Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.
|(Photo courtesy Catholic News Service)|
Among controversial topics at the Second Vatican Council was how the Church should approach people of faith who are not Christians. The Council Fathers asked what is the meaning of other religions and what is their value for Catholics? This became the subject of the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” known as Nostra Aetate (In Our Age), finalized in 1965.
The Fathers first focused on the common human search for meaning: the purpose of existence, the meaning of suffering, the road to true happiness. They then got specific, starting with words of respect for both Hinduism, whose adherents “contemplate the divine mystery” while seeking freedom from suffering through ascetical practices or profound meditation, and Buddhism, whose followers “realize the radical insufficiency of this changeable world” and seek to find “supreme illumination.” These and other religions, the Fathers asserted, seek to ease the restless the human heart through teachings, rules of life and sacred rites.
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” the Council taught. “She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”
The document called for intense dialogue and collaboration with the followers of these religions. Pope Paul VI had already established in 1964 a Secretariat for Non-Christians, known after 1988 as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Their dialogues and contacts don’t aspire to achieve full unity as is the case with other Christians, but seek to establish relationships of trust and efforts to address together problems we all face.
Nostra Aetate also examines the Church’s attitude towards Islam. It speaks of the Church’s esteem for Muslims and lists positive elements in their life and teaching. They adore one merciful and all-powerful God, and strive to submit to Him. They do not believe that Jesus is God, but revere him as a prophet. They honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, await the Day of Judgment and the resurrection of the dead. They have high moral values and worship God through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Even though there is a long history of hostility between Christians and Muslims, the document “urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding,” social justice, peace and freedom.
In the United States three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues work towards goals the Council set. They have issued texts on such matters as the sources of revelation and marriages between Catholics and Muslims. This is a difficult relationship givrn the geopolitical situation today, but the dialogues are making progress.
The Declaration reserved the most space for the Jews. Indeed, the Church has much more in common with the Jews than with any other religion. The Church received the revelation of the Hebrew Scriptures through the people with whom God concluded the Ancient Covenant, and the Apostles and most of the early disciples were Jews. Even if most Jews did not accept the Gospel, God still holds them “most dear” and “does not repent” of the gifts he has given them.
Nostra Aetate rejects any notion that all Jews were responsible in the past, or any Jews today, for the death of Jesus. Moreover, the Jews cannot be understood as rejected or cursed by God, and so anti-Semitism in all its forms is utterly rejected. This has led to a vast improvement in relations between the two groups, and at a historic visit to the Rome Synagogue in 1986, Pope John Paul II referred to them as our “elder brothers” in the faith of Abraham. In the U.S. we have two dialogues with the Jewish community, one with the National Council of Synagogues, and one with the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America. Misunderstandings may arise, but the relationship to the Jews today is light years away from what it was before the Council.
Bishop Denis Madden chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.