Here’s something you don’t hear often, from Jordan Denari, a researcher at Georgetown University:
If I had never encountered a five-paragraph document, with a Latin title, written 50 years ago, it is very unlikely that I would still be Catholic today. That brief declaration, Nostra Aetate, was put forth by the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council, which concluded fifty years ago this fall. Meaning “in our time,” Nostra Aetate is not revolutionary for how it speaks about Catholicism, but rather how it speaks about other religions. I came across it in an undergraduate course on Catholicism, during a time when I was reconnecting with my faith after a few years of exploration and questioning. But, assuming Catholicism had a very oppositional stance theologically to other religions, I was hesitant to return wholeheartedly. I had explored Islam and gotten to know many Muslims, and didn’t think I could make a home in a religion that absolutely closed the door of salvation to non-Christians (a stance I thought Catholicism must certainly espouse.) But upon reading Nostra Aetate and the other council documents that lay out the Church’s orientation to other religions, I realized that the Church’s stance was much closer to my own view than I had previously known. Without compromising its own truth claims, the Church in Nostra Aetate praises what is “true and holy” in other traditions like Islam and acknowledges that aspects of other religions “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” In a section of Nostra Aetate dedicated particularly to Muslims, the Church praises their belief in a “merciful” God, their commitment to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and their devotion to Mary and Jesus, among other things (Nostra Aetate, 3). As Francis X. Clooney put it in a talk he gave last May, it points out “whatever is true and honorable — period.” The declaration was intentionally uncritical and singularly positive. In Lumen Gentium, the most important theological “constitution” of the council, the Church leaves the door of salvation poetically ajar to those of other faiths, saying that because the “Saviour wills that all men be saved,” “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator” as well as those who sincerely seek God and live by their conscience, and even those who “have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God…” (Lumen Gentium, 16)… …In the years since I encountered Nostra Aetate, I have come to embrace my Catholic faith even more, while also feeling empowered by my tradition to remain engaged with Muslims and their faith.
And check out this assessment from my CNEWA colleague Fr. Elias D. Mallon:
Although often mistakenly referred to as the “Church’s Decree on Jews,” the changes that the declaration brought about between Christians and Jews were probably the most visible ones for people in the Western world. For centuries, Christians had looked down on Judaism as a religion that had become overcome. Supercessionism, as it is called, saw the advent of Christianity as rendering Judaism empty and without value. Throughout more than a thousand years Jews suffered — often with violent consequences — under the accusation of deicide. That is to say, Jews were held to be responsible for having killed God in Jesus. The Catholic Church repudiated this forever in Nostra Ætate: “… what happened in His [i.e., Christ’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures” (Par. 4). …There are also still far too many places in the world where Christians and other peoples of faith suffer for what they believe, often at the hands of other believers. Nonetheless, the trajectory set by the declaration has been nothing short of incredible. The Catholic Church — as well as other Christian communities around the world — has set up dialogues with the major religions of the world. Programs of education have made what was once strange and exotic better understood and familiar. In an almost prophetic way, Nostra Ætate prepared the way spiritually for the huge movement and displacement of peoples that would take place in the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries.