News that the Vatican has officially recognized Palestinian statehood in a new treaty may have less of an impact on the relationship between the Holy See and Palestine than on the already fraught relationship between Pope Francis and an increasingly disgruntled Catholic and evangelical right here in the U.S.
That’s because Rome’s diplomatic recognition of Palestine, while made official on Wednesday, has been proceeding quietly behind the scenes for some time. The Vatican has referred to the “state of Palestine” unofficially since the UN recognized the Palestinian state in 2012. “We have recognized the State of Palestine ever since it was given recognition by the United Nations and it is already listed as the State of Palestine in our official yearbook," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
The treaty itself, which is expected to be signed shortly, “deals with essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine,” such as the status of Catholic Church properties and charities.
The larger significance of the Vatican’s move is the signal it sends to the international community about the recognition of Palestinian statehood. Not surprisingly, the fact that the Vatican appears to be putting its moral authority—and Pope Francis’ immense personal popularity—behind recognition of the Palestinian state didn’t sit well with backers of Israel.
A senior Israeli official told the New York Times the move would damage the stalled Middle East peace process. David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, called the move "unhelpful," saying, “Formal Vatican recognition of Palestine, a state that, in reality, does not yet exist, is a regrettable move, counterproductive to all who seek true peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
But equally likely to be disgruntled are conservative Catholics and evangelicals, many of whom are strong supporters of Israel because of what they believe will be its pivotal role in biblical end-times and oppose the recognition of Palestinian statehood and the changing of any borders in the region that that would likely entail.
These religious conservatives have already seen Pope Francis tip the scale in international relations—away from their preferred direction—when he brokered a deal to restore diplomatic relations between the U.S. and still officially communist Cuba. He’s also trashed free-market capitalism, decrying the “idolatry of money” and trickle-down economics. And his soon-to-be released encyclical on the environment is likely to frame tackling climate change in terms of a deep moral responsibility to future generations.
Now, conservatives will feel they’ve lost the support of the Vatican on another issue that has transcended its actual particulars to become a touchstone of conservative identity, potentially furthering the rift that has grown between both fiscal and social religious conservatives and Francis, who they hint has no authority to intervene so prominently in non-doctrinal matters.
But the reality of the Vatican’s position on Palestine is more complicated. As John Allen notes in Crux, like Francis’ pronouncements on capitalism and the environment, people assume a break from tradition has occurred only because they weren’t paying attention to the papacy before rock star Francis. In reality, it is actually a continuation of long-held papal positions. The Vatican’s support for Palestine isn’t particularly new.
When Pope Benedict XVI travelled to the Middle East in 2009, he pledged support for Palestinian statehood. St. John Paul II made similar statements many times, and was sufficiently fond of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat that he had a set of the Stations of the Cross made out of ivory, presented to him by Arafat as a gift, installed in a small chapel off a Vatican chamber.
It’s more accurate to view this particular step in the Vatican’s relationship with Palestine both as a continuation of the Holy See’s long-standing support for Palestinian statehood and as an expression of Francis’ overriding interest in fostering international peace—and his unique ability and willingness to put his finger on the scales to do so.
When Francis toured the Holy Lands last year, he made a highly symbolic stop at the wall dividing Bethlehem from Israel and later invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to a prayer summit at the Vatican, where he talked about the “courage to take concrete steps to achieve peace.”
And it’s likely no coincidence that the new treaty with the Palestinian state was announced just days before Francis is set to canonize two Palestinian nuns, Marie Alphonsine Ghattas of Jerusalem and Mariam Bawardy of Galilee, who will become the first Palestinian Arab saints in a Vatican ceremony attended by Abbas. The canonizations, like the Vatican’s relationship with Palestine, have been underway long before Francis. But he will use it highlight both the importance of Christians living in Palestine and the need for fairness for the Palestinian people in a way that only a rock star can.