University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Patrick Gaffney, C.S.C.

In terms of media reporting, public debate, and partisan polemics, the recent conflict in Gaza can be characterized like its predecessors as a military confrontation and diplomatic poker game between Israel and Hamas. But on a deeper level this latest tragic chapter, like the others, belongs to a larger picture that is difficult to shrink down and fit into the vocabulary of the nightly news roundup.


In order to understand the conflict in Gaza, one must understand this larger picture. Those who speak for this other dimension, this larger picture, do not compete in the same arena as politicians, diplomats and soldiers for whom war is a matter of winning or losing. Instead, these other voices engage the same pressing issues, but in a way that expands the boundaries of discourse from the immediate strategies at hand to a concern for and recognition of their fundamental human consequences.

This other dimension goes by different names. For the sake of brevity here I will call it conscience. By this, I am pointing to the reflective awareness of a law higher than national sovereignty, a source of moral discrimination that is not justified by ethnic or religious belonging, by party loyalty, by self-interest, by dominant power, or by collective desire.

Rather, conscience judges right and wrong, and calls us to act on the basis of the conviction that life is a gift and we are all responsible to the gift-giver. Of course, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims this giver of life is the one God whose commands include: “thou shalt not kill” and “love thy neighbor.”


I evoke this larger picture and stress its importance by way of addressing the visit of Pope Francis to Israel and Palestine shortly before the outbreak of the latest hostilities and to argue for its relevance to “understanding Gaza.”

The historical interest and spiritual claims of Christians upon the Holy Land represent both a profound attachment and an enduring sacred trust, but these have become inextricably entangled in the nationalist struggle between Israel and Palestine along with internal political divisions.

In this light, the very short visit of Pope Francis in May was carefully choreographed and staged as an effort to make a significant positive contribution to the sadly stunted peace process. His cumulative words and dramatic gestures were highly charged with symbolic weight, given the Pope’s privileged role as a voice of conscience.

The pope’s achievement lies in his display of a single posture with two distinct emphases: one presented to Palestinians and the other delivered to Israelis, but without contradiction.

Pope Francis conveyed to Palestinians his affirmation of their legitimate rights, especially the end of occupation and the establishment of their own state. To Israelis, he reiterated acceptance of their right to live in safety, including an expression of sincere remorse for past persecutions at the hands of Christians. In a word, Pope Francis embodied the formula that would free Palestinians from oppression and free Israelis from fear, squaring the circle to bring justice and security into one accord.

According to official Vatican sources, the motive for the Pope’s visit was reconciliation, specifically a commemoration of the spectacular encounter of Pope Paul VI with the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem exactly 50 years before. That meeting led to the healing of the great schism that had divided Eastern and Western Christianity for almost 900 years.

This recreation of that fraternal embrace also serves as an illustration and an inspiration for the radical changes in hearts and minds that follow from the awakening of consciences. Pope Francis articulated the practical results of this conversion at the final event of his visit, a Mass at the Cenacle, revered as the site of the Last Supper and of Pentecost. We are called, the pontiff said, to service, friendship, sharing, sacrifice, fraternity, harmony, family, and peace.

The Pope’s later explicit and forceful calls from Rome for an end to the violence in Gaza and other related initiatives, including the “partita per la pace” (a soccer match of all-stars held in Italy to raise money for victims), continue this appeal to conscience, asking all sides to risk the courage that a just and lasting peace requires.

Patrick Gaffney, C.S.C., is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame.