If I had to identify one church question most vital to address in the 21st century, it would be this one. Today we inhabit a global community that is drawing ever-more closely together. It’s like the world got shrink-wrapped in a single generation and we’re all breathing the same remarkably limited and interdependent air now.
Theologians at the Second Vatican Council saw this new reality on the horizon and recognized that the church had to reexamine and clarify its interfaith stance. In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965) it formally opened the issue to further exploration.
Note: A “declaration” isn’t the same thing as a “dogmatic constitution,” of which the same Council produced a few. Constitutions are fairly finished documents, not to be tampered with in their essence. Declarations blaze a trail, or at least mark the trailhead, but welcome refinement and progress.
Nostra Aetate, while not a perfect document, had some remarkable things to say. It asserts unequivocally that humanity is one community with a common destiny in God. People turn to different religions in search of the same answers to questions as fundamental as: What is the purpose of life? What is good and evil? Where does suffering come from and what is its meaning? What leads to happiness? What lies beyond death?
Then the document makes its boldest claim: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (no. 2). While Christians are bound to witness to “Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6),” we should also “acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians.”
It lists, for starters, that Hindus seek the divine mystery in myth and philosophy, and practice asceticism, meditation, and confidence in God’s love. Buddhists testify to the inadequacies of the material world and that wisdom must be sought through liberation from the trap of possessions. Muslims worship the one God, see in Abraham a spiritual father, and regard Jesus as a holy man and Mary as a source of intercession. Muslims adhere to familiar practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Our shared spiritual heritage with the Jewish community is so intimate that it has spawned many additional teachings since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II called Judaism “the elder brother” of Christianity. Stay tuned as the interfaith dialogue continues!
Isaiah 66:23; John 14:6; Acts 17:26; Romans 9:4-5; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Galatians 3:7-9; Revelation 21:24
• Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) (October 28, 1965)
• What the Catholic Church Has Learnt from Interreligious Dialogue by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, M. Afr. (2006)
• The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Joan Chittister, Saadi Shakur Chishti, and Arthur Waskow (Beacon Press, 2006)
• One Earth, Many Religions by Paul F. Knitter (Orbis Books, 1995)
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