Elephants in the Room?
The Hidden Roots of the Crisis of the Church in the Holy Land
(An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land)
In the troubled Holy Land, divided and torn by conflict, local Church leaders and Christians of all colors often claim to speak a tireless message of justice, reconciliation and peace. If only more people would listen to this message - so they claim - it would surely dramatically improve the prospects for peace between the conflicting parties in the region.
But is this true?
On the one hand, there is no doubt that the Gospel message is one of reconciliation. Through Jesus the Messiah, God reconciled the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:18-21; Rom 5:11) and broke down the wall of hostility that once divided Jews and Gentiles, making peace between them (Eph 2:14-16). The Church is indeed “the world reconciled,” called to manifest the just order of God’s Kingdom on earth. And certainly not a few Catholics in the Holy Land - clergy and laity - do their best manifest the Kingdom in their own lives, quietly and faithfully carrying out the Lord’s work through their perseverant labor of love, ministering to local Christians and pilgrims through pastoral work, works of charity, hospitality, caring for the poor and the sick, and taking care of the Holy Sites. The universal Church owes a debt of gratitude to these faithful believers who are guardians of the living Christian presence in the land that is the cradle of our faith.
Yet on the other hand, in the broader scheme of things and despite the laudable work of these many individuals, one cannot help but wonder whether the Christian presence in the Holy Land is really having such a significant impact at all. One constantly hears about the great exodus and dwindling number of Christians, invariably blamed on socio-political and economic reasons such as the Israeli “occupation,” the lack of freedom of movement, the absence of work and dire economic prospects, etc…
Now these well-known external problems certainly play a part in the demographic crisis and decline of Christianity in the Holy Land (although there is also much myth being told regarding this decline, as Malcolm Lowe has shown). Yet there are good reasons to believe that there are also other, lesser-known but perhaps even graver internal issues that seriously weaken the life of the Church in the land of her birth. While the socio-political problems are constantly repeated and rehashed in official and public discourse, the internal issues are very rarely discussed or even mentioned. This is a serious omission, because we know that in the history of the Church external afflictions and persecutions, by the paradoxical union of the suffering Church with the suffering Christ, have often resulted in a renewed vitality and strength of the Church. By contrast, it is usually the failures of the Church’s own members from within that have traditionally sapped her vitality and strength and been the most dangerous agent of her decline.
The Word of God reveals spiritual principles and laws at work in the Church and in the world. If they are respected and put into practice, they are a source of blessing, life and growth. But rejecting, ignoring, or even just neglecting these principles results in a blocking of the divine blessing and the withering up of the life of the individuals and communities responsible for this neglect.
It would therefore seem opportune and important to set aside for a moment the external problems related to the Middle East conflict and devote a greater attention to the inner challenges that run the risk of seriously undermining and weakening the life and work of the Church in the Holy Land from within. This is the goal of the present observations and reflections, written in light of the recent Middle East Synod (October 2010) and the fruit of my own many years of personal experience with the Church in Israel. Any additions, comments and corrections that might complement and improve what follows are welcome. Even more so, if anything written below should be wrong and you have some experience or knowledge of the Church in the Holy Land that might shed more light on the situation, we invite you to let us know so that we may make the appropriate corrections.
Elephants in the Room?
The Synod has called the Christians of the Middle East to "persevere with courage, strength and steadfastness in bearing the message of Christ and witnessing to his Gospel, the Gospel of love and peace" (Final Message 1). In order to faithfully carry out this witness, the same courage, strength and steadfastness impels us to ask the pressing question: Are there a number of “elephants in the room” in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land – very serious issues that, even though they are having a debilitating effect on the work of the Church, remain virtually ignored and unaddressed by Church leaders?
There is at least one indication pointing to the existence of such “elephants”: in stark contrast to the declining Catholic Church and other mainline Christian churches, there are in fact Christian groups in Israel that are actually growing and thriving, namely the Messianic and Evangelical communities. These new communities demonstrate an impressive vitality and life. They are growing rapidly. They are full of young families with many children. They show a great enthusiasm and commitment towards their faith and are not afraid to give witness of it to unbelievers. They love the word of God and study it diligently.
The dynamism and growth of the Messianic and Evangelical communities raises another question: what are they doing right that Catholics (and other mainline churches) are doing wrong? The question is especially troubling considering the fact that, from the Catholic perspective, Messianic and Evangelical believers are much less equipped to live a strong life of faith, for they lack many elements of sanctification and truth that Christ gave to His Church (see Why be Catholic?). So why are they growing while Catholics are declining?
Perhaps the answer lies precisely in the “elephants in the room” in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. I propose that there are at least ten such elephants - and that the task of addressing them and earnestly dealing with them is long overdue. Many Catholics will find these points to be challenging. But has this not always been the essence of the Gospel - to be a great challenge to our old ways of thinking, yet one that, if pursued with determination, is able to bring a new life and vitality to the people of God? It is precisely because the work of Catholics in the Holy Land is so important that we should stop and think about how to make this precious work more fruitful and effective, in greater faithfulness to the principles and truths revealed in God's Word.
Let us now review ten "elephants in the room" in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
1. Neo-Marcionism, Replacement Theology and the “Great Disconnect”
Marcionism was one of the first great heresies in the history of the Church. The second century heresiarch Marcion rejected the Old Testament and wanted a Christianity that was based on the New Testament alone, untrammeled by any association with Judaism. He completely dissociated Jesus Christ from the God of the Old Testament, and he purged the New Testament from all passages that referred to the Old.
The Synod of Bishops recalled that the Old Testament unites Christians and Jews, and that Christians believe "all that God revealed there." Addressing the Jews, the Final Message states: "We believe in the promises of God and his covenant given to Abraham and to you.We believe that the Word of God is eternal" (FM 8).
Nevertheless, today a milder form of Marcionism is making a strong comeback in the Churches of the Middle East. Skewed by the Israeli-Arab conflict, not a few pastors preach a message that is infested with neo-Marcionist views and positions. Of course, no Catholic today would dare to openly reject the inspiration or validity of the Old Testament. Instead, neo-Marcionism subtly creeps in through a reinterpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures though the lens of supersessionism or “replacement theology,” based on the fundamental assumption that Israel has been rejected as chosen people and replaced by the Church.
The Marcionism and supersessionism of the Church in the Holy Land is manifest in many different ways, including:
- Avoiding and ignoring the Old Testament passages that speak of blessings and promises to Israel, or reinterpreting them as now applying exclusively to the Church;
- Avoiding biblical mentions of “Israel” or “Zion,” or renaming them to more neutral terms such as “Jacob”;
- Ignoring or dismissing the topic of the election, promises and calling of Israel in homilies and in catechesis;
- The “Great Disconnect” between biblical and modern Israel - where the Israel of the Bible is entirely dissociated from the Israel of today;
- The “Great Disconnect” between Israel and the Church - where despite the unique proximity of Judaism in Jerusalem, many Catholics remain woefully ignorant of the Jewish roots of their faith, and their pastors make little to no effort to educate them in this respect;
- The inability of many Catholics to even call Israel by name (see Holy Land or Israel?);
- The de-judaization of Jesus, Mary, and the apostles in the popular Christian culture. Examples of this include:
- the absurd claim that Jesus, Mary and the apostles were not Jews but in fact Palestinians;
- the dozens of beautiful representations of Mary at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, portrayed in the colors of all nations and ethnicities - but not appearing in her true identity as a Jewish woman;
- The existence of anachronistic feasts such as that of “Our Lady, Queen of Palestine,” whose original meaning has now become highly charged politically.
But why does this matter? Biblically speaking, the neo-Marcionism, supersessionism, and “Great Disconnect” of the Church from Israel has disastrous consequences in the life of the Church today. As St. Paul writes, Gentile Christians have been joined to the commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2:12-22) and were grafted in among them, becoming “partakers of the root and fatness of [Israel] the olive tree” (Rom 11:17). This “grafting in” calls for much humility and gratefulness towards Israel: St. Paul forcefully exhorts the Gentiles not to boast against the fallen branches (Jews who do not believe in Christ), but to “remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Rom 11:18).
We cannot expect a Church to thrive while it is at the same time cutting itself off from its own roots. It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to definitively reject Marcionism, supersessionism, and the “Great Disconnect,” and to humbly return to a healthy appreciation of its Jewish roots.
2. Biting the Hand that Feeds You: anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism
Inevitably, the theological neo-Marcionism and supersessionism that suffocates much of the Church in the Holy Land also spills over into the socio-political and human realms. At an official level, Church leaders usually claim that they don’t get into politics. But this is immediately contradicted by the messages that one constantly hears from some of the clergy, whether preached from the pulpit or through other channels. Every time that Church officials speak of “occupation” they are making a partial, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel political statement. Every time they use the word “Palestine,” they are taking a political stand (for "Palestine" is not a nation but the name of the former administrative region that was dissolved in 1948 with the conclusion of the British Mandate). Every time that they criticize the wall/fence separating Israel from the Territories without recalling the hundreds of murderous Palestinian acts of terrorism that forced its construction, they are not standing for true justice but manifesting bias and partiality.
Why this anti-Israel bias? Of course, it is possible - and sometimes necessary - to legitimately criticize some unjust Israeli policies and actions. But the partial and hostile stand that some churchmen take against Israel goes way beyond such legitimate criticism. Is it a new form of anti-Semitism? Today, it is no longer socially acceptable for Christians to openly manifest the crude racial anti-Semitism that came to its horrific culmination in Nazi Germany. Manifestations of hatred against the Jews have made way to more subtle and refined expressions of the same sentiments. Anti-Semitism thus most commonly appears now under the form of anti-Zionism and anti-Israel attitudes. In other words: Jews are ok, as long as they don’t live in Israel. Anti-Semites of this type often begin their discourse with a disclaimer that they have “nothing against Jews” before they go on to angrily criticize, blame and excoriate Israel in countless ways, ignoring, excusing or sometimes even supporting the terrorist attacks, threats, violations against Israeli borders and sovereignty, incitements to violence and ongoing campaigns of delegitimization that constantly rage against the very existence of the State of Israel.
One often hears Christians living in the Holy Land complaining about the difficulty in obtaining Israeli residence visas. This is a legitimate concern, yet perhaps it would be appropriate to review our attitude towards the State that is hosting us. Can we expect Israel - or any state - to warmly welcome and grant residency to people who constantly criticize, undermine and delegitimize the country in which they are guests?
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to definitively rid itself of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel attitudes, and to embrace a true biblical love for Israel.
3. Palestinian Liberation Theology: Sacrificing the Gospel for a Socio-Political Agenda
The politicization of the Church in the Holy Land is also apparent in the widespread embrace of Palestinian Liberation Theology, aggressively pushed by groups such as Sabeel or the "Kairos Palestine" initiative, and tacitly approved or at least tolerated by many elements in the Church hierarchy. Palestinian Liberation Theology builds upon neo-Marcionism and anti-Zionism and goes beyond them, losing in the process not only the Abrahamic covenants and Old Testament prophecies, but also, to a large extent, the Gospel’s message of salvation. The spiritual and salvific mission of the Church is sacrificed on the altar of a temporal political agenda. In Sabeel’s own words, “following in the footsteps of Christ means standing for the oppressed, working for justice, and seeking peace-building opportunities, and it challenges us to empower local Christians.” This sounds very nice, but going beyond the slogans one quickly finds out the basic principles of PLT: the Israeli “occupation” is the root of all evil, and the Gospel is reduced to socio-political activism for the sake of pushing the Palestinian nationalistic cause. The Scriptures are routinely distorted and reinterpreted to fit the Palestinian narrative. In one particularly absurd but typical example, the story of the Exodus is flipped around so that the oppressed Israelites in Egypt represent the oppressed Palestinians today, and the evil, obstinate Pharaoh who keeps them in slavery is Israel today. It is hard to see as inspired by the Gospel a movement that indulges in such bizarre deconstructions of Scripture and that habitually translates its alleged noble claim to work for justice, peace and reconciliation into the much less noble agenda of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
What is particularly disastrous about the PLT movement is not only its hostile political activism against Israel, creating more tensions and placing more obstacles in the way of peace and reconciliation (thus achieving exactly the opposite effect of what its advocates profess to strive for). It also results in a self-cutting off of Palestinian Christians from their Jewish roots, from salvation history, and in fact from the Gospel of salvation, thereby sapping their own spiritual strength. For Liberation Theology is not really a Palestinian theology at all but rather an ideology based on marxist principles that is completely alien to the Middle Eastern culture and way of thinking, and really quite foreign to Christianity alltogether. Genuinely working for peace, justice and dignity for the Palestinians is one thing. But by focusing on politics, advocates of PLT lead their people astray, in flagrant opposition to the example of Jesus who did not agitate the masses to liberate them from occupation in the political and temporal realms, but rather came to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God in their midst.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to reject the political activism of Palestinian Liberation Theology and to care for the well-being of Palestinians in ways that are more respectful and friendly towards Israel.
4. Dhimmitude: the Surrender to Islam
The absurdity of the Catholic criticism of Israel is only matched by its equally absurd silence regarding the threat of Islam. Anyone reading the newspapers or watching the news can see that it is not Israelis or Jews who are bombing churches and killing Christians all across the Middle East. Yet despite the increasingly aggressive Muslim persecution, many Christians continue to blame Israel rather than Islam for their troubles. While Israel is singled out for any infraction, no matter how trivial, Church bombings and massacres of Christians are seemingly committed by nameless perpetrators. For example, while the Synod's Final Message goes on in quite some detail about how the Palestinians are "suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation," there is a mysterious silence as to who might be responsible for the "Christians assassinated in Iraq" (FM 3.2-3.3).
Why is this so? Simply said, because it is always possible to criticize democratic Israel without any consequences, but public criticism of Islamic regimes can be deadly. This reflects a practical state of dhimmitude, a condition described as “a behavior dictated by fear (terrorism), pacifism when aggressed, rather than resistance, servility because of cowardice and vulnerability” following the pattern whereby non-Muslim subjects under an Islamic regime traditionally “obtained the security for their life, belongings and religion, but they had to accept a condition of inferiority, spoliation and humiliation.”
And so we are faced with preposterous situations where, for example, following a bloody church bombing in Alexandria in which 21 were killed and 79 wounded, and in the midst of the well-known and ongoing Muslim persecutions of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Franciscan Media Center in Jerusalem politely grants an interview to a Muslim sheikh who declares with impunity that the relations between Muslims and Copts are in fact just fine, and that Muslims are the first to condemn such acts of violence. Or, more recently, we heard the Latin Patriarch and his auxiliary bishop in Jerusalem claiming that the Palestinian Authority’s agreement with the terror organization Hamas, responsible for countless suicide bombings and rocket attacks on civilian populations, is a “good thing.”
Even the Synod's message reflects to some extent the spirit of dhimmitude. Knowing the long history of conflict between Christianity and Islam, one wonders whether any serious historian would endorse its statement which seems, in all fairness, rather detached from reality: "Since the appearance of Islam in the seventh century and to the present, we have lived together and we have collaborated in the creation of our common civilisation" (FM 9).
As we have written elsewhere, the dhimmi attitude of Christians is disastrous to the Church in the long run because it sends a false message to the world, creating the illusion that Israel is the chief culprit for the suffering of Christians in the Holy Land while the Islamic threat to Christians continues to grow unabated. While it is indeed important and good to foster good relationships with Muslims on a personal level, attempting to pacify perpetrators of violence and oppression, and downplaying or ignoring the problem of islamic jihad will not make it go away but will only make it worse.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to wake up to the increasingly aggressive threat of militant Islam and to understand that Israel is its best ally in this respect.
5. Dialogomania and Practical Relativism: the Paralysis of the Church’s Mission
In the face of the many tensions between religious groups in the Holy Land, the local Church proposes "dialogue" as the solution. Of course, it goes without saying that dialogue is essential to the Church’s work. Christians must always speak with and listen to everyone. But one gets the impression at times that “dialogue” in this context has become a meaningless catch word. Dialogue about what? Talking for the sake of talking? Just being nice and getting along with everybody?
Anyone familiar with the Bible can easily see that such an attitude of aimless dialogue is completely absent from and even diametrically opposed to the biblical model. Jesus came not to politely "dialogue" with everyone, but to preach the Kingdom of God to save sinners and grant them forgiveness and eternal life. Any "dialogue" he engaged in was for the purpose of communicating his salvation, his life, and his love to his interlocutors. Likewise, he sent His apostles to go and preach the Gospel, calling people to repentance, conversion and sanctification, baptizing them, and teaching them about the Kingdom.
The Church teaches that dialogue is not an end in itself, but a moment and part of the greater task of her mission of evangelization. In this light, it is worth recalling the words of Pope Benedict XVI, written some years ago as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:
“Does this mean that missionary activity should cease and be replaced by dialogue, where it is not a question of truth but of making one another better Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus or Buddhists? My answer is No. For this would be nothing other than total lack of conviction; under the pretext of affirming one another in our best points, we would in fact be failing to take ourselves (or others) seriously; we would be finally renouncing truth. Rather, the answer must be that mission and dialogue should no longer be opposites but should mutually interpenetrate.
“Dialogue is not aimless conversation; it aims at conviction, at finding the truth; otherwise it is worthless.” (Many Religions, One Covenant, pp. 111-112, emphasis added)
This is also the line taken by the Synod, which invites all Christians to "have the courage objectively to proclaim the truth" (SM 4.4).
Yet I have heard priests tell me of their frustration at how almost all of their work and “ministry” in the Holy Land consists in dealing with temporal matters: administrative duties, issues of finance and taxation, housing and real estate, renovations, maintaining the Status Quo between the Christian confessions, etc... At best, some Church organisms are involved in humanitarian and educational work. No doubt, these things are important and good, but they are not at the core of the Gospel’s message of salvation.
The truth must be said frankly: For much of the clergy in the Holy Land, the idea of praying for the conversion and salvation of sinners, including Jews and Muslims, is completely off their radar. It’s not just that they are prudent about it. It’s not that they don’t act upon it. It’s not that they don’t talk or pray about it. Many of them are so engrossed in temporal matters and immersed in the atmosphere of politically correct "dialogue" that don’t even think about it.
The spiritual Mission of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land is largely paralyzed by a spirit of secularism, of humanism, of political correctness, and of practical relativism. To constantly and vaguely speak for “peace” and “justice” will remain pointless and fruitless if the clergy of the Catholic Church do not begin to place their principal emphasis on the Church’s spiritual mission, that is, of working and praying so that all people - including Jews and Muslims - may come to a personal faith and saving encounter with Jesus the Messiah. This does not mean to engage in reckless or insensitive proselytism, but it does mean to take the Gospel seriously. True peace does not depend on social activism and empty words, but on the Church’s work of evangelization and the measure by which it will be able to a true channel of divine truth and transforming grace, of salvation and of sanctification for men and women who are alienated from God and ignorant of Christ through the double darkness of sin and ignorance.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to remember that dialogue separated from true evangelization is - in Pope Benedict's words - worthless, and that her main mission is not "aimless conversation" but leading all people to salvation, sanctification and divine life through a living encounter with Christ.
6. Blurring the Doctrine: The Catechetical Crisis
The fact that such serious problems as Marcionism, supersessionism, liberation theology, and practical relativism are present in the Church in the Holy Land points to an even greater concern: a catechetical and doctrinal crisis. In general (with a few notable exceptions) Catholics in the Holy Land are exceptionally poorly catechized, if at all. Many Palestinian Christians are largely cultural Christians - Palestinians first, and Christians second. Despite the presence of four seminaries and several advanced institutes for the study of Scripture in the Jerusalem area, the level of catechesis of local Christians at the popular level is abysmal. It would appear that this popular ignorance of the faith largely stems from poor catechesis from the pulpit. I have hardly - if ever - heard clear and solid homilies or teachings on foundational topics such as the mystery of the Trinity and divinity of Christ, original sin and its effects, the fallen nature of man, angels and demons, the necessity of grace for salvation, the meaning and effects of the liturgy and sacraments, the nature of the priesthood and of the Church, the universal call to mission, sexual morality and the issues related to it, life issues such as contraception and abortion, the distinction between venial and mortal sin, etc…
Christian life in the Holy Land has the tremendous advantage of being situated at the very places where the events of salvation history occurred, and the mysteries of Christ’s life are generally well emphasized in the liturgical life of the Church. But despite this advantage, preaching and teaching (again, with some exceptions) are often watered down to vague messages on peace and justice, or on somehow following Jesus (without going into much detail as to what this entails). Popular devotions to Mary and the saints take precedence over solid doctrinal and catechetical formation. To make matters worse - or perhaps a symptom of the problem - it is nearly impossible to find good quality catechetical materials and books on the foundations of the Catholic faith in the Holy Land - including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is almost nowhere to be seen.
The result of this blurring of the Church’s doctrine and pitiful formation in catechesis and apologetics means that, for the most part, the faithful in the Holy Land, living as a small minority in the midst of majority of non-Christians, are utterly unable to explain or defend the basics of their faith - let alone invite others to take part in it. Fortunately, relatively few of them convert to other religions or abandon Christianity altogether because it forms such a strong part of their social and cultural identity. But the result is a Christianity that is weak and largely devoid of content, at the mercy of every new “wind of doctrine” and manipulations of the Gospel such as those that we have mentioned above.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to come out of its muddled doctrinal waters and to begin teaching the beauty of the Church’s doctrine, proposing the entire deposit of faith to the faithful in all its rigor and vigor.
7. Battling Evil: Spiritual Warfare and Dormant Soldiers
Everyone knows that the Holy Land is a place of tension and conflict. Journalists and analysts discuss and write endlessly about it, considering the causes and proposing solutions to attain peace and justice in the human, natural and political realms. While the Church can - and should - also play a part in this respect, its main mission is not a temporal but a spiritual one. Too many Catholics in the Holy Land have forgotten (or never even considered) that the ongoing political conflict is a dim reflection of the intense battle between good and evil taking place in the spiritual realm.
The greatest source of evil in the Holy Land today is not the “occupation,” wall and checkpoints. It is not even violence or Islamic terrorism. The invisible source of all this visible evil is Satan, the father of lies, and some of his most dangerous and insidious work is not that which is obvious to all (the conflict, divisions and violence) but that which is much more subtle and hidden - indeed the “elephants in the room” that we have been describing: the sapping of the Church’s strength through Marcionism, supersessionism, liberation theology, dhimmitude, relativism, and the blurring of the Church’s doctrine.
The leaders of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land have failed to prepare and form the faithful to understand and fight against the work of the devil in the Church today. While one constantly hears insipid and ineffective prayers for “peace and justice,” one hardly ever hears specific prayers focusing on spiritual warfare. For example, I have never heard a priest in Jerusalem lead the faithful to pray the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, or any other specific prayer asking the Lord to protect the Church from the works of the devil and his demons. Many Catholic clergy, tainted by rationalism, would dismiss this topic as superstitious or “fundamentalist,” despite the evidence of Scripture and the teachings of the Church in this respect. Others are so engrossed in temporal matters that such considerations fall completely outside their scope of thoughts and activities.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to remember that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). It is time to shift the prayer focus in the Church so that it takes seriously the intense spiritual battle taking place in the Holy Land.
8. Blind Spots: Loss of Prophetic and Eschatological Vision
The Church in Israel has largely lost its prophetic vision. With the Gospel commonly manipulated for socio-political aims, the clergy taken up by temporal affairs, and the faithful woefully ignorant of Scripture (and especially of the Old Testament), very few are able to read the Bible, the tradition of the Church, and the writings of the saints in a farsighted and prophetic way. Unfortunately, many of the learned scholars who do know the prophetic writings of the Scriptures and could instruct the faithful are themselves infected by skepticism and rationalism, failing to connect the biblical texts with the events of our own day. The result is a faith that is often sterile, lacking momentum and direction, whereas the prophetic Word of God, being “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12), if received with faith can speak powerfully and shed divine light onto the events affecting both individuals and Christian communities.
The loss of prophetic vision in the Church is perhaps related to the loss of an effective operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in large segments of the Church: these include words of wisdom and knowledge, gifts of healing and prophecy, discerning of spirits, praying in tongues, etc... (cf. Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11). This is where charismatic individuals and communities, whether Catholic or not, can play a key role in revitalizing and rekindling the gifts that have become dormant in many sectors of the Church because of a lack of faith and leadership.
In the same vein, the Church in Israel has also completely lost its eschatological vision. Despite the fact that we recall the Lord’s Second Coming at every Eucharistic liturgy, most local Catholics are oblivious to the Church’s teachings on eschatology. This is a disaster, because eschatology is the telos, the goal of human history. If you are confused about the aim of your life, work, and activity, then you will probably be working towards the wrong goal. Very often, the highest aspiration of local Catholics is to see an end to the Middle East conflict, and their work and prayers are largely focused on this aim. Although hoping and striving for peace is a good thing, this vision can easily be devoid of transcendence, lacking the perspective of salvation history and of the Church’s faith.
If praying and working for peace and justice is a noble task, Catholics should keep in mind that the Church’s primary task is not to aspire for peace on earth but to work for the salvation and sanctification of men and their reconciliation with God. Moreover, a fixation on a purely human “peace and justice” could be diametrically opposed to God’s plan. How many remember the Lord’s stern admonition that He did not come to bring peace on earth but a sword (Mt 10:34) - because faith in Christ can sharply divide his followers from those who reject him? How many are aware of the great apostasy that will hit the Church in the last days (2 Thess 2:3; 2 Tim 3:1-5)? How many keep in mind that the Church will face a “supreme religious deception” with the coming of the Antichrist who will unveil “the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth" (CCC 675-76). It certainly seems that a pseudo-peace in the Middle East, alongside the secularization of the Gospel message and the neutralization of Church’s spiritual mission might well qualify as “apparent solution” to mankind’s problems at the price of apostasy from the truth (see A Catholic View of the End Times).
Here too, some members of the Catholic clergy tainted by rationalism might have the tendency to dismiss any talk of eschatology as “fundamentalist,” even though its most important tenets are an integral part of our faith, as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (668-82). It is true that Jesus said that no one knows the day and the hour when the Son of Man will come; but he also said that we should learn from the fig tree and be able to know when summer is near, that is, in what season of salvation history we find ourselves (Mt 24:23-36).
At a time where the Church in the Holy Land is facing more challenges than ever, it is time for it to recover its prophetic and eschatological vision. Only if it is enlightened by the truth of God’s Word will it be able to protect itself from deception, error, and false paths.
9. Silence is not always of Gold: The Tyranny of Political Correctness
Of all the problems afflicting the Church, perhaps the most debilitating is the widespread denial and refusal to acknowledge and address these problems. It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to stop blaming her decline on external socio-political problems, and to acknowledge that many of her most critical weaknesses stem from a lack of faithfulness to her own mission. It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to stop blaming her problems on the Israeli “occupation,” acknowledge and courageously combat the anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Liberation Theology in her midst, abandon the spirit of dhimmitude and speak clearly and forthrightly on the Islamic threat, vigorously revive the Church's spiritual and evangelical mission, openly recognize and remediate its doctrinal, prophetic and eschatological lethargy, establish solid programs of biblical and doctrinal formation, etc...
The time has also come for the Church in the Holy Land to change her message to the world: it is not enough to appeal for more people to come on pilgrimage or to donate money. We must trust in Christ, in obedience and faithfulness to his words, and not only seek material help from the West! World opinion must be formed and informed not with politically correct platitudes, appeals to political activism or fundraising campaigns, but with the whole truth. The greatest appeal to the worldwide Christian community should be that they pray that all of us Christians in the Holy Land acknowledge the “elephants in the room” that are paralyzing the Church's mission so that we might diligently work together to tackle and overcome in all earnestness these problems.
10. Selective Ecumenism: Ignoring the Messianic and Evangelical Communities.
The gravity and number of the internal problems affecting the Catholic Church in the Holy Land shows that Catholics need help to overcome them. Some of this help could come from our Evangelical and Messianic brothers, whose strength lies precisely in our greatest areas of weakness: they have a good grasp of the dangers of replacement theology and a sincere and true love for Israel (although many of them suffer from many persecutions and injustices); they appreciate their Jewish roots; they clearly understand the Gospel's priority of the spiritual over the temporal; they are not bogged down in liberation theology and are less susceptible to falling into socio-political agendas; they understand well the nature and threat of Islam; they are less prone to relativism and more faithful to the call to evangelization and leading others to Christ; they take faith formation, discipleship, and catechesis seriously; they understand well the reality of spiritual warfare; they have a sharp prophetic and eschatological vision; they are not mired in political correctness and are generally not afraid to speak out the truth.
As mentioned above, it is not as if the Messianic and Evangelical communities don’t have problems of their own: they lack the guidance of the successor of Peter in the person of the Pope and teachings of the Church, they are deprived of the priesthood instituted by Christ, of most of the sacraments, and especially of the Holy Eucharist; they have a reductionist understanding of Mary and the communion of saints, and much more. Yet these lacks need not be an impediment to dialogue; on the contrary, they should impel us all the more to increased ecumenical collaboration between them and the Catholic Church, since this collaboration could be so greatly beneficial for all parties.
Sadly, the Catholic Church in the Holy Land currently engages only in selective ecumenism. While much effort is put into fostering relationships with the Orthodox and mainline Protestant churches (often with serious problems of false irenicism and intercommunion among confessions, against the explicit regulations of the Church), the Messianic and Evangelical communities are ignored, shunned, and sometimes even demonized. Perhaps because their friendly stance towards Israel does not agree with the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel attitudes of the mainline churches, the Messianic and Evangelical communities are often unfairly caricaturized as fringe apocalyptic sects who proselytize recklessly only in order to usher in the Second Coming as soon as possible.
It is time for the Catholic Church in the Holy Land to put an end to the selective ecumenism and shameful shunning of the Messianic and Evangelical communities, and to open their doors and arms to all fellow believers in Christ – especially those who are best equipped to help Catholics overcome the grave issues that are paralyzing the work of the Church.
Summary: A Proposed Roadmap for a New Direction in the Church
Many good people live, work and pray in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, and they sincerely and conscientiously wish to make a positive difference. If you are one of them reading this, know that your life and work in Israel is important. The goal of this letter is not to blame anyone, but rather to encourage all Christians - and especially Catholics - to reflect on how we could carry out our Christian calling in a more faithful way. The dire situation of the Church today indicates that many of the positions and policies that have been accepted and followed in the last few decades - whether officially or unofficially - have failed. It is time for a new approach, and this new approach (in summary) must include:
- decisively rejecting neo-Marcionism, replacement theology, and rediscovering the Jewish roots of Catholicism and of the Christian faith;
- decisively rejecting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and fostering among Catholics a true appreciation and love for Israel (obviously, this does not mean that everything Israel does is good, and it does not exclude legitimate criticism of some Israeli actions);
- decisively rejecting anti-Israel Palestinian Liberation Theology, and finding ways to support the Palestinian people in a way that is more respectful and appreciative of Israel’s prophetic calling;
- decisively rejecting the dhimmi mentality and stop being silent or in denial about the increasingly aggressive threat of radical Islam;
- return the role of dialogue to its proper place as a subset of the Church’s mission of evangelization;
- establish vigorous programs of catechesis and doctrinal formation for the faithful;
- raise the awareness of the need for spiritual warfare, and train and equip the clergy to pass on this awareness to the faithful;
- restore the prophetic and eschatological vision in the Church, and translate this vision into action;
- reject political correctness and describe the reality in the Holy Land as it truly is;
- restore a true and complete ecumenism, with a truly welcoming and open outreach to Messianic and Evangelical believers;
Implementing these changes will require a real change of heart, of thinking and of mentality on the part of our Catholic clergy and laity. As Pope John Paul II said it so often: "Do not be afraid!" May our Lord Jesus Christ give the leadership of the Church the courage and the vision, the flexibility and the determination to change the current course, and to guide the Catholic Church in the Holy Land towards a greater fidelity to her mission, so that she may be again salt and light to the people of the land where Jesus was born.
As we have mentioned, if any point we have written should be inaccurate or wrong, we invite you to let us know, along with the relevant facts, so that we may make any necessary correction or improvement to our statement. We at Catholics for Israel stand in solidarity and communion with the local and universal Church, remaining at the disposition and service of our pastors, and happy to help in any way we can towards an authentic renewal of the Church's mission, for the salvation of Israel and of the whole world.
Ariel Ben Ami and the Catholics for Israel team