoted to ministry, reconciliation, and service. The ultimate choice of Chacour produced a tireless campaigner for the active and urgent repudiation of Israel’s state policies by American and European churches.
The Catholic Church’s high profile in much of the Middle East, and its organized connections with Middle Eastern Christians, give its policies a unique significance in defining the posture and role of Christianity there. The Church, of all entities, should be the first and most insistent in affirming that – at the very least – political opposition to Israel is not a condition of loving our neighbors as ourselves. No nation on earth is a principal in such a repellent contingency; singling out Israel in this regard is awful darn particular and obviously motivated by obsession.
Although I’m a Protestant myself, I hope Pope Benedict won’t let this incident stand. I doubt he will rebuke Bustros personally, and certainly not publicly: Bustros is under the ecclesiastical authority of the Patriarch of Antioch. But in his own pronouncement on the Synod, I hope we will see that Benedict refrains from endorsing Bustros’ tendentious proclamation, and perhaps emphasizes countervailing points. For the longer term, the growing politicization of the Melkite Greek Catholic episcopate appears likely to set the Vatican a problem that may one day require a significant decision.