For the 40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

Author: Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr.

For the 40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr.,
President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue

A Message to Dialogue that Spans the Decades

The Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions was solemnly voted and approved by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council on 28 October 1965. It is interesting to re-read this Document 40 years afterwards and to see that it has lost none of its relevance.

It has certainly inspired the members of the Catholic Church at different levels to promote relations of respect and dialogue with people of other religions. It continues to be a solid point of reference for these relations.

The fundamental unity of humankind

Nostra Aetate, "In this age of ours, when people are drawing more closely together": these are the opening words of the Declaration. Many nations have known throughout their history a society which is ethnically, culturally and religiously plural. In this sense, the opening words of Nostra Aerate had already been anticipated.

Yet there is indeed an increased pluralism in the world today. One can point to the large percentage of Muslims in the different countries of the European Union, but also to the presence of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Nor should one forget the many Christian workers in the Arabian Peninsula.

This presence leads to new questions concerning religious liberty and the legitimate requirements of religious communities. Nostra Aerate is to be read in conjunction with another Document of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious liberty, which treats these questions.

The introductory paragraph of Nostra Aerate reflects on what people have in common. References are given to the Christian Scriptures to show that all humankind comes from one stock and that God's saving design embraces all.

This truth was a constant feature of the teaching of Pope John Paul II. To give but one example, when reflecting on the Day of Prayer for Peace, held in Assisi, 27 October 1986, John Paul II referred to the common origin and common destiny of humankind. He said that in the in-between period "we must learn to walk together in peace and harmony or we drift apart and, ruin ourselves and others".

The differences are acknowledged, yet the basic unity is recognized. It can be said that this springs from the very nature of the human person. All people are faced with the same questions — about the meaning of life, about suffering and death, about genuine happiness — and they turn to religions for satisfying answers.

These questions are still posed. Scientific progress has not eliminated them, but perhaps has added new dimensions to questions concerning the dignity of the human person and the place of the human person within the created universe. Are people still turning to religions for the answers?

Perhaps in our age there are people who distance themselves from established religion and who wish to create a religion, or religions, which would appear to suit them better. The Post-Modern mentality, with its mistrust for ready-made syntheses, leads to the eclectic and syncretistic approach of New Age where people tend to draw from many religious traditions at the same time. Nevertheless, this evidence of continuing religiosity is a positive sign.

Dialogue with different religions

The second paragraph of Nostra Aetate treats of different religions: Traditional Religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Future articles will deal with followers of these religions. Here attention is called to some general observations the Document makes.

The paragraph concludes with an important assertion: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions". The truths they contain reflect "that truth which enlightens all men", the Truth of Jesus Christ which the Church constantly proclaims.

It is worth underlining also the second of the terms used: "holy". Does this not imply that those religions contain elements of grace which allow their followers to attain to salvation?

This does not mean that the Church recognizes these religions as alternative ways of salvation. The Document of the Second Vatican Council affirms strongly that the Church "is in duty bound to proclaim without fail Christ who is 'the way, the truth and the life'", through whom God has reconciled the world to himself. Yet the Council stated elsewhere that the Holy Spirit can lead people, in ways known to God, to share in the Paschal Mystery (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 22), which is only way of salvation.

The Document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, while insisting on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, encouraged theologians to examine how, in fact, different religions can play a part in the plan of salvation.

The simultaneous presence in Nostra Aetate of a call to both dialogue and proclamation has led necessarily to reflection on the compatibility of these two elements of the Church's mission.

The Dicastery for interreligious dialogue has published two documents on this theme: The Attitude of the Church towards the Followers of Other Religions. Reflections and orientations on dialogue and mission (1984) and Dialogue and Proclamation, produced conjointly with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 1991.

The same topic was addressed by Pope John Paul II in his missionary Encyclical Redemptoris Missio. He concluded: interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church's evangelizing mission.... In the light of the economy of salvation, the Church sees no conflict between proclaiming Christ and engaging in interreligious dialogue.... These two elements must maintain both their intimate connection and their distinctiveness; therefore, they should not be confused, manipulated or regarded as identical, as though they were interchangeable" (n. 55).

The conclusion of Nostra Aetate had been to encourage Catholics "to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions... while witnessing to their own faith and way of life". One could perhaps point to John Paul II himself as one who admirably followed this indication, showing himself always open to dialogue and yet at the same time being an indefatigable witness to Christ.

Since Nostra Aetate treats the religions in succession — it would have been difficult to do otherwise — the impression may be given that dialogue is always bilateral: Christian-Jewish relations, Christian-Muslim relations, Christian-Buddhist relations, and so on. Attention should be given to trilateral relations; Jews, Christians and Muslims which, though difficult, can make a contribution to peace in the world.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), together with the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, organized with the Office on Interreligious Relations of the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation two trilateral meetings on Jerusalem one held in Glion, Switzerland in 1993 and the other in Thessalonica, Greece, in 1996

Even more frequent, perhaps, are multilateral relations, particularly in societies where a multiplicity of traditions exist side by side. In fact, where tensions exist between two communities, the presence of members of other communities can help to prevent conflicts from breaking out.

One thinks here of the initiatives of  Pope John Paul II,  inviting people from different religions to come together in Assisi to pray for peace, in 1986 first, then in 1993 for peace in Europe and especially in the Balkans, and in 2002 as a response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

In October of 1999 the PCID organized an interreligious assembly in the Vatican on the eve of :the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The theme was: On the eve of the Third Millennium: Collaboration between different religions. The assembly ended with a solemn ceremony in St Peter's Square over which Pope John Paul II presided.

As a follow up to these reflections, the PCID held a further consultation in January 2003 on The SpiritualResources of Religions for Peace. There are also permanent structures for multilateral interreligious dialogue.

In the period since the proclamation of Nostra Aetate a number of organizations, multireligious in nature, have come into existence. As long as they respect the identity of each religion and do not attempt to unify all religions they can make a valid contribution to society.

The aspect of universal fraternity

Nostra Aetate ends with a paragraph that contains a forthright condemnation of all forms of discrimination. It has to be said that, unfortunately, this paragraph too retains its relevance today.

There has been a recrudescence of anti-Semitism in various countries of Europe, sometimes taking the form of attacks on synagogues or the defacing of Jewish tombs. Yet Muslims too have suffered similar attacks, and in some countries Christian churches have been burnt.

Where religious leaders have built up mutual knowledge and esteem, has often been possible for them to intervene in order to reduce tension. This is certainly one service that interreligious dialogue can contribute to the world.

Nostra Aetate, which encouraged Catholics to engage in such dialogue, can still provide inspiration and guidance.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 November 2005, page 4

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