Nostra Aetate: Does It Make Non-Christians Want to Convert?

Interreligious representatives attending Pope Francis' weekly general audience Oct. 28.
Interreligious representatives attending Pope Francis' weekly general audience Oct. 28. (photo: CTV)

Nostra Aetate has done much to improve relations between the Church and non-Christian religions, particularly Judaism, but although it wasn't the declaration's stated aim, does it nevertheless make followers of other religions want to join the one, true faith?

I put this question, and a common criticism of the declaration and interreligious dialogue in general, that it has fostered syncretism (the amalgamation of all religions into one), to representatives of three religions who were taking part in a conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University to mark the 50th anniversary of the document.

Nostra Aetate, a declaration on the "Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions" of the Second Vatican Council and promulgated in 1965, sought to help foster dialogue and improved relations between the Church and other religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism as well as Judaism. 

Swami Chidananda Saraswati, a Hindu representative from India, told reporters Oct. 28 that Nostra Aetate “represents the spirit of Hinduism where truth is one, and the learned express it in many ways.”

So according to him does it, in that case, foster syncretism and relativism? “No, but the document says different religions have rays of truth in them. It uses a mild word,” he told me. “It doesn’t say they express same truth. I take it as a sort of hint, a direction towards accepting one truth expressed in many ways.”

He noted that Nostra Aetate “doesn’t say there is one truth that is expressed by all religions” but rather there’s a line which says: ‘We stay loyal to Christ’s teaching but we respect other religions for the rays of truth that they have.” (The  passage in question says the Church “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.”)

For Saraswati, the declaration doesn’t make him want to join the Catholic Church, but it has certainly made it easier. “It definitely generates a great sense of respect and friendship," he said.

“Let me put this way,” he added, “I don’t feel a need to go to Christianity, but suppose someone in my village becomes a Catholic. I would say to my friends: ‘Hey, it’s all right, it’s a very good religion.’ Suppose his family members are agitated, and they say: ‘Our son has become a Christian, that’s very bad’, I would say: ‘What’s bad about it? Christianity is very good religion, they have noble values.”

Rasoul Rasoulipour, a Shia Muslim and director of the Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue in Teheran, told reporters that Nostra Aetate was a “Copernican revolution in the history of religions.” It shifted the approach from “concepts to persons, from belief to believers”.

He did not think it fostered relativism, and repeated what he had said earlier about changing the focus from beliefs to persons. “Regardless of their doctrines and beliefs, Muslims and Christians are human beings, so for me Nostra Aetate is talking about prayer. All pray, all have tears, pain, suffering, so this is the important point.”  The declaration, he believes, “brought us from heaven to earth and to see humility, the true human person.”

Asked if it made him want to become Catholic, he replied “Honestly, on many occasions I have been called a ‘catholic muslim', a ‘mennonite shia', so it shows I’m belonging to a movement of ‘small letter’ religions: Islam with small ‘I’, Catholic with small ‘c’.”

The fruit of Nostra Aetate, he said, is to take away the focus from “beliefs and doctrine that always create problems for us” and instead to ”look at believers, the person.”

Dr Brinder Singh Mahon, a British radiologist representing the Sikh religion at the conference, said the question of relativism was “explored in our faith when it first came about” in the 15th century. For him, humility is what is most important and allows truth to prevail.

He said Nostra Aetate “absolutely” makes him “feel a stronger attraction to the Church”, though it wasn’t clear if it would make him want to convert.

The way the document has developed over time has allowed people “to accept other people’s path to God” and this is “generally transforming for this world today,” he said. “The fact we can talk equally across the table, and understand that we’re all on the same journey, can only help, so it’s very heartwarming for us.” 

For Saraswati, what is important is that people who convert to the Church “are seen to be good people.” Then, he said, “I think the village, community, doesn’t have a problem.”

That was the case with Blessed Mother Teresa, he said, who “never made conversion her main plan” but “she served, and hats off to her.” He said it “supposedly influenced” her successor, Sister Nirmala Joshi, originally a Hindu from predominantly Hindu Nepal, to convert to Catholicism.

Saying that he’d heard of Hindus and Muslims living alongside each other in the Gulf who’d become good friends, he said their “whole attitude to Muslims changed.”  There is a “great need for recognizing goodness, there are lots of good Hindus, Christians, Muslims – there is good everywhere and it’s important to recognize that.”

Perhaps most interesting of all, despite the non-PC nature of such a question as whether a Church document might make them want to convert, and contrary to conventional wisdom that one should steer away from such a topic, all three representatives were not only happy to answer the question, they were grateful to have been asked it.