Tracing the Contemporary Roots of Interreligious Dialogue

By John Borelli

“It took the will of John XXIII and the perseverance of Cardinal Bea to impose the declaration on the Council.” The reference is to Nostra aetate, the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” which begins with the words, “in our age.” We celebrate its 40th anniversary this autumn along with the formal closing of the Second Vatican Council that shaped the Catholic Church that we are today.

The use of “impose” causes the sentence to leap off the page of Volume Four of the contemporary series History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak. Although we await the release of the fifth volume covering the fourth and last period of Vatican II (September to December 1965), the crucial phase for the survival of this shortest of the 16 conciliar documents, Nostra aetate, was the third period, September to November 1964.

Within a few months of his election in October 1958 and his surprise announcement the following January to call a general council, John XXIII invoked papal authority to remove offensive language in reference to Jews from the centuries-old great petitions for Good Friday. His personal notes reveal a long discontent with the expression “perfidious Jews,” no doubt related to his Vatican diplomatic service in Istanbul and Paris during World War II. Then, in early June 1960, Jules Isaac, a Jewish scholar and acquaintance, visited John XXIII and requested reformulation of Christian teaching on the Jews. The Pope took the next step three months later, giving to the venerable Jesuit father Augustin Bea the assignment to prepare a draft on relations with Jews.

Pope John XXIII articulated three main goals for the Council: the spiritual renewal of the Church, its appropriate adaptation to the times, and the furtherance of Christian unity. He had already chosen Cardinal Bea, a Scripture scholar respected for his role as Pius XII’s confessor, to handle the ecumenical task, when he asked him to take on the extra task of Jewish relations. Cardinal Bea’s perseverance kept the draft, initially on Jewish relations but expanded in scope, on the agenda.

Bea proved to be a skilled curialist, clearing a way through layers of scriptural, theological, social, political and historical issues to present a revised draft on the Jews and other non-Christians at the 88th general congregation of the council on September 25, 1964. Although Pope Paul VI’s firm support for dialogue was evident in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam, released in August 1964, Bea continued to struggle with various efforts to turn the text into a political statement or to subordinate it and thereby bury it in the Council’s other important work. It was not a smooth passage to the end of November 1964, but Bea succeeded and received the Council’s approval of the general form of a freestanding document on interreligious dialogue with qualifications. After revisions, the final text of Nostra aetate was promulgated on October 28, 1965, during the final period. As brief and as minimal a start as it was, it remains an amazing achievement.

Today in our post-9/11 world, it is commonplace to hear people say that we need interreligious dialogue more than ever. In 1965, this was not so clear. Many Catholics generally felt that interreligious dialogue was not a priority and would eventually be forgotten for the greater need of Christian unity so that the world may believe. Interreligious dialogue and mission seem to clash. Many others, I am sure, wondered what the Catholic Church meant by dialogue. Pope John Paul II’s extraordinary gestures – the Assisi prayer gatherings, visits to a synagogue and mosque, and meetings with leaders of other religions – kept interreligious dialogue central to the life of the church.

In the last 40 years, those of us involved in interreligious dialogue have had two tasks. On the one hand, we have been learning how to engage in interreligious dialogue, becoming sensitive to the perspectives of others; on the other hand, we discovered that engagement with other religious communities was not all that new. Interreligious dialogue already had a history, marked with the names of Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci, and Roberto de Nobili and traced back to even the earliest times in the history of Christianity. Ironically, we were discovering a heritage while building a new tradition.

Today, progress in interreligious relations since Nostra aetate seems almost commonplace in a world increasingly aware of religious pluralism. In that sense, the Council’s declaration on interreligious dialogue remarkably anticipated the growing interaction of religious groups; yet, the document’s compelling invitation to dialogue is still met with suspicion by peoples of faith. Although Nostra aetate offers a positive assessment of other religions in general terms and encourages Catholics to engage in conversations and cooperation, it still represents an invitation to people of other religious groups to engage in an activity that a confident and highly structured body, the Catholic Church, has outlined and defined from its own heritage. In that sense, Nostra aetate is only the Catholic side of the invitation for dialogue.

Borelli is special assistant for interreligious initiatives to the president of Georgetown University and coordinator for mission and interreligious dialogue for the U. S. Assistancy.

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