Catholic Church Wrestles With Response to Hamas’ Atrocities
What is the appropriate Catholic response to the murderous military strikes that Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs the Palestinian-controlled territory of Gaza, unleashed against unsuspecting people in Israel?
This is the question that Pope Francis and other Church leaders in the Holy Land, the U.S. and elsewhere in the world are now grappling to address in the wake of the horrific surprise attack.
One takeaway so far: The Church hasn’t spoken with one voice.
On the morning of the Oct. 7 Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, an estimated 1,000 heavily armed Hamas fighters breached the barriers that wall off Gaza from southern Israel. Rampaging through the surrounding region, they slaughtered more than 1,300 people in Israel, including numerous defenseless women and children, and wounded thousands of others before Israeli soldiers were able to mobilize to repel the attacks. More than 100 people were abducted to Gaza as hostages by the retreating militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded Oct. 8 with a declaration of war and subsequently formed a unity government with the leading opposition party that vowed to “crush” the Hamas regime.
The Holy Father made his initial public remarks about the atrocities at the end of his Sunday Angelus address on Oct. 8.
“I am following apprehensively and sorrowfully what is happening in Israel, where the violence has exploded even more ferociously, causing hundreds of deaths and casualties. I express my closeness to the families and victims. I am praying for them and for all who are living hours of terror and anguish. May the attacks and weaponry cease. Please!” the Pope said.
He continued, “And let it be understood that terrorism and war do not lead to any resolutions, but only to the death and suffering of so many innocent people. War is a defeat! Every war is a defeat! Let us pray that there be peace in Israel and in Palestine.”
The Pope’s statement came a day after the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the newly created Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, issued his own statement, calling on the international community and religious leaders across the world to help decrease tensions.
“The operation launched from Gaza and the reaction of the Israeli Army are bringing us back to the worst periods of our recent history,” he said. “The too many casualties and tragedies, which both Palestinians and Israeli families have to deal with, will create more hatred and division, and will more and more destroy any perspective of stability.”
Warning Against ‘Drawing Parallels’
This framing of the weekend’s violence, as being reflective of an ongoing situation in which both Israelis and Palestinians are being equally victimized, drew the ire of the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See on the day of the attacks, which warned against “drawing parallels” between the actions of Hamas and Israel’s subsequent military response.
“In such circumstances using linguistic ambiguity and terms that hint towards false symmetry should be deplored,” the embassy said in a statement. “… Israel’s response under [these] circumstances cannot be described as anything but its right to self defence. It certainly cannot be described as aggression. Drawing parallels where they don’t exist is not diplomatic pragmatism, it’s simply wrong.”
Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org, a charity that promotes and advocates for persecuted Christians worldwide with a focus on the Middle East, told the Register, “The Holy See does seem to tread a delicate path and has been accused of ‘parallelism,’ which doesn’t go down well in Israel.”
“My personal opinion is that there should be no equivocation. There should be outright condemnation of the slaughter we have seen. There is no ‘balance’ — the idea that two sides are at fault — on this one,” he said, noting “the massacre of civilians” that took place during the attack on Israel.
“Hamas kills men, women, children and babies,” he said.
Whether Israel’s “linguistic ambiguity” criticism had any immediate effect on the Holy See is difficult to discern.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attacks against Israel, called for peace in the Holy Land, and said the Vatican is ready to help mediate a peace agreement, in an interview published by Vatican News on Friday.
Cardinal Parolin told Vatican News that the Hamas attacks were “inhuman” and that the Holy See expresses “complete and firm condemnation.”
“We express our solidarity with the affected families, the vast majority of whom are Jewish,” he said. “We pray for them, for those still in shock, for the wounded.”
He also expressed the Vatican’s concern for the civilians in Gaza and the “men, women, children and the elderly held hostage.”
“It is necessary,” Cardinal Parolin said, “to regain a sense of reason, abandon the blind logic of hatred, and reject violence as a solution. It is the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves, but even legitimate defense must respect the parameter of proportionality.”
At his weekly general audience on Oct. 11, Francis acknowledged that “it is the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves.” At the same time, he expressed concern about the “total siege facing the Palestinians in Gaza, where there have also been many innocent victims,” and renewed his call for restraint by both sides in the armed conflict.
“Terrorism and extremism do not help to reach a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but fuel hatred, violence, and revenge, causing suffering to both sides,” the Holy Father told the pilgrims.
‘No Room for Moral Ambiguity’
Church leaders in North America, meanwhile, have joined in the Pope’s prayers for peace and his appeals for mutual restraint. But some have been far more forceful than the Holy Father in terms of expressing support for Israel and condemning Hamas’ actions.
In an Oct. 11 statement, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston noted that even in the context of the Middle East’s long-standing pattern of armed conflict, “the massive military assault by Hamas on the State of Israel and its citizens stands as one of the worst moments in this long history.”
“Both the purpose of the attack and its barbaric methods are devoid of moral or legal justification,” the cardinal said. “There is no room for moral ambiguity on this issue. Resisting such terrorism and aggression is the moral duty of states to be carried out within moral limits.”
“While such moral judgment is necessary at this time, my primary focus as a Catholic bishop is one of prayer, condolence and sympathy for those who have lost parents, spouses and children during this past week,” Cardinal O’Malley continued. “These sentiments extend also to the Palestinian civilian community and families in this conflict, for death is never confined to one side in war.”
Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver also condemned the attack in an Oct. 8 message to his city’s Jewish community, describing the assault as “a serious violation not only of international law but, even more importantly, of the moral law that is written in the conscience of every human being,” according to a BC Catholic report.
‘Distinctively Christian Approach’
Stephen Hildebrand, a professor of theology and vice president for academic affairs at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, lauded Cardinal O’Malley’s statement for being, at once, “truthful” and “balanced.”
“He doesn’t achieve the balance by diminishing … the moral repugnance of what Israel has suffered,” Hildebrand told the Register.
Hildebrand acknowledged the tensions at play in any response from a Catholic leader to the massive and brutal assault on Israel that unfolded on Oct. 7 and targeted many civilians.
“I don’t want to diminish what they’re suffering at all,” he said. But it is also important, he added, not to “lose sight of the distinctively Christian approach to these kinds of things, which I think involves a measured avoidance of violence, a reluctance to engage in violence.”
Cardinal O’Malley’s statement is effective, he added, because it manages to encapsulate that Catholic viewpoint while still condemning what Hamas has done.
“He acknowledges the suffering on both sides and long history of conflict,” said Hildebrand. But “whatever just grievances the Palestinians have against the Jews — and that will be a huge debate,” the cardinal makes clear that those grievances “don’t come close to justifying, explaining, or in any way making sense of what Hamas has done.”
While Hildebrand said he reacted with anguish to shocking scenes of Hamas militants executing innocent Israeli civilians, he noted that his university would soon be co-hosting an Oct. 24-26 conference, “Nostra Aetate and the Future of Catholic-Jewish Relations at a Time of Rising Antisemitism.”
While the conference speakers were prepared to address the ongoing importance of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions, amid the disturbing rise in antisemitism across the West, the attack on Israel injected fresh urgency into their deliberations, said Hildebrand.
Prayer for Just Peace
That same rush of urgency has galvanized political leaders in Washington, D.C., to affirm Israel’s right to self-defense and denounce antisemitism in all of its forms. The White House has been working with U.S. allies to contain the Israel-Gaza conflict before it escalates into a far more dangerous regional war. Thus President Biden has called for further penalties against Iran, which is widely viewed as Hamas’ chief supporter; deployed U.S. military forces to the area; and urged Israeli leaders to adopt a “proportionate” response to Hamas’ assault.
At the same time, the Vatican, Cardinal O’Malley and other Church leaders are clearly worried about the impact of the rising violence on vulnerable Christians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank who are far from the corridors of power but will feel the impact of war firsthand.
“Although Christians are only 0.05% of the huge total population in the Gaza Strip, a small but dynamic Christian community does also live there — in very difficult conditions in the best of times, as one might imagine,” Dominican Father Anthony Giambrone, vice director and professor of New Testament at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, told the Register in an email message.
“The sole Latin Catholic parish, Holy Family, belongs to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and has one of the best schools in the entire region. It is located near the north end of the strip, and thus lies in an area dangerously exposed to very heavy bombardment.”
The Dominican noted that the violence had not explicitly targeted Christians. But the war could have an outsized economic impact on this small community because so many are employed in service industries directed at pilgrims. And as the war continues and more Holy Land pilgrimages are canceled, many more Christians may flee the birthplace of the Church, leaving its houses of worship empty of active local believers.
But Father Giambrone also gave voice to another more urgent problem: a deepening fear that the region is on a knife edge, poised for a “defining conflict” that could consume a new generation of combatants, while drawing foreign actors into the conflict.
“The present order of things is patently unsustainable, both politically and morally, and something inevitably needs to give,” he said.
“The situation might accordingly very easily spin out of control in any number of ways — which, of course, is entirely Hamas’ design. The grim horrors that they perpetrated seem designed to lure Israel into the trap of ‘overreacting’ and thus pulling in other regional actors, who are on the sidelines waiting for the cue.”
Asked to offer his thoughts on what Pope Francis should do at this time, Father Giambrone said the Holy See should work for a “just peace. At the moment, however, both sides are locked in the framework of settling their scores, so prayer itself may be at present the best diplomacy.”
“Perhaps like Pius V invoking Our Lady of the Rosary, on whose feast day this war began, the Pope might again help unite the Christian world in a vast communion of intercession for the ultimate victory of this just peace.”
This story was updated after posting to add new Vatican response from Oct. 13.