Israel and the Holy See have a unique diplomatic relationship


Catholic Herald, 27 June 2019

For significant diplomatic moments – such as the annual address of the Holy Father to the diplomatic corps – the grand Sala Regia in the Apostolic Palace is used; other rooms in the palace are used for lesser events. They are not held, for example, in a sacred space, like the Sistine Chapel or St Peter’s.

But this month’s celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel were held in house of prayer. Not one of the Roman basilicas, but the Great Synagogue of Rome.

And that locale spoke volumes about that unique diplomatic relationship, which is not only a relationship between sovereign actors in international law, but a relationship between religions, between the Catholic Church and Jews.

Countries which have diplomatic relations with the “Vatican” really don’t. That is, they don’t have a relationship with the Vatican City State, which does not maintain diplomatic relations with anyone. Countries have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the supreme governance of the Catholic Church. It is the Church, in the person of her universal pastor, which is a sovereign actor in international relations.

This fact is sometimes conveniently obscured. The UK, home to established churches in England and Scotland, may prefer to pretend that it has diplomatic relations with the micro-state of the Vatican City, rather than the Catholic Church. Likewise, the United States, home of separation of church and state, or France, home of laicité, nevertheless maintain official relations with the Catholic Church.

Israel is a state in which Jews, Muslims and Christians are all citizens. But it is also a Jewish state; any Jew has a right to return to Israel and become a citizen. And for that reason, it was thought for many years that the Holy See could not establish diplomatic relations with Israel, for Israel was not only a country, but a proxy for another religion. So while the modern State of Israel was established in 1948, diplomatic relations would have to await theological developments.

The most important of these was a recasting of the relationship between Catholics and Jews at Vatican II. Indeed, at the 25th anniversary celebrations, frequent reference was made to Nostra Aetate, the relevant decree from Vatican II. What other diplomatic ceremonies make reference to magisterial documents?

At a commemorative ceremony in New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan recalled how St John Paul II’s longtime secretary, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, said that John Paul was “obsessed” with establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, a concrete sign of a new relationship with the Jewish people.

It would take some time. The key moment came in 1986, when John Paul visited the Great Synagogue of Rome, calling Jews the “elder brothers” of Catholics.

(The master biblical theologian Benedict XVI would make a “correction” to this much-loved expression, noting that in the Scriptures, the elder brother – Ismael, Esau – is overtaken by the younger. He preferred to speak simply of “brothers”.)

The theological recasting of Vatican II and the pastoral recasting of John Paul thus set the stage for diplomatic relations. The complex negotiations were concluded in December 1993, and the diplomatic missions were opened in June 1994.

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