When news broke of the Vatican’s use of “State of Palestine” in an official document this week, it occasioned the launch of numerous analyses about Pope Francis and his political leanings. Instead of being an indicator of the pontiff’s secret biases, it ended up putting the biases of the media into a clear relief. The use of that phrase — and indeed, Vatican support for Palestinian statehood — began almost three years ago, during the pontificate of that noted lefty communist-supporting Benedict XVI.
John Allen at Crux thinks the media has lost its collective memory, if not its collective mind:
The Vatican has been using the phrase “State of Palestine” in its official diplomatic verbiage since November 2012, when the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to admit the Palestinians as a non-member observer state. The Vatican has always supported Palestinian statehood, and took the position that it would follow the lead of the UN as to when to start referring to it as a fact.
It should be noted that the UN vote came during the papacy of Benedict XVI, meaning that recognition of Palestine as a state is not a new Vatican policy under Francis.
Benedict XVI hardly sat on the sidelines on the issue — and for that matter, neither was St. John Paul II:
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 where bishops from around the world gather in a meeting called a “synod.”
The agreement announced Wednesday further cements the relationship between the Vatican and the Palestinians, and certainly Vatican diplomats are not so naïve as to fail to recognize the political relevance of using the phrase “State of Palestinian” in an official communiqué.
However, to style that phrase as another diplomatic innovation under this maverick pontiff is excessive. At most, it’s a confirmation that the Vatican under Francis is not backing away from a position it had already taken.
Noah wrote yesterday that the document probably didn’t mean as much as critics assumed, and he was more correct than he knew. Allen notes at the beginning of his debunking article that the media hasn’t done a very good job of learning the history of the Vatican and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and are unprepared to deal with developments and put them in proper context when they occur under this highly popular pontiff. This is one of the more embarrassing examples, but we’ve seen others arise, especially during the Extraordinary Synod on the Family — which is why I wanted to be in Rome to cover it, and got lots of great insight from people like John Allen, John Thavis, and others.
It makes one wonder why these media outlets don’t just as Allen, Thavis, and others who know better. They’re pretty accessible, and friendly to boot.
The agreement yesterday fits into the Vatican’s prime interest into keeping up formal relations with the Palestinians. It extends an agreement reached in 2000 about the legal status of Catholic churches and clergy in the West Bank and Gaza. The Vatican takes protection of those Christian communities seriously, just as it has with the destruction of others in Iraq and Syria. The Christian communities in those areas are evaporating disturbingly fast, thanks to pressures from both the Palestinians and the Israelis, especially in Bethlehem where the security wall cut through Christian areas and seriously damaged their economy, which wasn’t great in the first place. The Vatican wants to sustain those communities, and the only real way to do that is to keep up ties with the Palestinians, whether the Israelis or others like it or not.
One Christian with whom I spoke at length during my most recent travel there said he understood the need for the wall, but that it should have been built outside of the cities of the West Bank rather than through them, as in Bethlehem. They also face other economic issues; Hamas and the PLO have social safety nets for Muslims, and the Israelis have them for Jews in the settlements, but the Christians have nothing of the kind. For the most part, those born in the West Bank and Gaza cannot work in or travel to Israel, not even to see their families, without insurmountable red tape. They’re isolated, falling deeper into poverty, and most of them are packing up for other parts of the world and abandoning the birthplaces of Christianity for good. It’s for these reasons that the Vatican has taken these positions — starting with John Paul II and continuing to this day. They have to work closely and remain on friendly terms with the PA in order to protect those communities and better still to preserve them.
That’s not to claim that these policies are necessarily the only correct ones or even wise in themselves, but they’re not irrational or uninformed either. And despite the media storm over the past couple of days, they’re not new and they didn’t originate with Francis.