Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of a small, but significant document from the Second Vatican Council called Nostra Aetate. This Declaration on the relationship between the Church and non-Christian religions has been repeatedly hailed as a watershed document marking the Church’s newfound openness to other religions. It is often summed up in two sentences directly quoted from the document, “[T]he 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” (NA, 2). Like many of the documents of the Council, its overall positive tone has made the Church look more appealing to many. But this strategy to “accentuate the positive” because it went unchecked, has led to a culture of universalism. The Church rejecting “nothing that is true and holy in these religions” has really become the belief that the Church “rejects nothing in these religions because they contain things that are true and holy.” As proof of this, one well known Jesuit author claims that Nostra Aetate has led to an irreversible openness in the Church and to the belief that “Jesus is radiant and alive in whatever paths lead to God, whatever is true, whatever is life giving.”
Like many of the documents of the Council, Nostra Aetate has been caught up by the “Spirit of Vatican II” and has been used to suck the life out of the Church. When it comes to this particular document however, the Church offered an authoritative interpretation when the Declaration On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church or, simply Dominus Iesus, was issued in 2000. Anyone who attempts to interpret Nostra Aetate (or Unitatis Redintegratio on the Church’s relationship to other Christians for that matter) without putting on the lens of Dominus Iesus will often succumb to the gravity of universalism.
When Dominus Iesus was released there were accusations that it lacked a certain amount of tact and that it set the Church backwards in her relationship with other non-Catholics. Once the initial waves of indignation settled down it was mostly ignored despite its clarifying purpose. It is important to note however that this document carries the same Magisterial weight as Nostra Aetate. Both documents fall under the category of “Declaration” which means they represent a joint statement of the Pope and another religious leader or leaders regarding what ought to be considered a common understanding of some teaching.
According to Cardinal Ratzinger in Dominus Iesus, there are two truths which go hand in hand in our relationship with other religions. First, the real possibility for salvation exists for all mankind only in Christ. The second is not that “Jesus is alive and radiant” in other religions, but that the Church is absolutely necessary for the mediation of this salvation. One may certainly recognize that within these religious traditions there are elements that come from God and even open up the human heart for the way of the Gospel. But they also contain superstition and other errors that can also be a genuine obstacle to salvation. Through the different phases of dialogue we may want to emphasize either of those aspects, but ultimately dialogue that never gets to the superstitions and other errors in order to free the followers of the false religion from them is fruitless.
What then is the purpose of this type of document within the corpus of the Council? It was meant to be part of an overall call to evangelize. The Church had become closed in on itself in many ways and so the Council hoped to arm the Faithful with a means of encountering those outside the Church—but always with the intention of bringing them back into the Church. The openness of the Church always has the goal of closing her doors behind the new members that enter. As Blessed Paul VI said in his Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization, the Church “exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14).
For those who are familiar with the Latin Mass, it ends with the words Ite Missa Est, which literally means “She is sent.” The Mass empowers us to be sent out into the world so that we might return with more members.
The optimism of the documents was meant to supply an opening to the Faithful in their encounters. By rejecting “nothing that is true and holy in these religions” it presents common ground for the evangelizer to begin their presentation of the Gospel and invitation to discipleship. From the Church’s perspective, dialog is part and parcel of evangelization. It should always have the goal of conversion. Today, dialogue has become something like negotiations. Many think that it should be approached as some sort of zero-sum game in that if the Church would be willing to concede that Jesus’ salvific role is not unique, then Muslims would be willing to admit that He may be the savior of Christians just not the savior of Muslims. The Council recognized that when there are truths at stake there are no winners and losers. One side’s loss is a loss for both sides and one side’s gain is a gain for both sides.
If we only practice an openness to other religions and not a strong desire to bring them more fully to Christ, then we have failed. What they offer is already found in the beauty of the Catholic Church. Certainly the emphasis that other religions place on certain aspects of the truth may help us to see it more clearly in the Church, but still there is nothing loving about leaving them where they are.
At the close of Dominus Iesus, Cardinal Ratzinger supplied some additional ground rules for dialogue that are well worth repeating. Beginning with the idea of equality he clarifies that this “refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions.” He also reminds us that if we are truly guided by charity and respect for individual freedom then the Church will be “primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The point is that by treating the mission of evangelizing with some urgency we are most assuredly doing the will of God, who wills that all men be saved. Salvation is found in the truth and those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are on their way toward it—but it remains for the Church who has been entrusted as its guardian to “go out and meet their desire.”