Charles de FoucauldOne year and a half ago, on May 15th, 2022, Charles de Foucauld (1856-1916) was solemnly canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church. This priest is renowned for spending the last sixteen years of his life in solitude at a hermitage in the Algerian part of the Saharan desert. There, he adopted a unique approach to expressing his faith. Instead of proselytizing, he engaged with the local population, mostly Tuaregs, as friends without a predetermined agenda. De Foucauld authored the first French-Tuareg dictionary and painstakingly collected traditional Tuareg poems. Tragically, he was murdered in his hermitage on December 1st, 1916. Many say that the "concierge" of the hermitage, supposedly one of Foucauld's local "friends," committed the crime.

It is unsurprising for the Little Sisters of Jesus, a religious congregation following de Foucauld's spiritual legacy, to commemorate the anniversary of his death - his 'birth in heaven,' as Catholics say - with a Mass dedicated to his memory. Given their preference for celebrating Mass in Hebrew, the sisters invited me, one of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic priests based in Jerusalem, to preside over the ceremony. For the Mass readings, they selected a well-known passage from John's Gospel. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus declares: 'This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.' (Jn. 15:12-14).

I accepted the invitation of the sisters. Still, for the first time in my - already fairly extensive - life of ministry, I declined to commemorate the saint and to read the Gospel passage chosen for the occasion. Instead, I insisted on celebrating the "ordinary" Mass of the day, the apocalyptic feeling of which I found much more suited to the local political situation. According to all standards of the Catholic Church, this was the wrong thing to do. There was, however, little I could do to overcome my visceral reaction. In the context of Israel's just reignited war against Hamas, the figure of Charles de Foucauld, as well as the passage from the Gospel, reminded me too much of what I find deeply questionable in the official reactions of the Catholic Church to this conflict.

I would define the core issue as follows. On the one hand, there is the Christian message of unconditional love and its emphasis on self-sacrifice at the hands of those who hate you unjustly: "No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends." On the other hand, there is the logic of war: you want to liquidate those who hate you to the point of murdering your nation by all possible means, preferably the most horrific ones. What I identify as problematic is the conflation of these two logics - a confusion that I have a hard time not considering to be deliberate.

Indeed, as an individual endowed with a fundamental degree of freedom, one has the right to let those who hate you murder you, as Christ's message of unconditional love prescribes. The death of Charles de Foucauld is a telling illustration of this truth. The saint gave his life for the sake of those he called his friends, some of whom happened to be the ones who hated him the most. However, can one requirefrom a whole nation that their members surrender their existence similarly? Does one have the right to decide what they should do in their stead? Can one compel an entire country to experience martyrdom in the name of a persuasion their members do not even share ?

According to reports from the Times of Israel (Nov. 30 - quoting the Washington Post), Pope Francis warned Isaac Herzog, Israel's president, against "responding to terror with terror" during a tense phone call. I surmise that the Pope was referring to the civilian casualties of the war in Gaza. I will not mention the unique and fantastic effort of the IDF to avoid these casualties, contrasting with Hamas' methodical efforts to increase them, mainly through the use of human shields. I will only ask: what is the alternative for Israel if, as long as the Jewish state exists, Hamas has vowed to destroy it, committing to repeat the atrocities of Oct. 7th as many times as it would take? What is the alternative if not surrendering a whole nation to those who are intent on wiping it out from the surface of the globe? This projection of this specific Christian logic onto the logic of this particular war appears unwarranted, especially considering the clarity of Catholic teaching on this point.

While insisting on finding ways to avoid the calamities of war, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2308, quoting Vatican II declaration 'Gaudium et Spes,' 79, {4}) asserts that "…governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed". Here, the main conditions for a war to be deemed "just" are stated as follows: 1) "the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain" 2) "all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective" 3) "there must be serious prospects of success" 4) "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated". Is Israel's involvement in the current conflict not a case in point, given the conditions specified (condition 3 being as much certainty as an object of daily prayer)?

Considering Hamas' resolve and military resources, Israel's expected course of action seems tantamount to self-sacrifice ('do not respond to terror with terror'). Meanwhile, the Holy See refrains from designating Hamas as an aggressor and a terrorist organization, even after October 7th. The declaration of the Pope and the statement of the Latin Patriarch in the immediate aftermath of October 7th, content with expressing sorrow at the sight of the lengthy list of victims, do not distinguish between the attacker and those who were attacked (see the Times of Israel).

With other heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarch rushed to blame Israel as the perpetrator of the alleged bombing of the Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza. I cannot remember hearing a word of apology towards the IDF - nor seeing an accusing finger pointed in the direction of Hamas - after it was revealed that this "bombing" was nothing but a lie destined to cover up a misfire on the Palestinian side.

The desire to not alienate the Palestinian faithful is all over the page, and it is difficult not to decipher the stern attitude of the Catholic authorities towards Israel in this light. Behind the de facto appeals to a Christian sense of love and self-sacrifice, what I perceive is the deliberate ignorance of Israel's predicament - a conscious refusal to empathize with the Jewish state - as a means to support the Palestinian Catholic faithful, or rather, in the hope of preserving their support. Catholic authorities know that these faithful are beholden to display solidarity toward the so-called "Palestinian resistance" due to the pressure exerted on them by other Palestinians - that is, in the case these Catholic faithful are not spontaneously inclined to such solidarity.

Catholics with some sense of historical perspective may remember an episode that is eerily similar to the one we are currently going through at this stage of the conflict. During World War II, a hitherto controversial Pope refused to denounce a regime that was systematically decimating European Jewry. Historians have not finished dissecting the "silence" of Pius XII. At any rate, the rationale was to appease a powerful tyrant who could retaliate by taking it out on the local Catholic faithful. Everything in this attitude is about preserving the flock, be it at the cost of truth. Or simple human decency. Still, the glorious example of Charles de Foucauld shows that calling "friends" those who hate you is not without risk. I do not doubt that the Pope will walk in the footsteps of Saint Charles if provided with the corresponding opportunity. We only must wait until a surprise attack of Hamas on the Vatican.

Yehuda is a pseudonym used by a French Catholic priest currently living in Jerusalem. He has been writing on the topic of Jewish Christians and Messianic Jews. He is involved in "Yachad beYeshua", a movement that seeks to gather believers in Jesus with a Jewish background from all religious denominations.

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