Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II. In the current issue of ONE, we chat with Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, apostolic nuncio to Egypt, about the legacy of the council and, in particular, Catholic relations with Islam.
ONE: One of the most significant documents the council produced remains “Nostra Aetate,” which addressed the Catholic Church’s relations with non-Christian religions. How would you assess its meaning and impact?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: “Nostra Aetate” has been a very significant document. It has, of course, to be considered in relation to “Dignitatis Humanae,” the declaration that affirms the right to religious liberty, and also to “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the church. This constitution states that the nature of the church is comparable to that of a sacrament, in other words it is a sign and instrument of what God is doing to bring salvation to the whole of humanity. This is the basis for the church to reach out with great respect to the followers of different religions, conscious that the Holy Spirit is already active within their hearts and also within their religious traditions. This conviction leads to the statement that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (NA 2). This does not signify by any means that the church considers all religions to be equal, since it believes that the fullness of revelation has been given in Jesus Christ. Yet the attitude of respect provides the grounds for dialogue and cooperation at the service of all members of the human race. This teaching, repeated and put into practice by the recent popes — Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI — has radically changed relations between Christians, especially Catholics, and the followers of other religions.
ONE: Among other things, this declaration addressed the church’s relationship with Islam. Half a century later, what has changed in that relationship? What has not?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: “Nostra Aetate” has a full paragraph on Islam. Its opening words came perhaps as a surprise to many: “The church has also a high regard for the Muslims.” It notes their strong belief in one God, their veneration for Jesus — although stating clearly that they do not acknowledge Jesus as God — the honor they give to Mary, the valuable practices of prayer, alms-giving and fasting. The declaration does not overlook the fact that “over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims,” but makes a plea for the past to be forgotten and efforts to be made toward mutual understanding. If one looks back over the intervening years, it can be noticed that strong links have been established between Christian and Muslim groups. There are regular meetings both at the international and local levels.