Nostra Aetate: a gift for the 21st century

How human experience came to be recognized as one of the important sources of important theological and pastoral conclusions

By Daniel Di Domizio | United States
Posted by Andre Claessens, MSC

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Documents arise as we are called to address important moments in our collective lives. But they often take on an evolving meaning and greater clarity as human events continue to shape and reshape history. A half-century later the same document and thought pattern acquire a new meaning and significance that were not evident at the moment of their original formulation. Context is critical. The intent of this article is to trace a historical evolution that slowly emerged in the decades prior to the Vatican Council II, came to fruition as Nostra Aetate, after vigorous debate during the Council, and continues to uncover new meaning and relevance even to the present day. As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the Council in October, 2022, I believe our moment in history requires thoughtful reflection on this dramatic, historical event in the life of the Catholic Church. Who were these more than two thousand bishops who came together in Rome in the fall of 1962?

Never before in the life of the Catholic Church had such a gathering of bishops represented such a diversity of races, nationalities and cultures in the universal body of Christ. Europeans comprised the largest body of bishops. Bishops from the Americas were the next largest contingent. Asians and African bishops were present in respectable numbers. Notably absent were most bishops from nations that were behind the so-called Iron Curtain, living under Communist rule. Rome was a familiar setting for many bishops who may have studied in Rome as seminarians as well as those who had made regular canonical visits to the Holy See as Church law requires October 13, 1962 Thousands of spectators including journalists from around the world witnessed the colorful spectacle as a seemingly endless procession of bishops moved solemnly through St. Peter’s Square and entered St. Peter’s Basilica. No doubt many bishops and spectators anticipated that the Council would last perhaps several months; that the bishops would approve the agenda, the so-called “schema,” drafted the previous three years by mainly Vatican officials; and perhaps be back in their dioceses by Christmas. However, in the course of several short weeks, most bishops realized that the Council would be more than a large perfunctory gathering. During these early days, the bishops themselves, with the support of Pope John XXIII, began to challenge aspects of the agenda. The Council would be a genuine exchange of views, energized by the bishops themselves, under the leadership mainly of bishops other than Vatican officials. The rest is history. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. During the second session of the Council in 1963 the bishops took up one of the key documents of the Council, one of the four named Constitutions, this one on the nature of the Church. Many claim that this document effectively laid the foundation for the profound, transforming insights that emerged in later conciliar documents. The theological and pastoral concepts that undergird the discussions on the nature of the church mainly originated amid theological discourse, not without controversy, during the decade before the Council. German and French theologians played leading roles in these theological developments. Many of these same theologians would serve as experts, periti, at the Council. Chapter 2 of the Constitution on the Church: the People of God. No doubt few of the bishops realized the future implications of Chapter two of the Constitution. This chapter enshrined the term, People of God, a term that has become cherished in the Catholic community. After elaborating how Catholics in union with Christ constitute the People of God, the Council in paragraph 16 continues: “Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. “First, the Council named the Jews, the people of the “covenants and promises…from which Christ was born according to the flesh.” After describing the intimate bonds Catholics share with their Jewish brother and sisters, the Council continues, “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Moslems, who profess to hold the faith of Abraham and together with us adore the one merciful God. ” The Council then moves further: “Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God…”. Also, “those …who seek God with a sincere heart…and try in their actions to do his will as they know it…these too may achieve eternal salvation.” (emphasis the author’s)These last sentences are not only theological conclusions but they are also the result of the daily experience of ordinary people’s awareness that goodness, even holiness, are not the exclusive property of Christians, but are present in men and women who affirm many beliefs or even none at all. Thus began a trajectory that would ultimately bring the bishops of the Council, step by step, to the unprecedented affirmations of Nostra Aetate in 1965. Human experience came to be recognized as one of the important sources of important theological and pastoral conclusions.

The journey to Nostra Aetate

During the preparations for the Council, Pope John XXIII expressed a strong desire that the Council craft a strong statement about the Church’s relationship to Judaism. The tragic reality of the Shoah weighed heavily on the minds of most bishops. Before the Council, Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat for Christian Unity drafted a brief statement that addressed past Christian negative views and stereotypes about Judaism. The Jewish people, according to Cardinal Bea’s statement, remain God’s people. Months before the opening of the Council, the Preparatory Commission rejected this statement based on a political concern. Some bishops whose dioceses were within Muslim-majority countries feared that the statement would be interpreted as favorable to the state of Israel amid the tensions in the middle east. What would be the consequences for the Christians living in these nations? Sixty-three non-Catholic observers attended the third session of the Council in the fall of 1964.These included many representatives of the Orthodox Church, as well as members of major Protestant denominations and Dr. Lukas Visher of the World Council of Churches. During this third session of the Council, the bishops explored a variety of options to resolve the objections to the proposed statement of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. What emerged out of the debates was the decision to include in a document addressing Judaism also reflections on the Church’s relationship to Islam as well as other world religions. This longer document came to be called “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” Instead of inserting such a document as a chapter in a larger document that would include statements on ecumenism and religious freedom, the Council fathers opted to formulate three separate documents. Hence, in November 1964, the Council approved the Decree on Ecumenism, followed in the last session in 1965 by the Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions in October, 1965 and finally in December, 1965 the Declaration on Religious Liberty. With the formulation of these three historical documents, the trajectory Cardinal Bea initiated during the preparation for the Council came to a conclusion certainly unanticipated even by the Cardinal himself as well as by the late Pope John XXIII.

The aftermath

Numerous commentaries have chronicled the reception of the Council in the years immediately after the Council. Changes in the life of the Catholic Church occurred in different countries with varied success. In the United States ecumenism especially blossomed at many levels, official and popular. Interfaith relations began somewhat more slowly. By the 1970’s Jewish-Catholic dialogue became more prominent in many Catholic dioceses. Theological schools in the United States and in some other countries began to offer courses on ecumenical and interfaith relations. A major Conference on Jewish-Catholic relations in Milwaukee in 1981 brought into prominence experts on both sides of the dialog. The conference also sparked increased awareness of the importance of this exchange .Anti-Semitism, once a fairly common disease in some quarters in the U.S., seemed to diminish in Catholic circles as people learned more about Jewish culture and practices. In was not uncommon for synagogues and churches to host speakers from the partner in the dialogue. Interfaith friendships flourished. In a sense, the trajectory rooted in Vatican II remained vibrant into the next decades.

Catholic-Muslim Relations

The Catholic-Muslim dialogue grew an a more modest pace. Often the dialogue took place between scholars on both sides. Occasionally, friendships developed between individuals and families. Unfortunately, ancient stereotypes about Muslims, even dating from the middle-ages, lingered in the popular Christian consciousness. This writer recalls the statuary that adorns the centuries-old down-town Charles Bridge in Prague that depicts a Christian warrior standing on the neck of a Muslim. Such images reflect cultural biases that perdure across time and space. Added to these cultural barriers, were the political tensions that permeated the middle east. Often Muslims viewed the United States as opposed to Muslim interests in the middle east.  While religion and politics are typically viewed as separated in American culture, the reality is that the popular mind often fails to make the distinction. Politics is often an unwelcome companion to interfaith dialogue.

9/11: From threat to dialogue

The Muslim world broke into the world’s consciousness in a dramatic, tragic explosion on the morning of September 11 in New York City. The event will live long in popular memory. What took place subsequently in the United States and elsewhere is profoundly significant. Muslims, especially in the United States, experienced a barrage of hateful threats. Within days, Christian communities and others mobilized support for their beleaguered Muslim brothers and sisters. Churches and interfaith organizations quickly sponsored dialogue sessions featuring speakers from Christian communities, Jewish organizations as well as Muslim representatives. Such events were held in churches, universities, and other public venues. The focus of these gatherings was to impress upon a confused public that the perpetrators of the attacks, though they claimed Islamic justification for their actions, did not truly represent the Koran or Islamic teaching. Attending these dialogue sessions were supporters of interfaith activity and concerned citizens struggling to comprehend the magnitude of what had taken place on 9/11.Numbered among the organizers and speakers were Catholic academics and prominent Catholics, some holding official positions in dioceses. Without naming Nostra Aetate, these Catholics seemed to sense that responding to the events and supporting the Muslim community were simply part of their Catholic identity. This is not to say that all Catholics took up this activity. Yet the positive response seemed to be widespread, from the Papacy down to neighborhood parishes. In the months and years that followed, Christian/Muslim dialogue became a vital part of Catholic interfaith activity and in interfaith events in general. In addition, prominent Muslim men and women assumed key roles in all aspects of interfaith life. Catholic institutions often respond to the Muslim community in creative ways. A Catholic university in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, manifested respect for their Muslim students by setting aside a room on campus and providing mats so that Muslim students might have a private space to engage in their daily prayers at the appropriate times of the day. The same University (Cardinal University) during Ramadan invited members of the student body and faculty to join Muslims on campus in the fast during a day in Ramadan and to share a meal with these students when they broke the fast after sundown. It was as if the spirit of Nostra Aetate hovered beneath the surface of Catholic life for many years, and then began to be embodied on just such an occasion as 9/11.Sixty years after the opening of the Vatican Council II under the discerning eye of Pope Saint John XXIII, Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions remains a precious gift to the Catholic Church as it moves forward in this complex, post-modern world. In the words of the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Perhaps we are tending towards a world so completely different that the experience of history to date will prove inadequate for understanding it (the world) and being able to move about in it.” (the Other, 91, 2006).

Daniel Di Domizio, is a member of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, Committee for Interfaith Understanding of the Milwaukee Interfaith Conference. He is former professor at Marian College, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and professor emeritus at Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee (United States).