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At Notre Dame, Rethinking Catholic Attitudes Toward Israel

An afternoon of religion and diplomacy

Armin Rosen
May 10, 2018

From Crown Heights to Zion Canyon, the United States is dotted with places reclaimed as holy ground. On the surprisingly crowded map of sacralized America, the Notre Dame campus is distinctive for its decidedly nontranscendent surroundings: America’s leading Catholic educational institution breaks the monotony of the Indiana flatlands, two hours from the nearest big city and over an hour inland from Lake Michigan. The Congregation of Holy Cross, which founded the university in 1842, must have realized how much was left to the imagination. A major campus landmark is a partial reconstruction of the Grotto of Lourdes, sitting beneath the apse of the school’s towering neo-gothic basilica. Venerable as the Grotto is—construction began in 1869 under William Corby, who preached to Union troops at the Battle of Gettysburg—a visitor could remain oblivious to its power if they didn’t stop to read a plaque reproducing the final letter that Tom Dooley, a 34-year-old Notre Dame alumnus and medical doctor dying of cancer in Hong Kong, sent to Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh in 1961. “What is unutterable, I can utter because I can pray. I can communicate. How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?,” he wrote. “How I long for the Grotto… If I could go to the Grotto now, I think I could sing inside… the Grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but no one talks about College Walk or even Michigan Stadium that way.

Speaking of College Walk, on the day I visited Notre Dame graduate students were on strike at Columbia over the administration’s refusal to recognize their union. The radical foment convulsing America’s college campuses was nowhere in evidence in tranquil South Bend (or, more accurately, near South Bend—Notre Dame is technically a separate city). “What is bubbling at 212 degrees in other places is maybe 50 degrees here,” Gary Anderson, the university’s Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology told me. I’d showed up at the tail end of his office hours; before meeting me he was tutoring a perplexed undergrad on the concept of ousia, a word I have never heard before. Ousia is being, or essence—the ousia of a dog is different from the ousia of a human, and the ousia of a human is in turn different from the ousia of God. Should I have talked to Anderson about ousia, instead of nervously quizzing him about Catholicism and Israel? It now feels like a wasted opportunity that I did not.

The bulletin boards at Malloy Hall, where Anderson has his office, was blanketed in flyers for events with titles like “Thomistic Supersubstantivalism: A Framework for Understanding Medieval Views of Peace,” alongside notices for a talk on Catholic approaches to the concept of white privilege. Notre Dame has sex-segregated dorms with visiting hours and other rules regulating members of the opposite gender. There are no fraternities, and John Hale, a freshman and member of the Notre Dame Friends of Israel, boasted at the over 300 masses held on campus during a given week— “Tonight is Milkshake Mass in Dylan Hall,” he advised, an excellent tip for Catholics passing through South Bend on Thursdays during the school year.

“You’d find faculty members who have some distaste for religion, but here it would be very uncool to be vocal about it,” Anderson said, a Hebrew-language bible opened to Vayikra on one corner of his desk. Behind him loomed a computer monitor showing a Biblical Hebrew worksheet for one of his graduate classes.

In 2005, Anderson wrote an essay for First Things entitled “How to Think About Zionism.” The article asks readers to take Israel’s existence seriously from a Christian perspective. He called for “bold theological affirmation” of the country’s possible significance within the Christian God’s plan that nevertheless eschewed the Evangelical temptation to see Israel as a sign of the end-times. “Is the return to Zion part of God’s providential design and eternal promise to His people Israel?,” Anderson writes as the close of the essay. “I believe that it is. Is Israel’s most recent return to this land final and permanent? No one can know for sure.” The first of these statements motions towards a Christianity-based acceptance of both Israel and the validity of God’s covenant with the Jews—but uncertainty on Israel’s permanence explains why even the most pro-Israel Christians shouldn’t treat the Jewish state as a fetish object. As Anderson demonstrates, there is nothing in Christian or even Jewish theology saying that the Jews can’t be exiled again if things go poorly.

In his office, Anderson mentioned an exchange between the Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope Benedict XVI, prior to the Vatican’s 1993 recognition of Israel. Wyschogrod noted to Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that many Jews suspected a theological motive behind the Vatican’s refusal to recognize Israel. Ratzinger responded that non-recognition was a pragmatic policy meant to protect Catholics living in Arab and Muslim countries—As Anderson explained, Ratzinger’s position “Wasn’t grounded in a rejection of the modern state of Israel.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Ratzinger wrote some of modern Catholicism’s most trenchant and self-critical works on the faith’s relationship with the Jews.

Anderson suggested that a full understanding of the differences between Christianity and Judaism, and of Judaism’s uniqueness, could make Catholics more fully appreciate how and why Israel exists as it does. “Judaism is not a religion in the sense that Christianity is,” he said. “When I tell friends I know people who are Jewish who don’t believe in God, they don’t get that.” Judaism is multifaceted enough to withstand a separability between faith, peoplehood, and practice that would render other religions incoherent. “There’s no comparable division of Christian experience,” Anderson noted.

I was at Notre Dame partly because of a scheduled debate between Michael Desch, a realist scholar of international relations who has argued against a tight US-Israel relationship and suggested that Israel was established as part of a quid pro quo with America for failing to stop the Holocaust, and Michael Doran, a historian and former director on George W Bush’s National Security Council who tends to see a close alliance with Israel as both a moral and strategic imperative for America. In an essay from this past May, also published in First Things, Doran traced ideological splits in US foreign policy to early 20th-century divergences within American Protestantism. According to Doran’s framework, Christian universalists rejected missionizing and looked askance at American power. In contrast, populists believe in a covenant between God and American democracy and are confident in the rightness of their country and faith. The universalists look at Israel with haughty contempt; the populists see the country as a realization of a divine plan and a natural ally for the US.

Alas, thanks to an administration meeting, Desch couldn’t make it. The anticipated clash, which would have been a really great peg for a story exploring the state of American Christian thinking about Israel, didn’t occur. “‘I watched some of your videos on YouTube. I’m quivering at the prospect of having to debate you. I’m hiding in my office and I can’t come, please forgive me.’ I forgive you,” Doran said, pretending to read a note that one of the event’s student organizers, from the Notre Dame branch of the Alexander Hamilton Society, had passed to him. Doran and Notre Dame professor Eugene Goltz traded arguments about the wisdom of the Iran nuclear deal, and Doran at least hinted at his views of the morality of US support for Israel. In Syria, he asked, “What if we combine our forces, the US and the Israelis, and we came up with a strategy to get in the face of the Russians and Iranians? How much more power would we have? How much pain could we cause them in Syria?”

For a more direct articulation of how Christian first principles might related to the Jewish state, I had to speak to a couple students from the Notre Dame Friends of Israel. For John Hale, Israel’s appeal related to the forces he believed the country was standing against. “We believe in the concept of free will,” he explained. “In Catholicism your choice to love Jesus has to be your choice.” This was in contrast to the Islamists, who, as Hale tells it, think faith can be coerced or imposed: “There’s a natural pushback against Hamas and Hezbollah and all these extremist groups. That puts us on the side of Israel and the Jews.”

Christina Herrera, a senior, had a tattoo of a cross on one wrist that she’d gotten at Razzouk’s, in the Old City of Jerusalem Christian quarter. “The Catholic perspective is to support peace when you can,” she said. As the niece of a priest, she said she appreciated how “it’s impossible to understand Christianity without understanding Judaism.” In Israel, her faith felt even more immediate than it did in Rome. “This is the where miracles happened,” she realized visiting the Sea of Galilee. “He walked here.”

Herrera said that Notre Dame “holds Catholic identity to such a high standard… the question is, what does that identity entail?” Hale, who said he can remember the sole time in his life he missed a Sunday mass (“I was on vacation with my family and we couldn’t find a church”), has an idea of what it should entail, at least in an ideal world. “We have a catechism and a doctrine that doesn’t change,” he said. “What is perfect is the word of God…it’s been clarified, but it hasn’t changed.” Hale and Herrera fear that Notre Dame is deviating—both noted that the university had recently included certain contraception coverage under its health insurance plans, something that the school had once sued the Obama administration to prevent. “Father Jenkins is super liberal, pushing back on a lot of things Catholicism stands for,” Hale alleged of Notre Dame’s current president.

For all its uniqueness, Notre Dame was not immune from the arguments roiling the broader Catholic or Christian world. These debates might not have much to do with Israel or the Jews at the moment—but as the rifts between traditionalists and liberals or universalists and populists continue to emerge, it might not be a bad idea to pay attention.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.