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50 Years Later: Nostra Aetate

On October 28, 1965, the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, released a declaration on the Catholic church’s relationship to non-Christian religions.  It was a groundbreaking and still-relevant declaration on interfaith engagement and relationship across lines of religious difference.  This should be no surprise, since nostra aetate means “in our time” in Latin.

You might wonder why I care about this, since I am not Catholic. As my friend Zuzu can attest, I am only about a stutter step at any given moment from Catholicism, and Vatican II is a major part of that.  I have never come across a more generous and loving document made by a gathering of religious people.  That fact, along with the fact that this document was written literally fifty years ago amidst a world filled with a desire for revolution, leads me to take some time to explore this document and its implications for us today.

Regarding non-Christian religions, “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. 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.”

Consider this statement deeply.  2,221 Catholic leaders in 1965 agreed that this is the way the Church should view the various religions and religious people in the world.  They are not to be viewed as primarily lost, but as at least possessing a ray of Truth.  Wherever that truth is discovered, it is celebrated and affirmed by the Church.  And this declaration is still the foundation for the way the majority of Catholics view the non-Christian religions.  What if all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, began to see ‘religious others’ in this way?

The Church did not simply make a statement in general, but chose Islam as an example for what it means to see the ‘ray of Truth’ that permeates all religions.  “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God”. The Nostra Aetate goes on to note that, although Muslims don’t revere Jesus as God, they still do revere him as a prophet, and “they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting,” all of which are common ground shared between Christians and Muslims.

Rather than choosing to make a statement that focuses on the differences between Catholicism and all other religions, or choosing to elevate Catholicism above the other religions, the writers of the Nostra Aetate and the voters involved in Vatican II saw fit to point out the starting points for relationships with people of other faiths – namely Muslims.

“[This] sacred synod urges all to forget the past (conflicts between Christians and Muslims) and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

This is the only point at which I disagree with the authors of this document.  I don’t think that it is possible for Christians and Muslims to forget the past, or current, conflicts.  Rather than forget, I think we need to acknowledge and seek mutual forgiveness for the wrongs we have done, and the wrongs that have been done to us.  Only then can we work towards mutual understanding, social justice, welfare, peace, and freedom.

What we have been blessed with by our forebears in interfaith engagement, over fifty years ago, is a still relevant set of standards for how to be human beings amongst other human beings.  First, we acknowledge the imago Dei – the image of God which resides within each human person.  Second, we acknowledge that Truth has been cast widely into the world, and is found in every corner of every page of every religion – set there by God so that man might seek him and find him.  Third, we seek to find what is common upon which to build a relationship focused on working together to make the world a more just and peaceful and free place for all of us.  This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God”.

Amen.  May we learn to live in ways that make these words true ‘in our time’, nostra aetate.

Grace & Peace


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