Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins speaks at a synagogue in Toronto. A mere 50 years ago, it would have been unheard of for a Catholic priest to do such a thing. But with the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church opened itself to the other faiths of the world. Oct. 28 marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Photo by Michael Swan.

Nostra Aetate opened Catholics to the world

  • October 25, 2015

In or out? Us or them? Where do we draw the line? Should we draw the line? Once a line is drawn, how do we look beyond our borders?

Every religion, every nation, every community struggles with these questions. In every age the questions get asked again. Our answers shift as the tides of change roll in and out of our lives.

Fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council decided not so much to move the borders as to look beyond them. In just 1,600 words, Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) unfolded the Church out of its centuries-long defensive crouch and opened up channels of dialogue with every other faith of significance and reach around the globe.

Nostra Aetate wasn’t a decree or a constitution. It claimed neither dogmatic nor pastoral authority. It was satisfied to be merely a declaration. It was the shortest document issued at Vatican II. But of the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council, none are more studied, more argued over, more written about or more relevant to how the Church lives its mission now.

“For me, it’s a radical change. It’s a threshhold,” said Edmundston, N.B., Bishop Claude Champagne, chair of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Christian Unity, Religious Relations with Jews and Interfaith Dialogue. “It was the first time in the history of the Church we were able to see there could be some good, some truth, some beauty in the other believers. For me it was a very deep change.”

Champagne’s commission issued not one but two documents to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Over the last four years of academic conferences, books and celebrations to mark a half century since the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate is the only Vatican II document to inspire the CCCB to issue an entire catechetical program for Canadian Catholics.

The two booklets (available as a PDF from are both titled A Church in Dialogue. The first explains the history and philosophy of Catholic interfaith dialogue. The second document outlines in particular progress in dialogue between Catholics and Muslims.

Council fathers voted 2,221 to 88 in favour of Nostra Aetate and Pope Paul VI promulgated the document on Oct. 28, 1965. It was a statement from the Church which caught the attention of the world and the spirit of the age.

It was sprung upon the world at the same time as Canadians were discovering multiculturalism. What started as the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963 had by 1969 opened up to the successive waves of immigration constantly remaking Canada. In the course of acknowledging the Japanese, the Jews, the Italians and the Portuguese in our midst, the 1969 final report of the royal commission invented the word “multiculturalism.” For Canadian Catholics who were the children of multiculturalism, Nostra Aetate struck a chord.

A Canadian was also present at the drafting of the Vatican II declaration. Theologian Gregory Baum was chosen as an advisor to the first ever president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1960, Cardinal Augustin Bea. A survivor of the Holocaust born of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father who arrived in Canada as a war refugee, Baum’s perspective was vital to Bea’s work. Pope John XXIII asked Bea to craft a statement on Catholic relations with Jews in light of the murder of six million. It took almost five years for that assignment to evolve into Nostra Aetate.

Half a century on, Baum does not sugar coat the idea that Nostra Aetate changed the self-understanding, the outlook and the culture of the Catholic Church.

“Nostra Aetate really is a change teaching,” Baum told The Catholic Register in 2012. “I can’t really blame Catholics for being upset about it. This is really new.”

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,” wrote the council fathers.

“The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”

For a generation of Catholics who grew up unable to attend the weddings and funerals of even Protestants, let alone Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, this changed how they were to be Catholic.

“It’s the first time in the history of Christianity that a Church has said something positive about religious pluralism,” said Baum.

This wasn’t just sticking a smiley face on the grim, old Church. It required a new mindset.

“If you are in dialogue with Protestants and Jews, you want to be in dialogue with your own Church,” Baum points out.

Redemptorist Father Paul Hansen was a young priest in Germany studying serious theology as the age of Nostra Aetate dawned, but 50 years on he’s still anxious to talk about the implications of that declaration.

“The network of the Catholic Church throughout the world has the potential to be a unifying force given the struggles we’re facing,” Hansen told The Catholic Register during a break at the “Responsibility to Engage” conference at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College Oct. 8 — a gathering of theologians, politicians, clergy and other scholars in Toronto to think about the revolution in religious dialogue launched 50 years ago.

Though it was certainly the product of its time, the Cold War included, Nostra Aetate still speaks to us today in new and interesting ways, said Hansen.

“We’re on the verge,” he said. “Because of instant communication and because of the incredible dismissal you might say of the nation state to a global village, we need a structure that’s going to carry the human family forward.”
Is dialogue such a structure?

More than you might suppose, suggests Champagne. After Nostra Aetate, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued his first encyclical. In Ecclesiam Suam the pope defined the Church in terms of its mission. It was an encyclical made possible by Nostra Aetate.

“He (Pope Paul) decided that dialogue would be the key word,” recalled Champagne. “Dialogue with other Christians, dialogue with other religious traditions and dialogue with people without a religious faith.”

Every pope since then has spoken of the Church in terms of dialogue, none more so than Pope Francis.

“Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world,” Pope Francis said in 2013. “And so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.”

A quick glance has led some to dismiss the high ideals of Nostra Aetate as the misguided optimism of the 1960s. But without ideals, without hope, we drown in the narcissistic triviality of self-interest, Sr. Mary Boys told the St. Michael’s conference.

“We live in a maelstrom of distractions — of selfies and Twitter and….” said the Union Theological Seminary professor.

Dialogue is the cure.

“Dialogue is not a method, it’s a way life,” Boys said.

There is a future for the 50- year-old document if we can engage its principles against the “awful temptation for superficiality,” Dominican writer and scholar Fr. Timothy Radcliffe told The Catholic Register.

“The biggest threat to our culture is the globalization of superficiality,” Radcliffe said. “I know one of the functions of the Church is to go on reminding people that behind the glitzy, bright facade there is the suffering that people are enduring.”

But you cannot know the suffering or the hope present in the world without knowing people, and knowing them deeply — knowing what they believe and how they pray and their sense of themselves.

“We have something to learn (in interreligious dialogue) but we also have something to offer and something to say,” said Laval University theologian Fr. Gilles Routhier. “Something to share with the other. It is about dialogue in which we both receive and offer.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.