Monday, October 31, 2005

In Our Time

October 28, 1965. With a vote of 2224 to 88, the Second Vatican Council passes the groundbreaking declaration, Nostra Aetate (In our time), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. It is the shortest of the 16 statements produced by the Council. A continuing source of irritation and ire to the schismatic right-wing. A springboard for much theological reflection on the question of religious pluralism, with all the concomitant dangers and promises, in the forty years since. A broadening, if you will, of the interpretation of the ancient maxim, extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

I’ve seen a spate of articles commemorating the anniversary. Some laudatory, some cautious, some giving the behind-the-scenes lead up. Many focusing on the impact of the document on the relationship with the Jewish people.

For me, the discovery of Nostra Aetate was breathtaking. As I was exploring the Catholic Church, with all her grandeur and all her warts, as a bright-eyed college student in Bombay in the early 1990s, and finding myself slowly, but quite inexorably drawn to her embrace, the one huge stumbling block was the self-understanding of the Church in relationship to other religions and peoples. In India, a kind of religious relativism is in the air one breathes. “Many paths leading up the side of the mountain” is a truism when it comes to religion. Christ is revered by many Hindus, and it would not be rare to find a cross, or a crucifix, or a picture of Jesus residing in the household pooja (shrine). Gandhijis admiration of the New Testament, particularly, the Sermon on the Mount, is well known. Even with the long presence of Islam (and an even longer presence of Christianity), the idea of religious exclusivity feels unnatural. An alien arrogance, foreign to the great religious heritage of the subcontinent.

Besides, the commonest perception of Christianity on this count is one that is affirmed by every news story on Western Christian leaders, whether it be the Pope talking about evangelization, or the Southern Baptist Convention wanting to rescue Hindus from the spiritual darkness of their fate. Christians believe that everyone else is going to hell, condemned by their God to eternal punishment for the mistake of being born in the wrong family. Missionaries are sent from the West, brandishing a Bible in one hand and a baptismal font in another, to subvert the ancient heritage of India, to impose the Western colonial faith, to further subjugate a proud people. Conversion, understood as a formal change in religious affiliation, continues to be a hot-button issue. All the good that Christians do, for the poor, in the realm of social service (as the works of mercy are called) are simply means to an end. A kind of subterfuge that devalues and diminishes whatever good that they do achieve. They’re out to get you.

With this perception in mind, at one point I stumbled across a 1935 “Manual of Catholic Teaching” in a dusty corner of the St. Xavier’s library. It was triumphalistic in the extreme, and didn’t nuance (at least in my recollection) the possibility of salvation of those outside the visible Body of the Church in anyway (again, this is my recollection. There must have been some mention of the concepts of baptism by desire or blood, unless it was just a very flawed work). I was repelled by the seeming arrogance. And a bit puzzled; there seemed to be no trace of this kind of an attitude in any of the Catholics I knew, priest or lay.

A little later, I ended up taking an introductory Sanskrit class, taught by one of the Jesuits. The class met in the offices of (I think it was called) the Institute of Religious Studies. Of course, I was fascinated by the many books lining the walls, and my eye fell on that famous blue-covered copy of Austin Flannery’s translation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I borrowed the book, and devoured the Council documents. Nostra aetate was beautiful.

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 he 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.


Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. 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 differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.(4)
The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
Of course, Nostra aetate isn’t a complete treatment of the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions, nor is it the final word. But it marked a huge change in attitude towards followers of the world’s religions. A change away from a posture of suspicion of the other, that easily found the diabolical more common in non-Christian religions than the divine, that fostered, it seems, a kind of arrogance and club mentality among Christians (“all you need to do is to belong to this club”), to one of openness, of respect, even admiration, of dialogue, while maintaining what has been passed down from the apostles, from Christ Himself, that He is, indeed, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

How this seeming contradiction is understood has been, I would say, the history of the past forty years. I see a certain tension between dialogue and proclamation; a healthy tension, to be sure. But a tension that cannot be collapsed, either into a rigid exclusivity, making salvation contingent on membership in the visible Church, or into indifferentism or relativism, an “anything goes” mentality, that would practically eliminate the whole concept of mission, of evangelical proclamation.

For me, the most important thing to remind ourselves is that conversion is not, ought not to be, primarily about a change in religious affiliation (though, yes, I would say that this is not something to be ruled out as a result of dialogue, of evangelization, as some would). Conversion is the constant call to repentance, to metanoia, to holiness. The first ones that need constant conversion are those of us who have heard the Word and believed it. “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.”

And, I feel strongly, the Gospel convicts us if we fall into the temptation of reducing conversion to membership in the correct club, and boast in this seeming wise after-life insurance decision of ours. “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, Douay-Rheims).

Recent Articles on Nostra Aetate

The continuing challenge of Nostra Aetate (from John Allen’s, “Word From Rome,” October 28, 2005), on a conference in Rome to mark the anniversary, focusing on the Jewish people.

Pope says committed to good relations with Jews (via Yahoo), which mentions Pope Benedict’s message to the conference that John covers in the previous link.

Forty-Years of Revolution (the former chief rabbi of Israel writing in Ha’aretz)

Editorial: In Our Time, America, October 24, 2005 (the issue was a special devoted to the anniversary with many articles on the declaration, none of which, apart from this editorial, are available to non-subscribers online. ( One of these, “The Genesis of Nostra Aetate” was so interesting, that I’m going to court a lawsuit and paste large chunks of it in the blog in a separate post”)

Archbishop Raymond Burke’s (St. Louis) Pastoral Letter on the Anniversary (Hosted at Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam)

Cardinal Fracis König’s recollections of the Council as a whole (Cardinal König was a chief architect of many of the documents) from the Tablet, December 2002. Nostra Aetate is mentioned towards the end. Via Christian Attitudes)


mike said...

thanks for the story on your religious conversion. for any one not born into a catholic family that experiance can be so diffrent and hard to explain. my own experiance is quite diffrent, but god is truly mysterious.
i don't really like to talk about my high school years aminly because i am embarresed but i have no regrets. my first experiance with the church was through a friend who would invite me to mass with his famliy occasionly. But my first real chance at learning came in a theology class my freshman year. i nevered finised high school some where in between i got side tracked by drugs and alchol. at 17 i dropped out and moved out of my house. i was living on a boat down in clear lake texas(near the nasa headquaters) pretty much doing the same things. i was at a strip club one night when i got really drunk and some one had to drive me home. the guy that drove me home was named tre(pronunced t) he had his own problems but he was also involved with a young adult catholic group. i went to a couple meetings with him and became friends with the youth leader, luis lopez. he invited me on a retreat with him and the group. on the retreat i asked him if i could praticpate in the eucharist if i wasn't catholic. he said no but told me he would help if i wanted to convert and i guess the rest is history.

Gashwin said...

mike: thanks for sharing your journey. I think sharing one's experiences of the Spirt, one's faith, is a powerful thing in of itself, one that can lead to a fresh encounter with the Lord. I, for one, am glad for the "rest" that is history. :)