On the 40th Anniversary of "Nostra Aetate"
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
1. "In our day," or, in Latin, "Nostra Aetate," are the opening words of one of the shortest and yet most compelling documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The full title of the document is: "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to NonChristian Religions." Oct. 28 marks the 40th anniversary of its promulgation.
2. In these last days of October, various celebrations of the anniversary, bringing us together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, are taking place to honor the promulgation of "Nostra Aetate." I note, for example, the public lecture of John Borelli of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, to be given at St. Francis Xavier College Church on the campus of St. Louis University, on the eve of the anniversary, that is, Oct. 27. Representatives of the Islamic, Jewish and Hindu faiths, and of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will respond to Dr. Borelli’s lecture.
3. I write to you now to invite all of the faithful of the Archdiocese of St. Louis to reflect with me upon the teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, so that we may live more fully what the Church teaches regarding our relationship with our brothers and sisters who follow a nonChristian religion. Through our study of the teaching of the Church, may we imitate ever more fully the love of Christ, who came into the world that all might enjoy eternal life.
The declaration itself
4. "Nostra Aetate" is set within the context of the drawing closer together of all peoples in our times, especially through the modern means of communication and transportation, and within the context of the Church’s duty "to foster unity and charity among individuals, and even among nations." The council reminds us that the Church, therefore, looks to what all men and women have in common, "what tends to promote fellowship among them" (n. 1a).
5. It is also set within the context of the Church’s firm belief that we all "stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth" and that we all "share a common destiny, namely God." The Church holds that the providence of God, His plan for our salvation, extends to all and excludes none. She firmly trusts that, when Christ returns in glory on the Last Day, all peoples will walk by His light (n. 1b).
6. The declaration addresses the deeply rooted and common quest of all human beings, Christian and nonChristian alike, to find "an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence." The same questions have weighed upon man’s heart throughout the past and continue to weigh upon his heart in the present and into the future. They are: "What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is upright behavior, and what is sinful? Where does suffering originate, and what end does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death? What is judgment? What reward follows death? And, finally, what is the ultimate mystery, beyond human explanation, which embraces our entire existence, from which we take our origin and toward which we tend" (n. 1c)? It is the daily search to address these most profound questions of life which we share with all our brothers and sisters. Our religious beliefs are different but they address the same questions.
7. The teaching and discipline reflected in "Nostra Aetate" are not new to the Church’s doctrine and practice. One thinks, for example, of the striking story of the deep and lasting friendships which our late and most beloved Pope John Paul II had with the Jewish children with whom he grew up in Wadowice and Cracow. I recall from my own youth a certain respectful fascination about the Jewish religion, in particular, because of the way in which I was taught about the sacred Scriptures and Church doctrine, sacred worship and the natural moral law. I remember one of the religious sisters, who taught me in elementary school, underlining our close bonds with the Jewish religion, quoting Pope Pius XI’s declaration: "Spiritually, we are all Semites" (Pope Pius XI, address "To Belgian Pilgrims," Sept. 6, 1938, La Documentation Catholique, 29 , col. 1460). In other words, I grew up with a deep sense of how much our Catholic faith and practice is rooted in the Jewish religion.
Hinduism and Buddhism: teaching and way of life
8. In addressing the deepest questions regarding life and its ultimate meaning, men and women have developed in the past and continue to develop in the present "a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life." Some have identified a supreme being and some have called the supreme being "Father." Together with the development of belief in a "hidden power" or "supreme being," a religious way of living also developed. Being true to their religious conviction, the various peoples have developed a certain moral code, according to which they have all striven to provide, with integrity, an answer to questions which always face mankind.
9. In the context of addressing the common awareness of "a hidden power" which sustains nature and human life, in particular, "Nostra Aetate" reflects on two world religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. What it finds in these religions, as well as in others, is the effort of each religion, in its own way, "to calm the hearts of men by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites" (n. 2a). The Church acknowledges that these great religions, which have struggled to respond to mankind’s deepest questioning, have provided moral guidance for individuals and communities. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council declares:
"The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrine which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men" (n. 2b).
At the same time, the Church, true to her own divine faith, must always proclaim Christ "who is the way, the truth and the life (John 1:16)." Regarding Christ, the council declares: "In Him, in whom God reconciled all things to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life" (n. 2b).
Fundamental principle of interfaith relationships
10. Reflecting upon Hinduism and Buddhism, the declaration provides, in a summary manner, the principle which should guide all ecumenical and interfaith discussions and activities:
"Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among nonChristians, also their social life and culture" (n. 2c).
There can be no contradiction between the one truth, the fullness of which is revealed in Christ, and the elements of truth found and respected in other religions. Catholics are encouraged then to enter into conversations with members of other religions, exercising prudence and charity at all times, so that we both respect the beliefs and practices of others and, at the same time, reflect the integrity of our own faith and practice.
11. Interfaith conversations are more timely than ever, given the increasing closeness we have with all peoples. Today, there is a special need, for example, for us to understand the religious faith of people of Islamic faith, who are ever more numerous in our midst. Given the fascination with religions of the East among some Catholics, especially in the cultivation of the spiritual life, it is important to understand clearly what we hold in common with each religion and what is significantly different in the belief and practice of each religion with respect to the Catholic faith.
12. The declaration next treats the Islamic religion, noting, from the start, the Church’s "high regard" for Muslims and summarizing the various aspects of the Islamic faith and practice. The council notes, in particular, Islam’s worship of God, "who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men." The council also acknowledges the desire of the devout Muslims to submit themselves in obedience to God’s plan for us and our world, to His laws, in imitation of Abraham for whom they have the greatest reverence. Muslims revere our Lord Jesus Christ as a prophet, even though they do not share our faith in His divine nature and person, and they give His mother, the Virgin Mary, greatest honor. They "await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead," and, for that reason, like ourselves, place strong emphasis on worshiping God by prayer, fasting and almsgiving (n. 3a).
13. The council also acknowledges "many quarrels and dissensions" between Christians and Muslims throughout their common history. The council asks that all forget the past hurts and urges every effort at "mutual understanding" for the sake of the common good (n. 3b). Given the deeply hurtful experiences with terrorism, often falsely identified as a religious work of followers of Islam, it is more important than ever to understand as fully as possible what Muslims truly believe, and to give an integral account of our faith to our brothers and sisters of Islamic faith.
14. With a deep warmth and respect, the Council acknowledges "the spiritual ties which link the people of the New Covenant to the stock of Abraham," that is, the Jewish people (n. 4a). The Church professes that her sons and daughters are children of Abraham, sharing in the call which he received from the Lord, and that the salvation accomplished by Christ on Calvary was prefigured in the Exodus. "The Church believes that Christ who is our peace has through His cross reconciled Jews and Gentiles, and made them one in Himself (cf. Ephesians 2:14-16) (n. 4b).
15. The Roman Catholic Church, as the declaration reminds us, believes that salvation is from the Jewish people. In this regard, the declaration quotes the Apostle Paul, who states the Church’s faith regarding Judaism:
"They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenant, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen" (Romans 9:4-5).
In other words, our faith comes to us through the Chosen People, the Jewish people, as does our Savior. The declaration also reminds us that the Apostles were first nurtured in the Jewish faith, as were "many of those early disciples who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to the world" (n. 4c).
16. We must also recognize, as the declaration reminds us, that the Jewish people "for the most part" did not accept the Gospel and, in fact, opposed its proclamation. The opposition notwithstanding, the truth is that the Jewish people are, according to Catholic faith, most dear to God who never takes back His promise of salvation, who never withdraws His choice of the Jews as His people and the abundant gifts with which He showered upon them. The Church, together with devout Jews, "awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’" (Zephaniah 3:9; cf. Isaiah 66:23; Psalm 65:4; Romans 11:11-32)" (n. 4d). Given the "common spiritual heritage," the declaration calls for the fostering of "mutual understanding and appreciation," among Catholics and Jews, especially "by way of biblical and theological enquiry" and discussions (n. 4d).
17. "Nostra Aetate" addresses directly the charge of the Jewish people with "the crimes committed during (Christ’s) passion." The declaration, reminding us that not all Jews followed their leaders who asked for our Lord’s death, teaches that Christ "underwent suffering and death because of the sins of all men, so that all might attain salvation" (n. 4f and h). In other words, we are all, inasmuch as we sin, responsible for the passion and death of Christ. The declaration states clearly:
"It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture" (n. 4f).
The declaration, once again calling to mind our common spiritual roots with the Jewish people, reproves "every form of persecution" and deplores "all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews" (n. 4g).
Peace with all peoples
18. The declaration concludes with an exhortation to all Catholics to be at peace with all their brothers and sisters, thus showing themselves to be true sons and daughters of God the Father. If God created us all in His own image and likeness, and if God the Son Incarnate suffered and died for us all, without boundary or discrimination, then we cannot profess true faith in God, while at the same time excluding any individual or group of individuals from our love. The declaration recalls the words of the First Letter of John, which are unmistakable in their meaning: "He who does not love does not know God; for God is love" (1 John 4:9) (n. 5a).
19. For us, as Christians, there is no justification, "either in theory or in practice for any discrimination between individual and individual, or between people and people, arising either from human dignity or from the rights which flow from it" (n. 5 b). The declaration draws then the following conclusion regarding our conduct as followers of Christ:
"Therefore, the Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them on the basis of their race, color, condition in life or religion" (n. 5c).
The call of the council to put aside any form of racism or other discrimination must be renewed in every time, for there is always the temptation portrayed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the temptation to deny love to a brother because he is of a different race or people. We, on the contrary, must constantly strive to love our brothers and sisters as the Good Samaritan, as Christ, loves, that is, without boundary or discrimination.
20. In the light of the past 40 years, we should consider some of the currents which led the council to issue "Nostra Aetate." Even before the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council had begun under the direction of Blessed Pope John XXIII, there were calls among some bishops and theologians to address the question of the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish community. This was due in part to an ongoing reflection upon the issues which surrounded the Shoah or Holocaust, during which over 6 million European Jews were tortured and killed, in the most deplorable manner, by the Nazi regime. There was also a real concern to examine the often painful relationship between the Church and Jews, a relationship often marked by misunderstandings and persecution, especially on the part of Catholics in their relationships with Jews. The personal witness of Blessed Pope John XXIII and his openness to the Jewish leaders of his time greatly aided these reflections.
21. The original drafts of these reflections were to be a chapter in another proposed decree of the council, "On Ecumenism or Christian Unity." Because of the groundbreaking nature of the issues involved, however, it was decided to treat in two separate documents the distinctively interfaith questions and the ecumenical questions.
22. It is important to note here the distinction between "interfaith" considerations and "ecumenical" considerations. By "ecumenical," we mean the effort through prayer, dialogue and cooperation to restore "full visible unity" among all Christians. Ecumenism is inspired by and flows from the very prayer of Jesus, as He was entering upon His Passion and death:
"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:20-21).
For Catholics, interfaith or interreligious efforts are related to ecumenism, but they involve the larger religious community and point to dialogue and cooperation among fellow human beings who are seeking the truth, according to various religious faiths.
23. After it was decided that the decree unitatis redintegratio "On Ecumenism," would stand alone, there was further debate about how the council might deal with the "Jewish question." Some of the bishops rightly thought that, if the Church were to speak concretely about the Jews, then she should also say something about other great world religions. This is why there were added discussions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and also there was added a separate number on the Church’s high regard for Muslims, in which also the troubles between Catholics and Muslims are addressed. It is important to note that the references to Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, while brief, are positive and have provided well the basis for the ongoing interfaith relationship of Catholics with these religions over the past 40 years.
24. The most significant legacy of "Nostra Atate" still remains its chapter on the Church’s "special bond" with Judaism. Here it must be noted that, while recognizing the truth in the Jewish religion, as in other religions, the Church can never obscure her belief in the truth that God has saved all people through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God the Son Incarnate. Another document of the Second Vatican Council, the dogmatic constitution "Lumen Gentium (On the Church)," addresses this truth and its implications for our relationship with other religions:
"Basing itself on Scripture and tradition, (this council) teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in His Body which is the Church (n. 14a).
"Lumen Gentium" also affirms:
"Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may attain eternal salvation" (n. 16a).
Consequently, the Church rejects both the exclusivist position which limits the power of the Holy Spirit to touch an individual’s heart as well as the pluralist stance which claims that all paths to God are equal. The Church believes rather, that Jesus Christ is the one universal Savior and that, through Him, all are brought into relationship with God, most fully and perfectly through incorporation into the Church, but also in other ways perhaps known only to God.
25. In our day, then, we are called by God to live and work with peoples of many diverse beliefs. As Catholics, we must continue to share our faith by word and example, always relying upon the fact that conversion is ultimately the work of God. At the same time, we must attempt to understand the rich doctrines and experiences of other religions, even though they may differ significantly from our own. This is accomplished through respectful dialogue. In our dialogue during these past 40 years, we have discovered the many common questions which underlie the spiritual hungers of us all. Beyond this, we are called to dialogue, collaboration and cooperation in addressing the moral and ethical issues affecting the common good.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis
26. Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis share a proud legacy of interfaith understanding and cooperation. Under the pioneering example of my predecessors, Cardinal Joseph Ritter and Cardinal John Carberry, as well as Archbishop John May and Archbishop Justin Rigali, the Church in the archdiocese has implemented the challenge of "Nostra Aetate" by attempting to build bridges of understanding with brothers and sisters of different faiths. The Archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs is very active, continuing to represent and guide Catholics in ecumenical and interfaith questions. The outstanding collaboration of the Church with other religious communities and organizations was certainly evident in the warm and enthusiastic response of so many of other faiths and Christian denominations during the historic pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to St. Louis in 1999. It also has proven to be a steady foundation upon which to go forward since the most painful day of Sept. 11, 2001.
27. Of particular importance has been the archdiocese’s ongoing work with Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis. For 20 years now, this remarkable organization has been a catalyst for dialogue, celebration and joint action, bringing together the various faith communities of the region and often providing a common religious voice at a time when much of the world sees only divisions. The motto of Interfaith Partnership reflects the integrity and sensitivity of interfaith relationships: "Although we agree to differ, we promise to love and unite to serve."
28. An interfaith group which began as a direct response to the Holy Father’s visit to St. Louis, Faith Beyond Walls, merits special mention. Formed as a joint initiative of Interfaith Partnership, the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition and St. Louis 2004, Faith Beyond Walls mobilizes interfaith resources and volunteers to carry out various projects to better the community. I take the occasion to commend Catholics in the archdiocese who support the work of these and all organizations which fulfill the mission of "Nostra Aetate."
29. As Catholics, we receive our direction from our pastors in the Church. Over the past more than 26 years, we have been blessed by the remarkable sensitivity and strength of our late and most beloved Pope John Paul II. In his many travels throughout the world, he always made time to meet with other Christians and the leaders of all faith communities. His consistent calls for peace and his most sincere efforts in dialogue made him a prophetic voice to a world so often fragmented by social and religious divisions. From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI has continued to affirm the Church’s stance of interreligious cooperation as the true road to peace and harmony. During his first pastoral visit outside of Italy, that is his participation in World Youth Day in his homeland of Germany, he had significant meetings with other Christians, but also with the Jewish and Islamic communities in Cologne.
30. The task of interfaith understanding and collaboration belongs to us all. It must become the lived experience of all of us. These 40 years since the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council have been particularly plagued with violence and social conflicts which cry out to be resolved. As religious people, we believe that beyond our differences there remains always our common human dignity and divine destiny. Thus the ongoing challenge of the declaration "Nostra Aetate" remains as relevant as ever in our day, every day! I conclude with the closing words of the declaration, a mandate which should also be part of our daily examination of conscience:
"Accordingly, following the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the sacred council earnestly begs the Christian faithful to "conduct themselves well among the Gentiles" (1 Peter 2:12) and if possible, as far as depends on them, to be at peace with all men (cf. Romans 12:18) and in that way to be true sons of the Father who is in heaven (cf. Matthew 5:45).
Given at St. Louis on the 18th day of October, the Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist, in the Year of the Lord 2005.
Archbishop Raymond L. Burke
Archbishop of St. Louis