‘Nostra Aetate’ at 50

Fifty years ago, on 28 October 1965, Vatican II promulgated ?The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.?

Fifty years ago, on 28 October 1965, Vatican II promulgated “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” It is also known by the Latin title Nostra Ætate from the opening lines of the declaration: “In our time…” From the very outset, it was clear this was no ordinary declaration. It begins by recognizing that religions ponder the deepest questions about human existence and their meaning. Using Hinduism and Buddhism as examples of how these questions are treated differently by different religions, the declaration makes a statement that for the time was astounding:

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 (Par. 2).

For centuries, the church regarded other religions of the world as, at best, competitors and, at worst, repositories of error and even evil. When attempts were made to understand other religions, it was to refute them. While there were a few open spirits, such as the Rev. Matteo Ricci, S.J., the Rev. Louis Massignon and others, who tried to understand other religions as they were experienced by the believers of those religions, this was the exception and not the rule. The declaration, Nostra Ætate, however, completely transformed the atmosphere between the Catholic Church and other world religions from one of distrust and even disdain to one of respect and dialogue. The declaration makes the challenge: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”

Although often mistakenly referred to as the “Church’s Decree on Jews,” the changes that the declaration brought about between Christians and Jews were probably the most visible ones for people in the Western world. For centuries, Christians had looked down on Judaism as a religion that had become overcome. Supercessionism, as it is called, saw the advent of Christianity as rendering Judaism empty and without value. Throughout more than a thousand years Jews suffered — often with violent consequences — under the accusation of deicide. That is to say, Jews were held to be responsible for having killed God in Jesus. The Catholic Church repudiated this forever in Nostra Ætate: “… what happened in His [i.e., Christ’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures” (Par. 4).

The declaration also spoke at length about Muslims and the importance of dialogue with this, the second largest religion in the world, a religion whose members were often in bloody conflict with Christians over the centuries.

Fifty years after Nostra Ætate, there remains a great deal to be done. Catholic Near East Welfare Association knows all too well that conflicts with elements of religious motivation still rage throughout our world. And, in places like the Middle East, it seems to have worsened. Much of CNEWA’s work is geared to relieving the suffering of people who are victims of these conflicts. There are also still far too many places in the world where Christians and other peoples of faith suffer for what they believe, often at the hands of other believers. Nonetheless, the trajectory set by the declaration has been nothing short of incredible. The Catholic Church — as well as other Christian communities around the world — has set up dialogues with the major religions of the world. Programs of education have made what was once strange and exotic better understood and familiar. In an almost prophetic way, Nostra Ætate prepared the way spiritually for the huge movement and displacement of peoples that would take place in the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries.

In the next year, there will be many events commemorating and celebrating the promulgation of Nostra Ætate. It is indeed something very worthy of commemorating, celebrating, studying anew and handing on to generations to come. As people from the different world religions increasingly come together in our world as immigrants and refugees, Nostra Ætate can provide a type of manual as to how Christians can accept these people with at one and the same time love, respect and faithfulness.

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