As the Church commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican
Council’s ending, one of its final documents, Nostra Aetate, Declaration on
the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions has come in for renewed attention.
Despite its brevity, only five short sections totalling less than 2000 words, the declaration’s impact is significant, continuing to shape the Church’s evangelising mission within the context of a multifaith world.
Born of St John XXIII’s desire for the Council to make a statement on the Church’s relation with Jews, Nostra Aetate in its final version encompassed relations with the major non-Christian religions.
A meeting between St John XXIII and Jules Isaac, a Jewish French historian, in 1960 inspired the pope to direct the Council to consider relations with Jews, it had not been part of its original agenda. Not all
bishops were in favour, some arguing the issue be removed from council proceedings.
Meeting in the aftermath of the Shoah, the Holocaust, European bishops were particularly conscious of the often negative history of Christian-Jewish relations.
Reflecting on this history, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, former President of both the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, wrote ‘the history of these relations is not one of which the Catholic Church can be proud, since all too often it is a story of official oppression and discrimination.’
Behind this position was the Church’s belief that the Jewish people were guilty of ‘deicide’ and had lost their status as ‘God’s chosen people’.
Aspects of this negative attitude could be found within the Church’s liturgy, particularly for Good Friday, with the use of terms like ‘perfidious Jews’.
Bishops from Asia and Africa wanted any declaration to go beyond Christian-Jewish relations fearing it may be seen in the Arab world as the Church favouring the state of Israel.
Responding to such concerns the draft declaration included other religions, specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
It dismissed claims of deicide declaring ‘the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti- Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.’
Nostra Aetate has become a cornerstone for the Church’s relations with other religions. Embracing St John XXIII’s call for ‘aggiornamento’ (bringing up to date) through its declaration the Church ‘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 recognise, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.’
Recognising God operative in all cultures the Council acknowledged ‘there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history … This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.’
Human beings, ‘one [in] their origin’, regardless of culture, ‘struggle to answer the same questions’ and ‘expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which … deeply stir [their] hearts’. Shared human nature led the Council to consider its ‘task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations’, considering ‘above all… what men have in common.’
Australian Catholic University academic, Edmund Chia, argued at a recent conference on Nostra Aetate that most Catholics are ‘ignorant’ of the Church’s teachings in this declaration and display an ‘arrogance’ in relation to other religions.
Challenging such positions Nostra Aetate concludes by teaching, ‘We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God … The Church reproves … any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, colour, condition of life, or religion.’