Rome (AsiaNews) - As he gazed at the opening of the fourth session in the council hall, Nikkyo Niwano, a Buddhist cleric invited as an observer, remembers the Solemn Mass. What "appeared before me was a sight in which multitudes of human beings, hailing from all over the world, seemed to be waiting, holding their breath, to hear the Buddha speak." Thanks to the reminiscences of the Japanese scholar, we can understand how important it was within the Church to reflect about relations with other religions. In fact, if Niwano expressed admiration for Paul VI's open and respectful attitude, he was equally surprised by the changing views within the Church towards other religions, which he realised had a momentous historical significance.
Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions issued by the Second Vatican Council on 28 October 1965, is with Dignitatis Humanae the second most important Church document of the modern era, this according to Benedict XVI. Born out of the need to re-kindle the friendship with the Jewish people following the horrors of the Holocaust, the discussions at the assembly ended up taking a different path, as it faced the issue of the relationship with Islam and other great religions.
Re-establishing a relationship with Jews was a priority. In1962, when the Second Vatican Council opened, only two decades had passed since the terrible Nazi persecution of the Jews. At the time, the horror of the Holocaust was driving public opinion to reflect on the singularity of what had happened then. Within the Church, increasingly people were becoming aware of the errors committed during Christianity's 2,000 years of history, and of the great responsibility Christians had in the violent explosion of anti-Semitism in the heart of Europe. "The first council held after Auschwitz could not say nothing about such matters," said theologian Yves Congar in what is an obvious reference to centuries of learnt Christian Judeophobia.
John XXIII had already expressed a desire to issue a declaration on the Jews. In June 1960, after an audience with Jewish scholar Jules Isaac, the pontiff set up a commission on relations with Jews. Initially, the Council Fathers thought about including a chapter in their work on ecumenism, but eventually, a decision was made to issue a separate document that would address relations with other religions.
The change in perspective was largely a function of balance of forces. Arab bishops were especially able to persuade their colleagues to include a reference to dialogue with Islam. However, the problem became more obvious when it was realised that a broader theological and human perspective was needed on all religions, and on relations Christianity had with them.
Early on, developments were not easy. People were not yet ready and the "Jewish question" was still a very touchy issue within the Church community. In June 1962, the Council's Central Preparatory Commission set aside De Judaeis, the first draft written by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity chaired by Card Bea, because of highly charged positions on diplomatic relations with Arab countries. A new draft came was tabled in November 1963, after long and providential discussions between Bea and Pope John XXIII, who were both convinced of the gravity and urgency of a Church position on the extermination of six million Jews.
What emerged was an entirely different view on what the relationship between Judaism and Christianity ought to be compared to the Latin Church's tradition in the second millennium.
In the new text, Israel's presence was recognised as part of the plan of salvation and an important element in divine pedagogy, in the unfolding of the history of Revelation, as the single and inescapable link between the people of the New Testament and the descendants of Abraham. In addition to deploring the persecution and expressions of anti-Semitism, Nostra Aetate laid down the grounds for a renewed friendship with the Jewish people.
However, the final document cast a wider net. As historian Alberto Melloni noted, the declaration includes "two distinctive discursive levels. The first and more important one is r=that of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Christianity cannot be thought without Judaism since the latter is constitutive, essential and organic to its existence. However, from the analysis of this relationship comes a second element, namely a key to interpret and analyse the relationship between the Christian faith and other religions."
Whether the product of geopolitical considerations or diplomatic expedience, the brief passages in the Council declaration on relations with other religions are in fact ground-breaking. For the first time, terms like "dialogue" and "respect" became part of Church vocabulary. At the same time, they revealed in all their dramatic quality the theological tensions caused by the debate over the value to give other religions versus the issue of salvation.
In the German preface to his writings on the Council, the pope wrote, "In a carefully written and extraordinarily meaningful document, a topic was raised whose significance could not be predicted back then. It is increasingly clear now what kind and how much work must be undertaken to differentiate, clarify and understand its content. As people gradually came to know the latter, it became clear that the extraordinary document had its flaws. In it, religion was only seen in a positive light; from an historical and a theological point of view, all its sick and deranged forms were ignored."
Notwithstanding the Council declaration's prophetic value, we must also admit, as the current pontiff does, that History has come up with new challenges. What Nostra Aetate could just hint at, now requires an in-depth reflection that time has imposed. Thanks to John Paul II's intuitive understanding, the experience and dialogue at Assisi in 1986 and many magisterial interventions, the Church has taken great steps forward in redefining the relationship among religions worldwide.
From recognising in the Council declaration that other religions and faiths had some seeds of truth, the Church has come a long way, to the point where dialogue has become generalised, so much so that in some cases there have been theological and pastoral excesses that needed careful magisterial corrections (Dominus Iesus is one example).
The journey undertaken by the Church in the recent past has also forced other religions to confront the need to deal with modernity. Such is the case with Islam. The few lines dedicated to the followers of Muhammad in the original Council declaration show that the Council Fathers were far from imaging how vital the dialogue with the Muslim world would become after Islam took centre stage in large parts of the world.
Nevertheless, Nostra Aetate continues to be the basis for a positive approach to the Muslim world. It has provided ideas to the Muslim world on how to address modernity. Certainly, as the pope correctly noted, it lacks a lucid analysis of fundamentalisms and the dangers of a violent and intolerance vision of faith. But then, in 1965 the Council Fathers lived in a world divided between blocs, with the United States and Soviet Union facing off in an escalation of provocations and challenges that cast the shadow of nuclear war. At the time, 9/11 and the frightful clash of civilizations were still far into the future.