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« Becoming a Feminist: Part II | Main | May 1, 2013 Immigration Reform Rally at San Jose, California »


Nostra Aetate and the Church's Relationship with Muslims and Jews

By Angelo Lopez
April 28, 2013

When I heard about the Boston Marathon bombings I was shocked and saddened at the suffering of the victims of the bombing. Americans came together to help the victims of the bombings get medical attention, shelter, food and monetary donations. One of the sad things, though, is the use of this event by a small group of people to blame all Muslims for the actions of two extremists. On April 15, 2013, Max Fisher wrote about the the Muslim world condemning the Boston Marathon bombings and the sense of dread that they held about the potential Islamophobic response as a result of the bombing. One has to be reminded of the decades of work of Christians, Jews and Muslims to reach out to each other and overcome a history of hostility to try to gain a new understanding and gain a greater respect for each other. One of the seminal events in the history of interfaith relationship between Christians, Jews and Muslims was the release of the document Nostra Aetate in 1965.

Nostra Aetate was one of the seminal documents that came out of the Vatican II Council that changed the relationship between the Catholic Church and other religions. This document was the result of several decades of work of Catholic reformers. John Connelly, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the book From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965 talked about how Catholic converts from Judaism in Switzerland and Austria had tried to form Catholic arguments against antisemitism during the Nazi era. One of the most important Catholic reformers was Johannes Oesterreicher, who spoke out against the Nazis and worked to change antisemitic teachings within the Church. Connelly wrote an article for the Jewish Daily Forward website talked about the fruits of these Catholic reformers efforts in the 1965 document Nostra Aetate:

Part four of this declaration, a statement on the Jews, proved most controversial, several times almost failing because of the opposition of conservative bishops.

Nostra Aetate confirmed that Christ, his mother and the apostles were Jews, and that the church had its origin in the Old Testament. It denied that the Jews may be held collectively responsible for Jesus Christ’s death, and decried all forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism. Citing the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Nostra Aetate called the Jews “most beloved” by God. These words seem commonsensical today, but they staged a revolution in Catholic teaching.

Despite opposition from within their ranks, the bishops knew that they could not be silent on the Jews. When the document stalled in May 1965, one of them explained why they must push on: “The historical context: 6 million Jewish dead. If the council, taking place 20 years after these facts, remains silent about them, then it would inevitably evoke the reaction expressed by Hochhuth in ‘The Deputy.’” This bishop was referring to German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s depiction of a silent and uncaring Pius XII in the face of the Holocaust. That was no longer the church these bishops wished to live in.

As well as change the Church's relationship with Jews, Nostra Aetate also changed the Catholic Church's relationship with Muslims. Since the Crusades, the Catholic Church had several hostile encounters with believers of Islam and held hostile teachings towards Islam that were similar to its teachings towards Judaism. The Catholic reformers wanted a Church that would reach out and have friendlier and more respectful relationships with Islam. In Nostra Aetate is a section on the Church's relationship with Islam:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.

Since Nostra Aetate, Catholics have worked in interfaith meetings with Jews and Muslims to work for peace and social justice issues. Pope John Paul II, who lost several Jewish friends to the Holocaust, was especially important in improving the Church's relationship with Muslims and Jews. In the year 2000, John Paul II extended an apology by the Catholic Church for its sins of violence and intolerance against Jews and Muslims, especially for the Church's actions during the Inquisition and the Crusades.

The new Pope Francis is looked upon with optimism from the Muslim and Jewish community to continue the legacy of Nostra Aetate. Almudena Calatrava and Damian Pachter wrote an article for the March 18, 2013 Associated Press about Pope Francis's interfaith work:

Bergoglio brought leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical and Orthodox Christian faiths into the Metropolitan Cathedral to pray for peace in the Middle East last November. "Everything is lost with war, everything is gained through peace," Bergoglio said then. "With peace wins victory and respect."

The archbishop also welcomed Jews for a joint service on the 74th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when nearly 200 synagogues were destroyed, Jewish shops were looted and tens of thousands of Jews were sent to be exterminated in Adolf Hitler's Germany.

And he also sponsored interfaith prayers after Pope Benedict XVI offended Muslims in 2006 by quoting a Byzantine emperor as saying some of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

That time, rather than criticize Benedict directly, Bergoglio let a lower-ranking priest lead a service in which he himself did not participate. But leaders of other religions were impressed nonetheless.

This dialogue between religions "isn't just a photo op," Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic said then. "It's a genuine and well-reasoned commitment under construction, because we know that we cannot get by without this dialogue."

Maha Elgenaidi of the Islamic Networks Group wrote an article for the Huffington Post about her optimism of Pope Francis:

What was heartening to learn recently that I didn't know then, was the respectful rebuttal to Pope Benedict XVI's comment of an Argentine Cardinal not well known outside the region. He shared, "Pope Benedict's statement don't reflect my own opinions. These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years." While mild in tone, they represent a rare and bold stand for pluralism.

Perspectives of the new pope provide a fertile new context for increasing our efforts with the Catholic community. In the past when we've called on regional bishops to endorse our statements condemning Islamophobia such as the one relating to attacks against Park51 the bishops have, but not without going through a third party to reach the bishops. However, in response to our outreach efforts more recently, ING hosted Bishop Patrick Joseph McGrath of the San Jose Diocese in a meeting with Muslim leaders in 2012 where we committed to working together. One of the outcomes of that meeting is an effort that is underway to collaborate with the Catholic and Jewish communities on five interfaith service days where we meet to volunteer for a local service organization, break bread, and have a conversation around a shared value. Through these we hope to build relations with the Catholic communities from the ground up. We thank Pope Francis for being a crucial part of that.

Here is a youtube video of the response of Muslim and Jewish groups towards the election of Pope Francis

A youtube video of Muslim thinkers talking about their hopes of Pope Francis

A youtube video of Bishop Matthew and the Diocese of Rochester, New York, and their work of interfaith dialogue


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The blog post previous to it is titled "Becoming a Feminist: Part II"

The post that follows this one is titled "May 1, 2013 Immigration Reform Rally at San Jose, California"

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