‘Nostra Aetate’ and Evangelism

News: Commentary
by Lincoln Brown  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 31, 2023   

Common ground in a world of increasing globalization

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Some sedevacantists claim that the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) propagated the heresy of religious pluralism — the belief that all religions lead to salvation. For example, the sedevacantist website VaticanCatholic.com asserts, "What we see [in Nostra Aetate] is an unequivocal syncretism, which treats all religions as if they are paths to God."

Second Vatican Council 

The document, however, does not teach "an unequivocal syncretism" but discusses the importance of the Church finding common ground with people of other religions, as part of "her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations ... ."

The document continues by saying that the Church "considers above all ... what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship." The central point of Nostra Aetate is that finding common ground between people who disagree is a useful way to strengthen relations — whether to evangelize or simply so we can get along in an increasingly globalized world.

For example, Nostra Aetate briefly examines some common ground Catholics share with Hindus and Buddhists:

Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. … 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.

It is not surprising then, that Nostra Aetate causes some Catholics discomfort, given its apparently positive posture towards other religions.

A careful reading, however, reveals that the document is not promoting universalism or saying that other religions are completely true, but it does acknowledge there are concepts in other religions that are true. For example, Hindus and Buddhists agree with Catholics that the human condition is a troubled one, providing some common ground from which to build further understanding.

Concerning Muslims, Nostra Aetate explains, "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 … . Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet."

News Report: The Seismic Council
Again, one sympathizes with those who argue that this is confusing, but Nostra Aetate is describing the similarities between Islam and Catholicism that may be useful for interreligious dialogue: namely, that Muslims believe in only one God, that God is merciful, that God created all things and that He reveals His plan through prophets. Whatever our differences may be — and they are substantial — this is useful common ground. If one understands Islamic beliefs, then one can discuss why Christ is not merely a prophet but is, in fact, divine.

The idea that other religions "often reflect a ray of that Truth [of Christ] which enlightens all men" is a biblical one, as demonstrated by the Apostle Paul in his efforts to evangelize the Athenians: 

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: "To the unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for "In him we live and move and have our being;" as even some of your own poets have said, "For we are indeed his offspring." (Acts 17:22–28)

Since the Athenians worshipped "an unknown God," the Apostle saw that they were searching for the truth with the limited knowledge available to them. Of course, if a Hindu or Buddhist is aware of the gospel and the Catholic Church yet refuses to worship Christ, then he is guilty of idolatry. But it is possible that he has not heard the good news of eternal salvation through Christ and is simply ignorant.

Whatever the case may be, a good place to start in establishing a relationship that could lead to conversion is to find points of agreement.

St. Paul

In Titus 1:12, St. Paul quotes one of the Athenians' own poets, Epimenides of Crete, demonstrating his familiarity with their religious and philosophical beliefs. If we are familiar with the teachings of other religions, we may be able to establish a point of common understanding and earn the respect of those we would wish to persuade of the truth of Christ. We can disagree with others, but understanding what they believe and acknowledging the true aspects of their religion can help us achieve more fruitful interactions.

It may be fair to say that it would be helpful if Nostra Aetate were more precise in its language or reaffirmed that non-Catholics must repent and believe the gospel to be saved. But it is false to say that the encouragement to find common ground between Catholicism and other religions is heretical. Those who make this assertion are not reading Nostra Aetate charitably — they are searching for errors with a schismatic mindset.

The purpose of Nostra Aetate was to reflect upon common ground with other religions.

The schismatic arguments that Nostra Aetate breaks from Catholic Tradition do not point to any specific doctrinal break from Tradition; they only decry the tone of Vatican II.

The sedevacantist website mentioned above argues that Nostra Aetate contradicts Pope Leo XIII's 1893 encyclical Ad Extremas, which praises St. Francis Xavier: "Through his extraordinary perseverance, he converted hundreds of thousands of Hindus from the myths and vile superstitions of the Brahmans to the true religion."

The Vortex: The Eastern Religions

Since the pope referred to the "vile superstitions" of the Hindus, some sedevacantists view Nostra Aetate as being theologically at odds with Tradition. But Nostra Aetate teaches, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions" — meaning the Church continues to reject "vile superstitions."

False interpretations of Nostra Aetate by those on both the theological left and the right have confused Catholics since the conclusion of Vatican II and perhaps greater clarity was needed.

No heresy, however, is contained in the text. It is simply a shift in tone. The purpose of Nostra Aetate was to reflect upon common ground with other religions in a world of increasing globalization. As St. Paul demonstrated, this is a useful means of reaching those who don't know Christ but are nonetheless searching for truth.

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