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Nostra aetate (Latin: In our time) is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council. Passed by a vote of 2,221 to 88 of the assembled bishops, this declaration was promulgated on 28 October 1965 by Pope Paul VI. It is the shortest of the 16 final documents of the Council and "the first in Catholic history to focus on the relationship that Catholics have with Jews." Nostra aetate similarly is considered a monumental declaration in describing the Church's positive relationship with Muslims. It "reveres the work of God in all the major faith traditions." It begins by stating its purpose of reflecting on what humankind have in common in these times when people are being drawn closer together.
Pope John XXIII had originally conceived it as an expression of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews. Over the course of several substantial revisions, the focus of the document was broadened to address relationships with several faiths. Opposition from conservative elements in the Church was overcome and support was gained from Jewish organisations.
Evolution of the text
Nostra aetate was originally intended to be about the relations between the Catholic church and Judaism. Some objected, including Middle Eastern bishops who were unsympathetic to the new state of Israel. Cardinal Bea decided on a less contentious document that stressed ecumenism with all non-Christian faiths. While coverage of Hinduism and Buddhism is brief, two of the five sections are given to Islam and Judaism.
The first draft, Decretum de Iudaeis, was undertaken by Cardinal Bea, head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, at the direction of Pope John XXIII on 18 September 1960. It was completed in November 1961 but never submitted to the council. The question arose of whether this should be a separate document of the council, included in a document on the Church or on ecumenism among Christian religions, or a separate declaration on the Church's relations with non-Christian religions. Five drafts were to be produced and then amendments to the declaration before its final adoption.
|Decree on the Jews (Decretum de Iudaeis)||1 November 1961||Written by Secretariat for Christian Unity|
|On the Attitude of Catholics Toward Non-Christians and Especially Toward Jews||8 November 1963||Written by Secretariat for Christian Unity|
|Appendix 'On the Jews' to the "Declaration on Ecumenism"||1 March 1964||Written by Secretariat for Christian Unity|
|On the Jews and Non-Christians||1 September 1964||Written by Second Vatican Council Coordinating Commission|
|Declaration on the Church's Relationship to Non-Christian Religions||18 November 1964||Written by Secretariat for Christian Unity|
|Amendments to Section 4||1 March 1965||Written by Secretariat for Christian Unity|
The first draft, entitled Decretum de Iudaeis ("Decree on the Jews"), was completed in November 1961, approximately fourteen months after Pope John XXIII tasked Cardinal Augustin Bea, a Jesuit and biblical scholar, with its composition. This text was not submitted to the council, which opened on 11 October 1962. It read:
The Church, the Bride of Christ, acknowledges with a heart full of gratitude that, according to God's mysterious saving design, the beginnings of her faith and election go as far back as to the Israel of the Patriarchs and Prophets. Thus she acknowledges that all Christian believers, children of Abraham by faith (see Gal 3:7), are included in his call. Similarly, her salvation is prefigured in the deliverance of the Chosen People out of Egypt, as in a sacramental sign (Liturgy of the Easter Vigil). And the Church, a new creation in Christ (see Eph 2:15), can never forget that she is the spiritual continuation of the people with whom, in His mercy and gracious condescension, God made the Old Covenant.
The Church, in fact, believes that Christ, who "is our peace," embraces Jews and Gentiles with one and the same love and that He made the two one (see Eph 2:14). She rejoices that the union of these two "in one body" (Eph 2:16) proclaims the whole world's reconciliation in Christ. Even though the greater part of the Jewish people has remained separated from Christ, it would be an injustice to call this people accursed, since they are greatly beloved for the sake of the Fathers and the promises made to them (see Rom 11:28). The Church loves this people. From them sprang Christ the Lord, who reigns in glory in heaven; from them sprang the Virgin Mary, mother of all Christians; from them came the Apostles, the pillars and bulwark of the Church (1 Tim 3:15).
Furthermore, the Church believes in the union of the Jewish people with herself as an integral part of Christian hope. With unshaken faith and deep longing the Church awaits union with this people. At the time of Christ's coming, "a remnant chosen by grace" (Rom 11:5), the very first fruits of the Church, accepted the Eternal Word. The Church believes, however, with the Apostle that at the appointed time, the fullness of the children of Abraham according to the flesh will embrace him who is salvation (see Rom 11:12, 26). Their acceptance will be life from the dead (see Rom 11:15).
As the Church, like a mother, condemns most severely injustices committed against innocent people everywhere, so she raises her voice in loud protest against all wrongs done to Jews, whether in the past or in our time. Whoever despises or persecutes this people does injury to the Catholic Church.
The first draft was then reworked as a supplementary fourth chapter of a "Decree on Ecumenism". Debate on this document, "On the Attitude of Catholics Toward Non-Christians and Especially Toward Jews", although distributed to the council's Second Session on 8 November 1963, was postponed until the Third Session. This draft was notable for addressing the "deicide" charge against the Jews directly, saying "it is wrong to call them an accursed people, ... or a deicidal people".
The third draft
The third draft, "On the Jews and Non-Christians", took the form of an appendix to the "Schema on Ecumenism". It deleted the word "deicidal" and added material on other religions, especially Muslims. In presenting the document to the council on 28 September 1964, Cardinal Bea encouraged the Council Fathers to strengthen it. They discussed this draft on 28 and 29 September.
Discussion of the third draft
The publicly recorded debate on the third draft took place on 28 September 1964 and on the following days. Since the Vatican Council archives are still "substantially inaccessible", it is difficult to measure the impact of the public and the behind-the-scenes initiatives. Participants included Cardinals Joseph Ritter of St. Louis, Richard Cushing of Boston, Albert Meyer of Chicago, and Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore, Lercaro of Bologne, Liénart of Lille, König of Vienna, and Léger of Montreal, and Franjo Šeper of Zagreb, as well as a number of lesser prelates.
The language suggested by Cardinal Cushing of Boston was echoed in the final version the Council approved:
1. We must cast the Declaration on the Jews in a much more positive form, one not so timid, but much more loving. ... For the sake of our common heritage we, the children of Abraham according to the spirit, must foster a special reverence and love for the children of Abraham according to the flesh. As children of Adam, they are our kin, as children of Abraham they are Christ's blood relatives. 2. So far as the guilt of Jews in the death of our Saviour is concerned, the rejection of the Messiah by His own, is according to Scripture, a mystery—a mystery given us for our instruction, not for our self-exaltation. ... We cannot sit in judgement on the onetime leaders of Israel—God alone is their judge. Much less can we burden later generations of Jews with any burden of guilt for the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, for the death of the Saviour of the world, except that universal guilt in which we all have a part. ... In clear and unmistakable language, we must deny, therefore, that the Jews are guilty of our Saviour's death. We must condemn especially those who seek to justify, as Christian deeds, discrimination, hatred and even persecution of Jews. ... 3. I ask myself, Venerable Brothers, whether we should not humbly acknowledge before the whole world that, toward their Jewish brethren, Christians have all too often not shown themselves as true Christians, as faithful followers of Christ. How many [Jews] have suffered in our own time? How many died because Christians were indifferent and kept silent? ... If in recent years, not many Christian voices were raised against those injustices, at least let ours now be heard in humility.
John Carmel Heenan of Westminster said:
In this century, the Jews have endured grievous, indeed, inhuman sufferings. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who on the cross forgave [His Actual] persecutors, I humbly ask that our Declaration publicly acknowledge that the Jewish people, as such, is not guilty of the Lord's death. It would doubtless be unjust were one to blame all the Christians of Europe for the murder of six million Jews in Germany and Poland in our own day. In the same way, I maintain that it is unjust to condemn the whole Jewish people for the death of Christ.
Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio Stephen Leven objected to text's failure to address the charge of deicide, which some thought "unworthy of a Conciliar document". He said: "we have to deal here with not with a philosophical entity, but with an infamous abuse that was invented by Christians for the sole purpose of bringing shame and disgrace upon Jews. For hundreds of years, and even in our own century, Christians have flung the word 'deicide' into the faces of Jews in order to justify all kinds of excesses, even murder. ... We must remove this word from the vocabulary of Christians, so that it can never again be turned against the Jews."
Cardinal Meyer said: "Following the teaching of Scripture, St. Thomas makes two points:  No single individual Jew of Christ's time was subjectively guilty of deicide, since all acted in ignorance of Christ's divinity. This must be said explicitly in our text.  The bulk of Jews should be acquitted of any formal guilt because they followed their leaders out of ignorance. As proof of this St. Thomas refers to St. Peter: 'I know that you acted in ignorance' (Ac 3:17). Finally it must be also said where the real guilt of the torment of Christ lies: 'He died for us and for our salvation'."
Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle of Washington said: "The word 'conversion' awakens in the hearts of Jews memories of persecutions, sufferings, and the forced denials of all truths that a Jew loves with sincerity and good faith. So a Jew, when he hears that Catholics are seeking to further his 'conversion', thinks of the reintroduction of that type of proselytism that for centuries assaulted his rights and personal dignity. ... It would be better if we were to express our hope for the turning of the Jews [to Christ] in such a way that they, too, can perceive with respect its honesty and our humble recognition that the mystery of salvation does not depend on us, but upon God's transcendent act." He offered the following text: "Furthermore, it is worthy of remembrance that the union of the Jewish and Christian people is part of Christian Hope. With Unshaken faith and deep longing the Church awaits that union which God will bring about in His own time and in a way still hidden in His wisdom."
Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis suggested the following text:
For this reason, all must take care that they in no way present the Jewish people as rejected or deicidal, or throw blame for all the crimes committed during the Passion of Christ upon the whole people then living and, a fortiori, upon the Jews of our own time. All these [evil deeds] are really the responsibility of all sinful people and especially of Christians who have fallen into sin. The Catechism of the Council of Trent recalls this truth in all bluntness: the guilt of the Crucifixion rests above all upon those who repeatedly relapse into sin. For as our sins brought Christ the Lord to death upon the Cross, so those who wallow in sin and vice in fact crucify the Son of God anew insofar as depends on them and hold Him up to contempt (see Heb. 6:6).
The fourth draft
The critical paragraphs read:
3. About the Muslims
The Church regards Muslims with esteem: they adore the one God, living and enduring, the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth who has spoken to people; they strive to obey wholeheartedly His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham did, to whose faith they happily link their own.
Though Muslims do not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus, they revere Him as a Prophet. They also honor Mary, His Virgin-Mother; at times they call on her with devotion. Furthermore, they await the day of judgment when God will reward all those who have risen.
Furthermore, as they worship God through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, so they seek to make the moral life—be it that of the individual or that of the family and society—conform to His Will.
In the course of centuries, however, not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims. Hence this Sacred Synod urges all not only to forget the past but also to work honestly for mutual understanding and to further as well as guard together social justice, all moral goods, especially peace and freedom, so that all of humanity may benefit from their endeavor.
4. About the Jews
As this Sacred Synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.
With a grateful heart, the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God's saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election were already among the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ—Abraham's sons according to faith—were included in the same patriarch's call, likewise that her salvation is mystically foreshadowed by the chosen people's exodus from the land of bondage.
The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament from the people with whom God in His ineffable mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she feeds upon the root of that cultivated olive tree into which the wild shoots of the Gentiles have been grafted (cf. Rom. 11, 17–24). Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ our Peace reconciled the Jews and Gentiles, making both one (cf. Eph. 2, 14, 16).
The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: "Theirs is the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and of them is the Christ according to the flesh," the Son of Mary the Virgin (Rom. 9, 4–5). No less does she recall that the Apostles, the Church's foundation stones and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.
Even though a large part of the Jews did not accept the Gospel, they remain most dear to God, according to the Apostle, for the sake of the patriarchs, since Gods gifts and call are irrevocable (cf. Rom. 11, 28 f.). In company with the prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve Him shoulder to shoulder" (Soph. 3, 9; cf. Is. 66, 3, 9; cf. Is. 66, 23; Ps. 65, 4; Rom. 11, 11–32).
Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is of such magnitude, this Sacred Synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual knowledge and respect that are, above all, the fruit of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues. Moreover, this Synod, in her rejection of injustices of whatever kind and wherever inflicted upon people, and recalling our common patrimony, deplores and condemns hatred and persecutions of Jews, whether they arose in former or in our own days.
May all, then, see to it that in their catechetical work or in their preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that could give rise to hatred or contempt of Jews in the hearts of Christians. May they never present the Jewish people as one rejected, cursed, or guilty of deicide. All that happened to Christ in His passion cannot be attributed to the whole people then alive, much less to that of today. Besides, the Church has always held and holds now that Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of all people and out of infinite love. Therefore, Christian preaching is to proclaim the Cross of Christ as a sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.
The document begins by stating:
In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.
The key observation about other faiths reads: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings, which though different in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men."
Nostra aetate examined, among other belief systems, Hinduism and Buddhism, and stated that the Church "rejects nothing that is true and holy" in other religions.
As regards to the Jewish people, the declaration contradicted the common teaching of the time that the Jews were guilty of deicide for the death of Jesus Christ. It ruled out anti-Semitism for Christians and called God's covenant with the Hebrew people eternal.
Religious freedom became a new part of Catholic teaching with Vatican II and this declaration. Nostra aetate declared that there are positive elements in other religions and religious stereotypes and prejudices can be overcome through interreligious dialogue. Pope Francis said, "From indifference and opposition, we've turned to cooperation and goodwill. From enemies and strangers, we've become friends and brothers."
The final paragraph calls on Catholics to enter into "dialogue and collaboration" with those of other faiths.
It describes the eternal questions which have dogged men since the beginning, and how the various religious traditions have tried to answer them.
It mentions some of the answers that some Hindus, Buddhists, and members of other faiths have suggested for such philosophical questions. It notes the willingness of the Catholic Church to accept some truths present in other religions in so much as they reflect Catholic teaching and may lead souls to Christ.
Part three goes on to say that the Catholic Church regards the Muslims with esteem, and then continues by describing some of the things Islam has in common with Christianity and Catholicism: worship of One God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, Merciful and Omnipotent, Who has spoken to men; the Muslims' respect for Abraham and Mary, and the great respect they have for Jesus, whom they consider to be a Prophet and not God. The synod urged all Catholics and Muslims to forget the hostilities and differences of the past and to work together for mutual understanding and benefit.
Part four speaks of the bond that ties the people of the 'New Covenant' (Christians) to Abraham's stock (Jews). It states that even though some Jewish authorities and those who followed them called for Jesus' death, the blame for this cannot be laid at the door of all those Jews present at that time, nor can the Jews in our time be held as guilty, thus repudiating an indiscriminate charge of Jewish deicide; 'the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God'. The Declaration also decries all displays of antisemitism made at any time by anyone.
The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: "theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:4–5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church's main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people. True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, 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.
The fifth part states that all men are created in God's image, and that it is contrary to the mind of Christ to discriminate against, show hatred towards or harass any person or people on the basis of colour, race, religion, and condition of life.
Nostra aetate was one of Vatican II's three declarations, the other documents consisting of nine decrees and four constitutions. It was the shortest of the documents and contained few, if any, references to the debates and the rationale that had gone into its making; therefore, the changes to be brought about by the declaration on the Church's Relations with non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate, carried implications not fully appreciated at the time.
To flesh out these implications and ramifications, the Vatican's Commission on Interreligious Relations with the Jews issued its Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate in late 1974.
This was followed by that same body's Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in the Teaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church in 1985. These developments were paralleled by accompanying statements from the U.S. bishops.
The above-referenced statements by the Vatican's Commission for Interreligious Relations with the Jews, as well as other developments, including the establishment of more than two dozen centers for Christian–Jewish understanding at Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States along with the participation by rabbis in seminarian formation training, demonstrate how the church has embraced Nostra aetate.
The significance of Nostra aetate as a new starting point in the Church's relations with Judaism, in light of the foregoing, can be appreciated from the vantage point of the passage of forty years. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution acknowledging Nostra aetate at forty, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. also noted this anniversary. This is in addition to the marking of the occasion at the Vatican's Gregorian University itself and at major centers of Christian–Jewish understanding around the United States.
The Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews released a new document exploring the unresolved theological questions at the heart of Christian–Jewish dialogue. Entitled The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable, it marked the 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking declaration Nostra Aetate.
At the fiftieth anniversary of the document, Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America's Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, pointed out that Nostra Aetate came during the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States when Islamic centers and student groups were arising on university campuses, and from these humble beginnings the "Catholic church acted as a big brother" in its understanding of a religious minority, a sentiment that has continued since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when the Church opened its doors to them amidst growing Islamophobia.
Phil Cunningham of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia has summed up the deeper impact of the decree: "There's a tendency to think we've got it all figured out and we've got the fullness of truth. We have to remember God is bigger than our ability to conceive of God, and interreligious relations bring that out."
- Dignitatis humanae
- Dominus Iesus
- Ut unum sint
- Unitatis redintegratio
- Jules Isaac
- John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue
- Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
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