Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Vatican II on Non-Christian Religions

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 20, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

By far the shortest document issued by the Second Vatican Council was the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). The text runs to only about 1,600 words in English, or less than twice the length of this summary. Clearly, then, the Council Fathers did not have in mind a theological treatise, but simply an exhortation on what all men have in common in seeking to answer the questions of life through religion, and how Christians ought to act toward their brothers and sisters who do not share the fullness of Christ. Nostra Aetate was the tenth document issued by the Council, on October 25, 1965. It consists of just five numbered paragraph groups.

First, the Council affirms that “all men form but one community”. This is so because they “all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth” and they “all share a common destiny, namely God”, whose “providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all men”. The Fathers then set the stage for the rest of the document by noting that men look to different religions for an answer to the “riddles of human existence”—the nature of man, the purpose of life, moral concerns, the problem of suffering, the meaning of death, and questions of judgment, reward and punishment.

Second, the Fathers note that one finds in every people “a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life”, and sometimes one even finds recognition of “a supreme being or still more of a Father.” This awareness and recognition “results in a way of life imbued with a deep religious sense.” Two examples of this basic sort of religiosity are given: Hinduism, with its exploration of divine mystery in both myth and philosophy; and Buddhism, which “testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world.” Both religions propose means of escape from the trials of life into some sort of superior illumination. The Council then makes the point that the Church “rejects nothing of what is true and holy” in these religions; she has a high regard for anything which may “reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.” Yet the Church remains duty-bound to “proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.” As God has reconciled all things to himself in Christ, it is only in Him that “men find the fullness of their religious life.”

Though the text does not say so, it contains a clear progression (also used in some other documents) from religions which have not benefitted from revelation to those that have, among which Islam has benefited by borrowing elements of Judaism and Christianity. Thus, in the third place, the Council states the Church’s high regard for Muslims, because they worship “God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth” and they strive to do His will. Muslims also have some recognition of Jesus and His mother. Moreover, because they await the day of judgment following the resurrection of the dead, they value an upright life in worship, alms-giving and fasting. Therefore, the Fathers ask all to forget past quarrels and to make a sincere effort at mutual understanding: “For the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”

Fourth, the Council acknowledges the special ties which link “the people of the New Covenant to the stock of Abraham”, and so explores briefly the relationship of the Church to Judaism. The Church understands that “the beginning of her faith and election is to be found in the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets” and that the salvation of the Church is mystically prefigured in the exodus. She realizes she received the revelation of the Old testament through the Jews, and that the “she draws nourishment from that good olive tree onto which the wild olive branches of the Gentiles have been grafted” (cf. Rom. 11:17-24), because Christ has reconciled Jews and Gentiles through His cross. She also knows that the apostles and Mary were Jews, as were many pillars of the early Church.

Although the Church holds “as holy Scripture testifies” that “Jerusalem did not recognize God’s moment when it came” (cf. Lk 19:42), she recognizes with St. Paul that the “Jews remain very dear to God” and that God “does not take back the gifts He bestowed or the choice he made.” Therefore, “the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice.” Since all this is so, the “Council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation”. In particular the Fathers note that “neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during the passion.” Moreover, although “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.” Thus the Church opposes every form of persecution, and deplores all anti-Semitism. To the contrary, “it is the duty of the Church…to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s universal love and the source of all grace.”

Fifth—and bringing the discussion full circle—the Council declares that it is impossible to “truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people in other than brotherly fashion, for all men are created in God’s image”. Citing 1 John 4:8, the Fathers affirm that “he who does not love does not know God”. The text closes with this statement:

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. 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 Pet 2:12) and if possible, as far as depends on them, to be at peace with all men (cf. Rom 12:18) and in that way to be true sons of the Father who is in heaven (cf. Mt. 5:45).

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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jtuturic3013 - Aug. 03, 2010 5:22 AM ET USA

    It is very sobering to many of us conditioned to "cotton candy" theology to finally come to a greater understanding of just what the Church actually teaches ... which is what Jesus taught. Jesus is the only way. Without Him, there is no salvation. Period. Therefore, we must live with Christian charity to all, educate ourselves to "give an account for the hope that is within us" and pray / fast / offer sacrifice for all non-believers that they may be saved.