ROME – Leaders often speak at least as loudly by what they don’t say as by what they do, and such would appear to be the case in recent days regarding Pope Francis’s approach to Israel and the broader Jewish world.
A series of perceived papal slights began in late October, when a group of family members of victims of the Oct. 7 surprise attack by Hamas against Israel, as well as family members of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas, visited Italy.
Accompanied by Israel’s Ambassador to Italy, the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the President of the Jewish Community of Rome, the group met with a series of leading national figures, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
According to news reports at the time, the group also requested a meeting with Pope Francis but was informed that due to the demands of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which met until Oct. 29, the pontiff was unable to make time in his schedule. Ironically, the day after the group met Meloni the pope granted an audience to a delegation from the U.S. Holocaust Museum, making it all the more striking to some observers that he didn’t meet the Israeli families.
Those reports suggested the group may attempt to return to Rome in late November in hopes of being received by the pope, but to date nothing official has been confirmed.
Next, this past Monday Francis received a group of European rabbis in the morning as part of a busy schedule that day, including four different audiences and a large gathering with roughly 7,000 children from around the world.
During the session with the rabbis, Francis announced that due to poor health he wouldn’t read his prepared speech, which was instead distributed to participants.
That prepared text was a fairly generic and brief reflection on Jewish-Christian dialogue, though it did contain an explicit condemnation of “the spread of anti-Semitic demonstrations,” which it called “of great concern.”
The fact that Francis skipped pronouncing that line out loud, despite the fact that he gave all his other addresses that day without difficulty and showed no real signs of fatigue or illness, led some observers to speculate that the omission was intentional.
Lucetta Scaraffia, a veteran Italian journalist and the former editor of a women’s insert to L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, voiced open skepticism in an essay for the Italian daily La Stampa.
“Despite the official explanations, it’s very difficult to believe that skipping the reading of the speech to European rabbis, received yesterday in audience by Pope Francis, was caused by a health problem,” she wrote, asserting that it reflected instead an “ambiguous attitude” toward Israel and Judaism.
The next day, a joint statement from the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, representing the Catholic Church, and the Council of European Churches, an ecumenical body, offered what many observers regarded as a striking contrast with the rhetoric used to date by the pope.
“The violence and cruelty of Hamas terrorists, who struck Israel on 7 October, stunned and horrified the world,” the European church leaders said.
“We, the leaders of the Christian Churches in Europe, express our deep compassion for those who died, were injured, or lost a loved one, and we turn our thoughts to the hostages and their families,” they said.
Veteran Italian journalist Franca Giansoldati wrote in Il Messaggero that the European bishops have “completely displaced” Pope Francis in terms of moral leadership, given that to date, while the pope has issued generic condemnations of terrorism and has called for the liberation of hostages, he has yet to specifically denounce Hamas.
Taken together, these three episodes have led observers such as Scaraffia to detect what she called a “worrying signal” from the pope on the Gaza conflict.
“Francis doesn’t like wars, but behind that position, which I’d dare to call fairly obvious, something else always seems to be lurking: A refusal to express a moral judgment, to indicate with clarity the difference between victim and aggressor,” she wrote.
“In fact, the thought occurs that the pontiff isn’t entirely sure that the victims of an unjustified sneak attack actually have the right to defend themselves, just as the suspicion arises that his well-known antipathy for the United States gets in the way of feeling sympathy for aggrieved countries that enjoy American protection,” Scaraffia wrote.
How to explain these episodes?
First, there are obvious parallels with the pope’s approach to other conflict situations, such as the Syrian civil war that broke out at the beginning of his papacy and, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The broad pattern is for Francis to avoid denouncing specific leaders or groups, in the hope of remaining above the fray and thereby positioning the Vatican potentially to play a mediating and peace-making role.
That always frustrates people who want the pope to come down clearly on one side or the other, but from the Vatican’s point of view, public discretion is the price to be paid for behind-the-scenes leverage.
Second, in the case of the war in Gaza, it also has to be remembered that the bulk of the Christian population in the Holy Land is Arab and Palestinian, so Middle Eastern bishops and clergy tend to be strong supporters of the Palestinian cause. Their voices carry weight in the Vatican, and are amplified by the Vatican’s natural sympathy for small states and perceived underdogs in international affairs.
Third, there’s also an historic shift underway in terms of the Vatican’s inter-faith priorities. Since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, Judaism has been the Church’s primordial relationship, unquestionably the highest priority in inter-religious dialogue. Under history’s first pope from the developing world that’s no longer necessarily the case, as other relationships, especially the dialogue with Islam, have become at least an equally compelling perceived priority.
It’s obviously not that Francis or his Vatican advisors are hostile to Judaism. It’s rather simply that this relationship is no longer the engine driving the train in quite the same way as once upon a time, so the perceived slights or gaps of the last couple of weeks could simply be seen as a natural byproduct of that transition.
However one explains it, the bottom line is that on Gaza we’re likely in for a bout of déjà vu from Ukraine – once again, a country that perceives itself as the victim likely will feel disappointed in a pope who won’t say so out loud, and once again, supporters and sympathizers of that country within the Catholic fold likely will fault the pope for a failure in moral leadership.
We’ve seen that cycle before, and we’ll probably see it again – because however “ambiguous” critics may find the pope’s approach to be, he’s shown precious few signs of reconsidering it.