The fruits of ‘Nostra Aetate’ 50 years later

As the Second Vatican Council labored to embrace the call by Pope St. John XXIII for the Church to enter into dialogue with the modern world, one of the thorniest issues was that of the Church’s relationship with other religions, including Judaism and Islam. After much deliberation, the council approved the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions — in Latin, Nostra Aetate (“In our time”) — on Oct. 28, 1965.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the declaration, The Catholic University of America will host the symposium “Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims” from May 19-21.

To appreciate the importance of Nostra Aetate, Our Sunday Visitor interviewed Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, who is head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, which is co-sponsoring the conference.

Our Sunday Visitor: Nostra Aetate is considered a watershed declaration in the life of the modern Church. What made it so extraordinary?

Bishop Mitchell Rozanski: For the first time in the Church’s history there was an acknowledgment that there is truth contained in the other religions of the world. In light of this acknowledgement, the Council Fathers set the Church on an irrevocable path of dialogue with other religious families. The establishment of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is one of the fruits of Nostra Aetate as well as the work of the USCCB Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. I had the privilege of witnessing Cardinal William Keeler, when he served as Archbishop of Baltimore and into his retirement, concretely put Nostra Aetate in action through his relationships with the Jewish and Muslim communities. This bridge-building on a local level as well as in wider circles of the Church has helped to foster a spirit of cooperation and understanding that no one would have thought possible before this landmark document.

OSV: It was considered a somewhat controversial statement when it was promulgated 50 years ago. Why was that?

Bishop Rozanski: For centuries, and especially after the Protestant Reformation and Council of Trent, there was a persistent teaching that “outside the Church there could be no salvation,” which regrettably at various times in history was stressed to the point of engendering persecution of people of other faiths. This enduring thought played a large role in the formation of Catholic consciences and hence tended to bring about a suspicion of other faith groups. This harsh description certainly does not indict all Catholics, even a majority of Catholics, but rather reflects a truth in our ecclesial history that cannot and must not be denied or reaffirmed ever again. Also, because Nostra Aetate makes plain that the seeds of truth can be found in other religions, seeds that do not contradict but complement the truth of Christian revelation, this completely reversed what Catholics were used to hearing and believing and would have caused controversy in the shape of confusion, fear, rejection and, in some cases, an acceptance that went beyond the intention of the Council Fathers in issuing this document.

OSV: Why was it an important statement to make for an ecumenical council that was calling for the Church to enter into dialogue with the modern world?

Bishop Rozanski: If we analyze how Nostra Aetate related to the overall goal of the council to enter “into dialogue with the modern world,” then we realize that there are many millions of people who are not Catholic. It would only seem natural, then, that in opening up the Church to the world, it would be necessary to reach out to other religions and cultures in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation where it is possible. Remember that as a Vatican diplomat, the future Pope John XXIII served in Turkey where he would have undoubtedly interacted with people of Islam. Needless to say, his experiences would have influenced him as he sought to foster a dialogue with the wider world and this concept was adapted by the Council Fathers in Nostra Aetate.

OSV: Part Four of Nostra Aetate speaks of the relationship between the Church and Judaism. What made that section so historically and theologically significant?

Bishop Rozanski: Firstly, there is the acknowledgment of Christianity’s origin in the Hebrew Scriptures. The culture and faith of Jesus, his apostles and most of those who were Christian at that time had deep roots in Judaism. Nostra Aetate acknowledges the ties between the Jewish and Christian faiths that make our relationship so unique. The document also condemns anti-Semitism and calls on Catholics to recognize that Fathers of Vatican II want to “foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.”

This is indeed a great base by which we acknowledge misunderstandings and even persecutions of the past and yet look forward to a new phase of Catholic-Jewish relationships.

OSV: Part Five of the declaration reiterates the Church’s teachings that man is created in the image of God and condemns all discrimination on the basis of race, color, condition of life or religion. Why is that so relevant for today?

Bishop Rozanski: What comes to mind is Pope Francis’ repeated admonition (which was stated unequivocally by all of his predecessors since the council) that religion can never be used to violate the inherent dignity of the person, whatever his/her religious or moral status.

In this sense, Nostra Aetate offers the only viable alternative: a resounding endorsement for a robust and intensified dialogue between members of the world’s religions, which today is being pleaded for by all sensible religious leaders.

OSV: What have been the fruits of Nostra Aetate over the last half century?

Bishop Rozanski: As a result of this landmark declaration, numerous efforts have been established to foster dialogues with other faiths on local, national and international levels. The effects of establishing these councils, committees and secretariats must never be underestimated for the great contribution of helping to foster trust between persons of different faith traditions. Nostra Aetate has helped, precisely through these groups, to create a new narrative based more on a true and humble estimation of the positive dimensions of non-Christians.

Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.

Symposium Details
What: Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims