Responding Morally as Catholics to the Crisis in the Holy Land

COMMENTARY: In the fog of war, the light of the Gospel is needed more than ever.

Smoke rises over the city of Rafah in southern Gaza Oct. 10.
Smoke rises over the city of Rafah in southern Gaza Oct. 10. (photo: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock)

For 75 years, the situation in the Holy Land has created various unresolved political and diplomatic problems. There are two peoples whose identities are firmly rooted in the same land, both of whom have endured great injustices and both of whom have also increased the sufferings and sorrows of the other. The lack of peace between them not only negatively impacts the lives of Israelis and Palestinians but also destabilizes the whole Middle East and, because of its religious significance, harms global intercultural and interreligious harmony. 

It’s understandable that those directly affected, as well as many others across the world — notwithstanding the complex historical and political realities involved — have formed hardened moral opinions about the situation and have chosen sides, determining the good guys to be defended and the bad guys to be condemned and opposed. Such prejudices, however, have been blinding some to what should be rather obvious moral evaluations of what has happened in and around Gaza the last month. 

Hamas’ surprise attacks on Oct. 7, invading kibbutzim on the Jewish sabbath, massacring families in their homes, mass murdering youth at parties, sadistically violating women, executing children and seniors in cold blood, killing more than 1,400 and kidnapping and parading 220 others as humiliated trophies, deserves nothing but the firmest excoriation. 

That is what the Holy See stated at the U.N. Security Council on Oct. 24, when Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, on behalf of the Holy Father, declared that the Catholic Church “in the most absolute terms and unequivocally condemns the terrorist attack carried out by Hamas and other armed groups on 7 October against the population of Israel. Thousands were barbarically killed and wounded. … These crimes demonstrate utter contempt for human life and are unjustifiable.” 

A similarly forceful denunciation was articulated by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa. In an open letter to Holy Land Christians on the same day, despite the obvious dangers for Christians in Gaza who live under Hamas, he wrote, “My conscience and moral duty require me to state clearly that what happened on October 7 in southern Israel is in no way permissible and we cannot but condemn it. There is no reason for such an atrocity. … The use of violence … does not lead to peace. The life of every human person has equal dignity before God, who created us all in His image.”

And, yet, that lucid moral clarity is not shared by many in the United States, including on elite campuses and in various major cities, where rallies, demonstrations, statements and other shows of support have, somewhat incredibly, sought to justify Hamas’ attacks. The day after the attacks, for example, 31 student organizations at Harvard signed a joint statement declaring that “the Israeli regime [is] responsible for all unfolding violence,” whitewashing Hamas’ atrocities as “colonial retaliation” against an “apartheid regime.” For them, opposition to the state of Israel was an end that justified whatever infernally sadistic and homicidal means Hamas wanted to employ. 

In other rallies, mobs have taken up the chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” which calls for the de facto genocidal expulsion of Jews and Israelis from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean — in other words, from the Holy Land altogether. Catholics cannot but condemn such evil incantations, as Israelis bear the trauma of burying 1,400 loved ones and pray for their 220 kidnapped family members. 

Solidarity with the state of Israel as it seeks to eliminate Hamas terrorists lest Hamas carry out further appalling attacks on the innocent, however, doesn’t mean Israel has a moral carte blanche to do whatever it deems appropriate. 

The good end of destroying a terrorist network — which has likewise made life much more difficult for the ordinary residents of Gaza, including Christians — does not justify any and all means, like relentlessly bombing civilian infrastructure regardless of civilian casualties, even if Hamas bears ultimate responsibility for immorally using those in hospitals, schools, mosques and housing complexes as human shields. Nor does it justify a “total siege” that cuts off water, food, electricity, medicines, power and communications to all the people of the region. 

Since Hamas’ savagery, more than 8,000 in Gaza have died as a result of Israel’s retaliation.

In his statement on behalf of Pope Francis to the United Nations, Archbishop Caccia reminded the international community that “criminal responsibility for terrorist acts is always personal and can never be attributed to an entire nation or people. The right to self-defense in every conflict must always comply with international humanitarian law,” which is violated by total sieges and bombings when high civilian casualties are foreseen. 

Cardinal Pizzaballa stated the same day in his letter: “This new cycle of violence has brought to Gaza over [then] five thousand deaths, including many women and children, tens of thousands of wounded, neighborhoods razed to the ground, lack of medicine, lack of water and of basic necessities for over two million people. These are tragedies that cannot be understood and which we have a duty to denounce and condemn unreservedly. The continuous heavy bombardment that has been pounding Gaza for days will only cause more death and destruction and will only increase hatred and resentment. It will not solve any problem, but rather create new ones.” 

This immorality is something that Catholics, too, must forcefully condemn. 

But Catholics must do more than the service of denouncing violations of basic principles of morality on both sides. 

The first thing Catholics must always do is pray and intercede. That’s why on Oct. 17 and 27, Pope Francis asked all Catholics to pray, fast and do penance for peace in the Holy Land. Catholics do not need to wait for the Pope to ask, however. Prayer for the situation needs to become a continuous plea of the Mystical Body and Bride of the Prince of Peace, whose land of birth has yet again become drenched in blood. 

Second, Catholics are called to love their neighbors. Jews are being attacked not just in Israel by Hamas. It’s a difficult time to be a Jew in America, on campuses, and in some cities, where the situation has given some a green light for widespread antisemitic words and actions. We need to reach out and let them know that we’re not only praying but that we’re there to support and defend them. Similar solidarity must be given to Palestinians and especially Gazans in America, as they endure with obvious anxiety the destruction of Gaza and the feared deaths of family members and friends. As Catholics, at a personal level, we must love them both. 

Third, in our own circumstances, we must support the cause of peace, through encouraging moral clarity, opposing propaganda, promoting forgiveness, and supporting workable political resolutions. In the short term, there must be humanitarian corridors, release of hostages and the following of the principles of international law in warfare. In the long term, the Holy See continues vigorously to promote a “two-state solution,” recognizing that it is the most workable solution to seek to end the cycle of violence and achieve the legitimate aspirations of the two peoples. If there’s not such a two-state solution, then it’s likely that the most radical on both sides will push for the fulfillment of their aspirations through the elimination of the other. 

In the fog of war, the light of the Gospel is needed more than ever. It’s time for Catholics, at every level, to give it and to live it.