‘Nostra Aetate’: Love Muslims? How Do I Do That?
COMMENTARY: Second Vatican Council Symposium
Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions
Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965
One of the sweetest Catholic ladies I ever knew was once confronted with a particularly ugly act of anti-Catholicism. She was more confused than angry at the bigotry and shook her head, saying, “I don’t think I hate anyone, but I must admit that I like Muslims the least.”
She was honest about her difficulty liking Muslims. With radical jihadists blowing up ancient churches, persecuting and beheading Christians and threatening to assassinate the Pope, it’s a tall order to discern and affirm those elements in Islam that genuinely reflect a ray of beauty, goodness and truth.
Published 50 years ago this fall — yet particularly relevant to current events in the Middle East — a Church document reminds us that the way of Christ always demands forgiveness of enemies and a genuine attempt to understand and appreciate what is good in other religions. Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) is the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.
Whenever we are confronted with something new and strange, our first instinct is usually to reject it. This is especially true when it comes to religion. Particularly when we are confronted with a non-Christian religion, we tend immediately to see what is wrong with it rather than what is right. Nostra Aetate, on the other hand, says in effect: “Hold on! Let’s start by finding points of connection before we move on to correction.” One way to understand Nostra Aetate’s teaching is to adopt the following rule of thumb: A person is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.
All people are created in the image of God and thus have a natural longing for their Creator. No matter how difficult it is, we must remind ourselves that sincere followers of non-Christian religions are also seeking beauty, goodness and truth. With great openheartedness, Nostra Aetate teaches us:
“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.”
The Catholic view is that non-Christian religions relate to Christianity in a similar way that Judaism does. The Hebrew religion is a divinely revealed pointer to Christ. Other religions, developed from human experience, nevertheless also contain hints, guesses and pointers to the fullness of the truth in Jesus Christ. Therefore, to affirm the truths in non-Christian religions is not to negate the need for Jesus Christ. Nostra Aetate continues, “Indeed, she [the Church] proclaims, and ever must proclaim, Christ ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life,’ in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself.”
The search for the divine and detachment from material pleasures is affirmed in Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Council Fathers have this to say about Islam:
“The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself. ... Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin mother. ... Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting” (Nostra Aetate, 3).
Despite the violence against Christians committed by radical Muslims, Catholics are called to persevere with hearts and minds open to that which reflects the beautiful, the good and the true in the Islamic religion. There is to be no place for religious bigotry and hatred — even if that is all we receive from others.
“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. ... The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life or religion” (Nostra Aetate, 5).
Does this mean Islam and other religions are beyond criticism? No. True dialogue includes proper correction. Does it mean that political and military solutions cannot be used to combat terror? No. Self-defense is always permissible, and terrorism is even worse when it is done in the name of God. Nevertheless, we are still called to meet terror with forgiveness and hatred with love.
Is this a tall order? You bet. Loving your neighbor and forgiving your enemies has always been humanly impossible. It is easy to love those who love us. It is only through God’s grace that we can begin to love those who hate us. Understanding Islam and giving Muslims the benefit of the doubt is difficult, but with God all things are possible — and, at the end of the day, the judgment will be in his hands.
Within the struggle to understand and affirm what is good in other religions is a deeper mystery: God is always at work to call his children home — even in ways we cannot see or understand. The relationship between good and evil in non-Christian religions is not always clear-cut, but the way God uses even the shadowy truths contained in such religions will one day become clear.
As usual, one of the best ways to come to understanding is not with theological argument or cultural debate, but with a story. The last book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series sheds light on the problem. The villains in the story are the Calormenes, who resemble Muslims. They worship a demon called Tash, while the faithful Narnians adore the great lion Aslan.
In the final scene of The Last Battle, the warriors go through the door of death and meet the one they worship. The wicked Calormene, Rishda Tarkaan, meets his terrifying god, and Tash devours him. Emeth, the good Calormene — expecting to meet Tash, whom he has served — meets Aslan. Emeth bows low before Aslan, expecting to be judged harshly for not believing in him, but Aslan answers:
“Child, all the service you have done to Tash, I account as service done to me. ... I take to myself the services which you have done to him. For no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not; and it is I who reward him. If any man do a cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash he serves. Unless your desire had been for me, you would not have sought so long and so truly, for all find what they truly seek.”
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- Nov. 1-14, 2015