Nostra aetate (Latin: In our time) is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council. Passed by a vote of 2,221 to 88 of the assembled bishops, this declaration was promulgated on 28 October 1965 by Pope Paul VI. It is the shortest of the 16 final documents of the Council and "the first in Catholic history to focus on the relationship that Catholics have with Jews." It "reveres the work of God in all the major faith traditions." It begins by stating its purpose of reflecting on what humankind have in common in these times when people are being drawn closer together.
Pope John XXIII had originally conceived it as an expression of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews. Over the course of several substantial revisions, the focus of the document was broadened to address relationships with several faiths. Opposition from conservative elements in the Church was overcome and support was gained from Jewish organisations.
Evolution of the text
Nostra aetate was originally intended to be about the relations between the Catholic church and Judaism. Some objected, including Middle Eastern bishops who were unsympathetic to the new state of Israel. Cardinal Bea decided on a less contentious document that stressed ecumenism with all non-Christian faiths. While coverage of Hinduism and Buddhism is brief, two of the five sections are given to Islam and Judaism.
The first draft, Decretum de Iudaeis, was undertaken by Cardinal Bea, head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, at the direction of Pope John XXIII on 18 September 1960. It was completed in November 1961 but never submitted to the Council. The question arose of whether this should be a separate document of the Council, included in a document on the Church or on ecumenism among Christian religions, or a separate declaration on the Church's relations with non-Christian religions. Five drafts were to be produced and then amendments to the declaration before its final adoption.
The first draft, entitled Decretum de Iudaeis ("Decree on the Jews"), was completed in November 1961, approximately fourteen months after Pope John XXIII tasked Cardinal Augustin Bea, a Jesuit and biblical scholar, with its composition. This text was not submitted to the Council, which opened on 11 October 1962. It read:
The first draft was then reworked as a supplementary fourth chapter of a "Decree on Ecumenism". Debate on this document, "On the Attitude of Catholics Toward Non-Christians and Especially Toward Jews", although distributed to the Council's Second Session on 8 November 1963, was postponed until the Third Session. This draft was notable for addressing the "deicide" charge against the Jews directly, saying "it is wrong to call them an accursed people, ... or a deicidal people".
The third draft, "On the Jews and Non-Christians", took the form of an appendix to the "Schema on Ecumenism". It deleted the word "deicidal" and added material on other religions, especially Muslims. In presenting the document to the Council on 28 September 1964, Cardinal Bea encouraged the Council Fathers to strengthen it. They discussed this draft on 28 and 29 September.
The publicly recorded debate on the third draft took place on 28 September 1964 and on the following days. Since the Vatican Council archives are still "substantially inaccessible", it is difficult to measure the impact of the public and the behind-the-scenes initiatives. Participants included Cardinals Joseph Ritter of St. Louis, Richard Cushing of Boston, Albert Meyer of Chicago, and Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore, Lercaro of Bologne, Liénart of Lille, König of Vienna, and Léger of Montreal, and Franjo Šeper of Zagreb, as well as a number of lesser prelates.
The language suggested by Cardinal Cushing of Boston was echoed in the final version the Council approved:
John Carmel Heenan of Westminster said:
Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio Stephen Leven objected to text's failure to address the charge of deicide, which some thought "unworthy of a Conciliar document". He said: "we have to deal here with not with a philosophical entity, but with an infamous abuse that was invented by Christians for the sole purpose of bringing shame and disgrace upon Jews. For hundreds of years, and even in our own century, Christians have flung the word 'deicide' into the faces of Jews in order to justify all kinds of excesses, even murder. ... We must remove this word from the vocabulary of Christians, so that it can never again be turned against the Jews."
Cardinal Meyer said: "Following the teaching of Scripture, St. Thomas makes two points:  No single individual Jew of Christ's time was subjectively guilty of deicide, since all acted in ignorance of Christ's divinity. This must be said explicitly in our text.  The bulk of Jews should be acquitted of any formal guilt because they followed their leaders out of ignorance. As proof of this St. Thomas refers to St. Peter: 'I know that you acted in ignorance' (Ac 3:17). Finally it must be also said where the real guilt of the torment of Christ lies: 'He died for us and for our salvation'."
Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle of Washington said: "The word 'conversion' awakens in the hearts of Jews memories of persecutions, sufferings, and the forced denials of all truths that a Jew loves with sincerity and good faith. So a Jew, when he hears that Catholics are seeking to further his 'conversion', thinks of the reintroduction of that type of proselytism that for centuries assaulted his rights and personal dignity. ... It would be better if we were to express our hope for the turning of the Jews [to Christ] in such a way that they, too, can perceive with respect its honesty and our humble recognition that the mystery of salvation does not depend on us, but upon God's transcendent act." He offered the following text: "Furthermore, it is worthy of remembrance that the union of the Jewish and Christian people is part of Christian Hope. With Unshaken faith and deep longing the Church awaits that union which God will bring about in His own time and in a way still hidden in His wisdom."
Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis suggested the following text:
The critical paragraphs read:
The document begins by stating:
The key observation about other faiths reads: "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 different in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men."
Nostra aetate examined Hindu paths of action, wisdom, and love, and stated that the Church "rejects nothing that is true and holy" in other religions.
As regards to the Jewish people, the declaration contradicted the common teaching of the time that the Jews were guilty of deicide for the death of Jesus Christ. It ruled out anti-Semitism for Christians and called God's covenant with the Hebrew people eternal.
Religious freedom became a new part of Catholic teaching with Vatican II and this declaration. Nostra aetate declared that there are positive elements in other religions and religious stereotypes and prejudices can be overcome through interreligious dialogue. Pope Francis said, "From indifference and opposition, we've turned to cooperation and goodwill. From enemies and strangers, we've become friends and brothers."
The final paragraph calls on Catholics to enter into "dialogue and collaboration" with those of other faiths.
It describes the eternal questions which have dogged men since the beginning, and how the various religious traditions have tried to answer them.
It mentions some of the answers that some Hindus, Buddhists, and members of other faiths have suggested for such philosophical questions. It notes the willingness of the Catholic Church to accept some truths present in other religions in so much as they reflect Catholic teaching and may lead souls to Christ.
Part three goes on to say that the Catholic Church regards the Muslims with esteem, and then continues by describing some of the things Islam has in common with Christianity and Catholicism: worship of One God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, Merciful and Omnipotent, Who has spoken to men; the Muslims' respect for Abraham and Mary, and the great respect they have for Jesus, whom they consider to be a Prophet and not God. The synod urged all Catholics and Muslims to forget the hostilities and differences of the past and to work together for mutual understanding and benefit.
Part four speaks of the bond that ties the people of the 'New Covenant' (Christians) to Abraham's stock (Jews). It states that even though some Jewish authorities and those who followed them called for Jesus' death, the blame for this cannot be laid at the door of all those Jews present at that time, nor can the Jews in our time be held as guilty, thus repudiating an indiscriminate charge of Jewish deicide; 'the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God'. The Declaration also decries all displays of antisemitism made at any time by anyone.
The fifth part states that all men are created in God's image, and that it is contrary to the mind of Christ to discriminate against, show hatred towards or harass any person or people on the basis of colour, race, religion, and condition of life.
Nostra aetate was one of Vatican II's three declarations, the other documents consisting of nine decrees and four constitutions. It was the shortest of the documents and contained few, if any, references to the debates and the rationale that had gone into its making; therefore, the changes to be brought about by the declaration on the Church's Relations with non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate, carried implications not fully appreciated at the time.
To flesh out these implications and ramifications, the Vatican's Commission on Interrelegious Relations with the Jews issued its Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate in late 1974.
This was followed by that same body's Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in the Teaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church in 1985. These developments were paralleled by accompanying statements from the U.S. bishops.
The above-referenced statements by the Vatican's Commission for Interreligious Relations with the Jews, as well as other developments, including the establishment of more than two dozen centers for Christian-Jewish understanding at Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States along with the participation by rabbis in seminarian formation training, demonstrate how the church has embraced Nostra aetate.
The significance of Nostra aetate as a new starting point in the Church's relations with Judaism, in light of the foregoing, can be appreciated from the vantage point of the passage of forty years. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution acknowledging Nostra aetate at forty, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. also noted this anniversary. This is in addition to the marking of the occasion at the Vatican's Gregorian University itself and at major centers of Christian–Jewish understanding around the United States.
The Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews released a new document exploring the unresolved theological questions at the heart of Christian–Jewish dialogue. Entitled The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable, it marked the 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking declaration Nostra Aetate.
At the fiftieth anniversary of the document, Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America's Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, pointed out that Nostra Aetate came during the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States when Islamic centers and student groups were arising on university campuses, and from these humble beginnings the "Catholic church acted as a big brother" in its understanding of a religious minority, a sentiment that has continued since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when the Church opened its doors to them amidst growing Islamophobia.
Phil Cunningham of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia has summed up the deeper impact of the decree: "There's a tendency to think we've got it all figured out and we've got the fullness of truth. We have to remember God is bigger than our ability to conceive of God, and interreligious relations bring that out."
Nostra aetate has caused controversy that continues to this day. It appears to contradict statements from past ecumenical councils on the necessity of holding the Catholic faith for salvation.
- Dignitatis humanae
- Dominus Iesus
- Ut unum sint
- Unitatis redintegratio
- Jules Isaac
- John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue
- Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue