Dilatato Corde 4:2
July – December, 2014
Saint John XXIII
Saint John XXIII


This article is an edited version of a talk given to the monastic community at Stanbrook Abbey in October 2013. It was part of a series devoted to the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
I find that when I look at Nostra ætate with the intention of saying something about Islam, I am always drawn back to what it says about Judaism, since if it were not for the Jewish question, the document would never have seen the light of day. In a way, what it says about Islam and the other world religions is no more than a footnote—albeit a rather long one. Fifty years later, however, what it says about Islam attracts the most attention, for although our relationship with the Jews has been long and tortuous over the centuries, our relationship with Islam has been near catastrophic. As far as Church documents are concerned, Nostra Aetate represents the first time anything positive has been said about Islam. In the past, on those rare occasions when Islam was mentioned, it was normally to condemn its errors. Although this “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”actually says very little about Islam quantitatively, the change in attitude has been profound and the way forward for dialogue seems at last to have opened up.
As for Judaism, anti-Semitism was part of the Church’s posture toward Jews from the beginning. It had become so engrained that many Catholics may not even have been conscious of it. The approach of Nostra ætate to Judaism, therefore, is nothing short of miraculous and gives the wider context for what the Declaration says about Islam.
Underlying what happened at the Second Vatican Council is the horrendous event of the Holocaust. I believe that Nostra ætate is an indirect result of it, a prime example of God bringing good out of evil (Rom 8:28). Writing about the Holocaust, Gavin D’Costa, Professor of Catholic Theology at Bristol University, says,
Slowly, after the Shoah, there was profound shock amongst European Christians, that six million Jewish men, women and children were systematically exterminated in the heart of Europe by a Christian nation, while the largest Christian church in Europe, the Catholic Church, allegedly made no public condemnation of these actions.[1]
It can be argued, he says, that the Catholic Church kept quiet for a greater good, but “there is no question that a long history of Christian anti-Semitism, especially from the thirteenth century, facilitated this horrific genocide.”
D’Costa recalls that before the Council, the Vatican conducted a process whereby all Catholic institutions around the world were consulted regarding possible agenda items. The issue of the Jews was mentioned in only two responses, one from eighteen professors at the Pontifical Biblical Institute who stressed the need to combat anti-Semitism, and one from an individual who asked that “international freemasonry, controlled by the Jews” be condemned. However, many Jews and a few Catholic theologians had already pointed out that the presence of anti-Semitism in Catholic doctrine and liturgy was at the heart of the problem. It was widely held, for example, that Jews were guilty of deicide and that Judaism was now null and void, having been supplanted by Christianity. In the liturgy, there was the infamous Good Friday prayer for the “perfidious Jews,” which, as D’Costa says, amounted to a “teaching of contempt.”
D’Costa’s comment on the deicide charge is that the Bible needs interpretation. There are biblical passages that seem to justify this charge, for example, Peter’s words to the crowd after he had cured a lame man: “But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14-15). Even though it had to be acknowledged that the word “deicide” was not to be found in the New Testament, a vociferous minority at the Council was not willing to abandon the traditional interpretation of passages like Acts 3:15. Most of them would only concede that a limited number of Jews were involved in the killing of Jesus, and that they did not know that the crucifixion was an act of deicide. Eventually, the term was dropped completely, at the express request of Paul VI. In fact, the matter had already been resolved by an intervention of Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini (a neutral on the issue), who had said that the term “deicide” should be dropped because no one could kill God anyway.
Concerning the second point, the so-called “abrogation” of Judaism by Christianity, the Council Fathers took another look at Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially chapter 11, in which he argues that Israel’s “rejection” cannot simply be attributed to the people’s hardheartedness and perfidy, but is a part of the mysterious plan of God.
Pope John XXIII
Cardinal Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was Apostolic Delegate to Bulgaria during the time of the Holocaust. He learned of the unspeakable horrors of the extermination camps and came to know the anguish of Jews threatened with deportation. When reports of atrocities were brought to him, he received them “with hands folded in prayer and tears in his eyes.”[2] He always wanted to know all the details about deportation orders and noted them down carefully. He never handed this information over to members of his staff, but always dealt with it personally. He found ways to prevent deportations from Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, thereby saving the lives of thousands of Jews.
Three months after his election to the papacy, Pope John stunned the Church—and probably the world—by summoning the second Vatican Council. He died before it was over and did not live to see the promulgation of Nostra ætate, the document he was instrumental in bringing about. When Pope John summoned the Council his main concern was the inner affairs of the Catholic Church. The question of how the Church should regard and relate to other religions was probably far from his mind, or at least very much on the “back-burner.” There is no doubt that the great Constitutions on Revelation, Liturgy, the Church, and the Church in the Modern World have had a profound impact, but it could be argued that the document that was not even thought of in the early days of the Council, the one on the Church’s relation to other religions, has had an even greater impact, at least to date.
How, then, did Nostra ætate become a part of the Council’s agenda? One of the reasons was that there were Jews who recognized that Pope John was someone whom they could trust and who would listen to them when they spoke to him about anti-Semitism in the Church. For example, after the visit of a certain Jules Isaac, a French Jewish historian and a very important player in the genesis of Nostra ætate, Pope John authorized the alteration of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews, which began, Oremus et pro perfidiis Iudaeis. The traditional translation, “perfidious Jews,” had played no little part in shaping the attitude of Catholics towards the Jewish people.[3]
In the preparatory stages of the Council several requests came from Jews for their case to be addressed, but the main one was from the above mentioned Jules Isaac, who had lost his wife and daughter in the Holocaust. He had already approached Pius XII some years earlier, but without success. In his book, Jésus et Israel, he traced Christian anti-Semitism through the ages, demonstrating how endemic it was even among some of our most well-known authors. He was now an old man and time was not on his side. He had to get past one or two stony-faced cardinals on his way to Pope John, but when he finally got there, he received a warm welcome. The Pope began the conversation by speaking of his great reverence for the Old Testament, but Isaac, believing he did not have much time, went straight to the point. He gave the Pope a dossier containing corrections of all the false and unjust statements that had been made about Israel in Christian teaching. For example, to correct the theological myth that the scattering of Israel was a punishment for the crucifixion of Jesus, he presented an extract from the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which taught that all sinners were responsible for Christ’s death. This Catechism, which represented the official teaching of the Church, made the point that original sin was responsible for the suffering of Christ, and that according to Paul, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). At the end of the meeting Jules Isaac asked the Pope if he could take away with him a little hope. Pope John replied, saying, “You have reason for more than hope,” but also reminded him that he was no absolute monarch.
In October 1960, as preparation for the Council was underway, Pope John was very moved by a visit from a group of American Jews who were on a study trip through Europe and Israel. They stopped in Rome to thank him for all he had done for the Jews during Hitler's persecution. He greeted them with the words “I am your brother Joseph” (Gen 45:4), Joseph (Giuseppe) being his baptismal name. He thus indicated that he wanted to break down the walls that for centuries had divided Christians and Jews.[4]
In his commentary on Nostra ætate, John Oesterreicher concludes that, important as was the visit of Jules Isaac and other Jews, the “decision for the Council to issue a declaration lay in the heart of John XXIII.”[5] On 18 September 1960 he had already commissioned Cardinal Bea, President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to prepare a draft declaration on the inner relationship between the Church and the people of Israel. He decided against setting up a separate commission, as some Jews had requested, because of the role of the Jews in the history of salvation. This draft declaration eventually led to the document Nostra Aetate, which included other religions, notably Islam. With regard to the Jews, in this document the Church for the first time (rather belatedly!) publicly makes her own the Pauline view of the mystery of Israel and gives glory to God for his enduring faithfulness towards the Jewish people. When Pope John XXIII died on 3 June 1963, the work of the Council was far from complete, but fortunately Paul VI, his successor, was able to bring to completion what he had begun.
Robert Caspar, M. Afr., one of the experts at Vatican II, noted that at the beginning of the Council, there was no intention of speaking about Islam. In fact, any consideration of Islam had been eliminated from the programme by the preparatory commission, and all indications were that the majority of those consulted would have been in favour of issuing a condemnation of Islam, if it had been spoken of at all. Such an attitude was quite normal whenever Islam had been referred to by the Church in the past.[6] From the seventh to the beginning of the twentieth century, Islam was regarded as a religion that sought to supplement Christianity since it denied its principle dogmas: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Redemption. Moreover, revelation was believed to have been completed with the death of the last apostle could not be further extended by a new prophet. In the political sphere, Muslim countries posed a great danger to countries in the West because of the weakness of secular powers in Europe during the Middle Ages. Since no Western civil authority had the strength to defend the frontiers of the Christian West single-handed, the popes made themselves the foremost champions of countries in Europe and were the principal instigators of the Crusades.
With the Renaissance, and especially by the nineteenth century, there arose a new science, “Oriental Studies.” The Qur’an was translated into Western languages and research was carried out on Islam’s founder. At this time, too, the vast religious and secular literature of the Arabs became known. On the strictly dogmatic plane, however, attitudes remained the same. That is to say, Islam was condemned since Muhammad was judged to be nothing more than a false prophet and the Qur’an a collection of errors; anything that was true in it had been taken from the Bible.[7]
How did the change in attitude towards Islam come about? After all the attention given to the Jews, some Council Fathers began to suggest that other religions also be given consideration. One of these Council Fathers was the Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV, who said that if the Council was to discuss Jews, then it should likewise take up the question of Muslims, among whom many Eastern Christians had to live as a minority. Providentially, Paul VI was receptive to this request, chiefly because during his years as Archbishop of Milan, he had an intimate association with the person and ideas of Louis Massignon. Already before the Council, various attempts at dialogue with Islam had been made, but it seems certain that Massignon, who died in 1962—just before the Council began—was the main catalyst for the change.
To do justice to Massignon and his contribution to the dialogue with Islam would require a longer paper than this, but to provide a context for the change of attitude, a little background is needed. The first thing to note about Massignon is his close association with Charles de Foucauld, who hoped Massignon would succeed him as a Christian presence in the Sahara Desert. Massignon was very torn between joining de Foucauld and pursuing an academic career. The latter won the day, but his heart was still in the desert. He always felt he had a mandate from de Foucauld to live out his spirituality in a secular context, and that he was being called to promote “the sanctification of Islam through continual intercession before God in silence and prayer.” Even more, Massignon believed that his vocation was to work for the “transformation of a mind-set.”[8] This transformation is what happened at Vatican II, although he did not live to see it.
Massignon was brought up as a Christian (Catholic) by his mother, despite his father’s opposition, but at a very young age, while still at school, he abandoned his religion. He was highly gifted intellectually. While travelling in North Africa as a young man, he was betrayed by an interpreter who did not translate his words faithfully. He decided to learn Arabic for himself (he was 21 at the time) and went to Cairo to deepen his knowledge of the language. He was intrigued by the writings of the Muslim (Sufi) mystic Al-Hallaj, and he chose him as the subject of his doctoral thesis. Hallaj, who died as a martyr by crucifixion, was a Christ-like figure for Massignon, and in the course of his study, he developed what can only be called a personal relationship with him. When, in dire circumstances, Massignon was converted back to Christianity, he was convinced it was Hallaj, among others, who had been interceding for him.
Massignon’s conversion took place in 1907, during an archaeological expedition that he was leading in Iraq. While travelling on the river Tigris, he was suspected of being a spy (he was the only European on board a Turkish boat) and felt threatened. He tried to flee, but was captured. Believing that he would be condemned to death, he tried to commit suicide. Subsequently, he became ill with a high fever and was reduced to praying to all who might protect him. He felt a presence—undoubtedly the God who is Love—whom Massignon called “the Stranger.” God had indeed become a stranger to him at this stage in his life. He was taken to a hospital in Baghdad and subsequently cared for by a Muslim family. This experience of Muslim hospitality was to be fundamental to his spiritual development.
On his return journey to his homeland he had a strong sense of the presence of God the Father, and before arriving in France he made his reconciliation with the Church. Once back in Paris he dedicated his whole life to God. However, while he had returned to his Christian roots, he retained a deep love of Islam, which had been the “matrix” of his conversion. He spent the rest of his life studying Islam and trying to make it better understood in the West. He became perhaps the foremost Orientalist of his day, and while not all of his ideas were accepted at the Vatican Council, some significant ones were. The Council agreed with Massignon that Muslims adore the same God whom Christians adore, that Abraham is a model of faith, and that Muslims are to be respected.[9] It did not accept his claim that Muslims are descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, nor his acceptance of the reliability of the Qur’an and the prophetic credentials of Muhammad. Apparently, descent from Ishmael is historically doubtful, and in any case, faith was considered to be more important than physical descent, as is the case with Isaac’s descent from Abraham.
The paragraph in Nostra ætate that speaks of Islam is very short and less theological than the rather longer section dealing with Judaism that follows it. In fact, it has been said that the document says nothing about Islam, but only about Muslims. The text reads as follows:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom (NA 3).
When a document such as this reaches its final form, one can be sure that there has been a long and agonising process leading up to it and that every word has been carefully chosen. The statement on Islam in Nostra ætate looks on the surface to be a very simple and straightforward text. However, just how revolutionary it is can be seen as we observe the impact it has had over the last fifty years. We have made enormous progress in our relationship with Islam, despite the fact that we still have a very long way to go.
Respect for Islam is expressed in the very opening words of the paragraph. This in itself is extraordinary when one considers that nothing but condemnation had been previously issued by the Church in its official documents, and that at the beginning of the Council there was no intention of saying anything at all about Islam. However, following requests from Eastern rite Catholic bishops, Pope Paul personally asked the conciliar commissions to prepare a text on Islam each time there was a mention of Jews.
The next point to note is the Declaration’s statement that the God whom both Christians and Muslims recognise and adore “has spoken to men.” This is all that is said about the Qur’an, and it is done in rather veiled language. The Declaration does not subscribe to the conviction that Islam’s holy book was dictated word for word to an entirely passive prophet. In fact, the prophetic mission of Muhammad is not mentioned at all. These are both very sensitive topics for Muslims, and the Council decided, probably wisely, to deal with them by silence. Catholics and Muslims hold very different ideas about both Scripture and the nature of prophecy, and it will probably take much more time to come to a clear understanding of what these differences entail.
When stating what Muslims believe, the document does not pass judgement on Islam as a religion. It captures the essence of Islam when it says, “they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees.” The literal meaning of Islam is “submission,” and Muslims submit to God “just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.” Massignon emphasized the foundational role of Abraham in the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has become common to hear these three religions referred to as the “Abrahamic faiths,” but in my opinion the relationship of the three faiths to Abraham is so different that the expression “Abrahamic faiths” has no real meaning apart from being a convenient unifying label.
Next, there is the thorny problem of Jesus, who is greatly venerated as a prophet in Islam. I believe it is a sore point with Muslims that Christians do not venerate Muhammad in the way they, the Muslims, venerate Jesus. Obviously there are non-negotiables on both sides, and this is one of them. For this reason, the document uses as few words as possible so as not to arouse controversy. Mention is made of Mary, who is greatly venerated in both Islam and Christianity. She is actually more of a bond between Catholics and Muslims than her Son.
Then follow references to Muslims’ belief in a final judgement and bodily resurrection, the value they place on a moral life, and their prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Finally, we are exhorted to forget the quarrels and dissensions of the past and work together to achieve mutual understanding, for the benefit of all men (inclusive language was not yet compulsory!), to promote peace, liberty, social justice, and moral values. These days, much more than at the time of the Council, Islam is everywhere present in Western society, and those final exhortations could not be more timely.
Georges Anawati OP, a Dominican expert in the area of Islam, concludes his commentary on the Nostra ætate by saying, “The Christians of the West must arm themselves with inexhaustible patience, and live in the faith that moves mountains.”[10] Those are words with which I wholeheartedly agree.
[1] "Tradition and Reception: Interpreting Vatican II's 'Declaration on the Church's Relation to Non-Christian Religions,'" New Blackfriars, Vol. 92 (July 2011) 487.
[2] John M. Oesterreicher, “Introduction and Commentary” (on Nostra Aetate), in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. III, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (Burns & Oates/Herder & Herder, 1968), p. 7. I owe most of what is said here to this commentary.
[3] The translation was based on a misunderstanding of the Latin of Christian antiquity. Perfidia means “faithlessness,” so Catholics were being called to pray for the “faithless Jews,“ that is, for those who do not believe in Christ. However, it still speaks volumes that the word was translated without question into modern languages as “perfidious.” See Oesterreicher, pp. 4-5, and Leo F. Stelton Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin (Hendrickson CA, 1995), p. 5.
[4] Oesterreicher, vol. 3, p. 6.
[5] Ibid., p. 8.
[6] Andrew Unsworth, “Louis Massignon, the Holy See and the Ecclesial Transition from ‘Immortale Dei’ to ’Nostra ætate’: a Brief History of the Development of Catholic Church Teaching on Muslims and the Religion of Islam from 1883 to 1965,” ARAM Periodical [Aram Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies], vol. 20 (2008) 8.
[7] Georges C. Anawati OP, “Excursus on Islam,” in Commentary on Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler vol.3, p.151.
[8] Guy Harpigny, doctoral thesis on Louis Massignon, in Michael L .Fitzgerald and John Borelli, Interfaith Dialogue: A Catholic View (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2006), pp. 230f.
[9] Ibid., p. 232.
[10] Anawati, op.cit., p.154, ed. Vorgrimler.
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