Pope Francis, ‘Palestine’, and the ‘Angel of Peace’

The news that Pope Francis is getting set to officially recognize the ‘State of Palestine’ has left Israelis along with many supporters of the Jewish state disappointed and angry.  That the Vatican was moving in this direction has been apparent for some time, however.  In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to recognize ‘Palestine’ as a ‘non-member observer state’.  (The only other state granted this status is the Vatican City.)  Ever since then, the Vatican has referred to the ‘state of Palestine’ in all its communications.  During his visit to Israel last year, Pope Francis referred to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as the leader of the ‘state of Palestine’.

The agreement that the Vatican intends to sign with the non-existent ‘state of Palestine’ covers the activities and the legal status of the Catholic Church in the West Bank and Gaza.  (Arab Christians make up 10 % of the population of the West Bank.)  When signed, the accord will essentially recognize Gaza and the West Bank as a country of its own.

Am I surprised that the pope intends to recognize ‘Palestine’?  No, in part because I have just finished reading David Kertzer’s latest work, The Pope and Mussolini:  The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for biography-autobiography.  (This is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.)  Drawing on material in the Vatican archives formerly unavailable to researchers, Kertzer provides fresh insights into the collaboration that occurred between pope and Fascist dictator in the 1920s and 1930s:  a collaboration which led, among others things, to the founding of the nation-state known as Vatican City.  The Vatican, understandably, avoids drawing attention to the part played by Benito Mussolini in the creation of its nation-state.

Collaboration with Mussolini was the price Pope Pius XI was willing to pay in order to regain the power and prestige lost by the Catholic Church when Italy became a unified kingdom.  In 1871, at the time of unification, the so-called ‘papal states’ were swallowed up and incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy. For the next 58 years a succession of popes, incensed at the loss of their territory and thus their power base, refused to recognize a united Italy.  Things changed in 1929, however, when Mussolini indicated a willingness to cut a deal with the papacy.  On February 11, the Italian state and the Holy See (the Vatican’s ecclesiastical designation) signed the Lateran Accords.  The accords consisted of three parts:  a political treaty, a financial convention, and a concordat.  The political treaty ceded territory to the papacy for its own sovereign state to be known  as the Vatican City.  The financial convention awarded substantial financial reparations to the Vatican.  And the concordat granted the Roman Catholic church extensive rights and exclusive privileges.  Roman Catholicism, for instance, was declared the sole religion of Italy.  The accords were signed by Mussolini himself on behalf of the Kingdom of Italy.

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(Photo courtesy Pikabay)

The Vatican City is the world’s smallest nation-state.  It is also called the Holy See, which is its ecclesiastical designation; Vatican City is its political and diplomatic designation. Its area is .44 sq. km.  As of July 2014, its population was 842.  Its form of government is an absolute monarchy, with the pope holding all legislative, executive, and judicial power.

The signing of the Lateran Accords made news worldwide at the time.  An article in the Tuesday, February 12, 1929 edition of The New York Times noted how

[t]he Pope is again an independent sovereign ruler, as he was throughout the Middle Ages, though his temporal realm, established today, is the most microscopic independent State in the world and probably the smallest in all history.

An elated Pope Pius XI, who regarded Mussolini as heaven-sent, gushed,

“The times called for a man such as he whom Providence has ordained that We should meet….It is with profound satisfaction that We express the belief that We have given God to Italy and Italy to God.”

Little did the pope suspect that he had just handed Italy over to another god:  the god of war.

What did Mussolini gain from cutting a deal with the Vatican?  Il Duce (‘the leader’ in Italian) gained the support of a grateful Catholic Church, support which in turn granted the Fascist regime newfound respect and legitimacy.  In 1920s Italy, one could be both a good Catholic and a committed Fascist member at one and the same time, it was believed.  Only later, as Mussolini’s Italy began increasingly to resemble its ally Nazi Germany, did Pope Pius XI develop grave reservations about his support for Il Duce.  Unfortunately, the pope died before he could undo any of the damage.

I believe that Pope Francis is about to make an equally grievous misjudgment.  The pontiff is going to recognize as a nation-state a place which provides a safe base from which to stage terrorist attacks on innocent victims; a place where those who murder and maim Jews are called “heroes” and “martyrs”; a place where children are taught in their textbooks and schools and at their summer camps to hate Jews; a place where youth are told they will one day conquer and reoccupy the whole of Israel; a place where parks and stadiums are named in honour of suicide-murderers.  And this is only the West Bank!

Today, the pope held a private audience with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (a president whose term of office expired a number of years ago, incidentally).  As is customary at the end of an audience such as this, the two exchanged gifts.  Abbas gave the pope relics of the two Arab nuns from Ottoman-era Palestine who are to be canonized by the Catholic Church tomorrow.  The pope, in his turn, gave Abbas a medallion that represented the angel of peace destroying the bad spirit of war.  As he handed him the medallion, the pope reportedly told Abbas the gift was appropriate because he, Abbas, was “an angel of peace.”

But correctly identifying angels can be a tricky business, the pope must know.  As Scripture tells us, even Satan himself may appear as an “angel of light.”