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Nostra Aetate: Transforming Our Understanding of Other Faiths

28 October 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions which was published after the Second Vatican Council.

This is an abridged version of a paper about the document presented by Archbishop Kevin McDonald, Chairman of the Bishops’ Conference Committee for Relations with the Jews and Director of the Office for Interreligious Relations.

Big things often come in small packages, and revolutions can come about from the smallest of beginnings. Nostra Aetate is not a long document, nor a complicated one, but it transformed the Church’s understanding of other religions. In judging how great a transformation, it is important to remember what went before; the Catholic Church had seen itself as the sole repository of truth, a fortress against a sinful and godless world, summed up in the terrifying and absolute sentence: ‘There is no salvation outside the Church.’

Nostra Aetate simply, but comprehensively, rewrites Catholicism’s relation to other faiths. It begins by pointing out, very matter-of-factly, that humanity is drawing closer together, and as part of this the Church needs to consider itself in relation to other faiths. What unites us, at base, is anthropology – that is, what we are in relation to God. All people are created by God, and he is their ultimate goal. Within this dynamic, religions of whatever sort are seeking to answer basic questions as to who we are, how we should behave, what meaning (if any) suffering has, and what is going to happen to us when we die.

But people want more than this. Nostra Aetate argues that certain religions have developed sophisticated answers to these timeless questions. It gives two examples: Hinduism makes abundant use of myth and philosophy to explain our place in the world, and invokes asceticism and meditation to rise above worldly suffering; Buddhism recognises that this world is conditional and imperfect, and directs its followers to liberation, or illumination. Basically, says the declaration, these and other religions seek to quell the restlessness of the human heart (cue St Augustine). Then Nostra Aetate drops its bombshell, which needs to be quoted in full: ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.’ Far from dismissing them, as in the past, the Church sees what is good in them as reflecting God’s truth: although, of course, it can never compromise or downplay the unique role of Christ. But the point is that the good aspects of other religions are to be encouraged, and Catholics are urged to engage with their adherents with the aim of fostering these good elements, which are reflections of Christ’s truth.

Having made its general points, Nostra Aetate singles out two faith groups. Muslims are mentioned first, as worshippers with us of the one true God (a point of contemporary relevance in arguments about the use of the name ‘Allah’). Islam recognises the covenant with Abraham, and although they do not acknowledge the divine personhood of Christ, they hold him in esteem as a prophet, and particularly reverence Mary. Islam, moreover, shares many moral elements in common with the Church. Of course, our relationship has been fraught for centuries, with Crusades, jihads, persecutions, and expulsions. The declaration urges Christians and Muslims to consider what they have in common, and look rather to the future.

The heart of Nostra Aetate concerns the Jewish people. Here in a few paragraphs, the declaration puts to rest years of condemnation, persecution and anti-semitism. Firstly, it stresses our common origin in the covenant with Abraham, and notes that through the centuries, this covenant as set forth in the Old Testament foreshadowed and pointed towards the Church of the New Covenant. Thus, the Jewish people are revered as the transmitters of the God’s promise to us, and the stock onto which we the people of the New Covenant (what are called strikingly the ‘wild shoots’!) are grafted. The document reminds us that Christ, not to mention the Virgin Mary and the apostles, were all of Jewish stock. Of course, most of the Jewish people did not accept Christ and his message, but God holds them dear and (in a lovely phrase based in St Paul) does not repent of the gifts he makes to them. Continuing to re-write centuries of negative judgement, Nostra Aetate states importantly that the Jews as a whole are not responsible for the death of Christ, and the existence of the Church does not mean that they are rejected or accursed. Anti-semitism, especially, is forbidden by the law of love in Christ himself, and our teaching about Christ’s death must correctly emphasise not the actions of some of the Jewish people, but rather his infinite love that overcomes human sin.

Nostra Aetate sums up its message: since we believe that all men and women are brothers and sisters in virtue of our likeness to God, our very faith excludes discrimination, particularly because of race, colour or religion. It is by living in peace with all men and women that we truly show ourselves to be sons and daughters of God.

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