Conference Recap: Nostra Aetate and the Future of Interreligious Dialogue

Today's guest post comes from Dan Hummel. Dan recently defended his dissertation on the history of Jewish-Evangelical relations and Christian Zionism. He graduates from University of Wisconsin-Madison this December. Congrats, Dan!

Dan Hummel

From October 11-13, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions hosted a conference on “Nostra Aetate and the Future of Interreligious Dialogue” in recognition of Vatican II’s fiftieth anniversary. The presenters were a mix of clergy, academics, and seminarians representing a diversity of religious and intellectual viewpoints. In addition to the expected reflections by Catholic and Jewish presenters, the conference included informative panels on Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu interpretations of Nostra Aetate.

Most RiAH readers are probably familiar with Nostra Aetate. The title (English: “In Our Time”) reveals the pressing need its writers felt to update the Catholic Church’s relationship “to non-Christian religions” during the Vatican II Council (1962-65). While the document’s primary thrust was to improve relations with the Jewish world, it addressed other religions as well. Indeed, as John Borelli (Georgetown University) argued in the opening plenary talk, the document’s writers were concerned about the Church’s relationship to a variety of religious traditions. Countering the notion that discussions outside of Judaism (essentially section four of Nostra Aetate) were added merely for political purposes, Borelli pointed to the key role of Louis Massignon and other scholars of Islam in lobbying for a more positive assessment by the council. Missionaries and bishops in India, among other non-Western representatives, also pressed the council to address their local interreligious situations.

While attendees certainly expressed appreciation for Nostra Aetate, panels did not uncritically celebrate the document. The director of the Lubar Institute, Charles Cohen (University of Wisconsin-Madison)*, summarized his and many others’ views when he described Nostra Aetate as both “transformative” and “showing its age.” Many of the panelists focused on these two aspects of Nostra Aetate: either recounting how such a transformative document emerged in the 1960s, or dwelling on its limits and possible improvements for the future. Especially in the first panel on Catholic perspectives, Jeannine Hill Fletcher (Fordham University) highlighted the built-in racial and cultural hierarchies of the document that limit its usefulness in the twenty-first century. Particularly troubling to many panelists and audience members was Nostra Aetate’s focus on religious traditions that were “bound up with an advanced culture.” What did this mean for the Church’s relationship to indigenous religions and “unadvanced” cultures and societies? Panelists used phrases like “sliding scales of culture” and “graded inclusivism” to attempt to understand the document’s assumptions. As Borelli observed, while Vatican II condemned racism and other forms of discrimination, it had only one foot in the post-colonial reality of the 1960s.

Criticism of Nostra Aetate also came from other perspectives. Dwight Hopkins (University of Chicago) wondered about the vagueness of the term “Church,” asking if Protestants might be read as a “non-Christian” religion. Jerusha Lamptey (Union Theological Seminary) cast light on Nostra Aetate’s intentional silences and asked why some religions (i.e. Judaism) got more complex treatment by the council while other religions, including Islam, did not. Rita Gross (University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire), speaking about Buddhist responses to Nostra Aetate, criticized the document’s generic masculine language and consistent androcentrism (the failure to address women and/or gender was voiced by many participants). A number of panelists also expressed discomfort over Vatican II’s remaining “exclusivist” theological commitments that essentially reinforced its traditional claim to religious authority. While Nostra Aetate declared that “[t]he Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” this acknowledgment of truth in other religions was on Christian terms.

Even while these criticisms pointed to conceptual, theological, and methodological problems for many of the panelists, there were also positive assessments. Many panelists praised the radical departure of Nostra Aetate from previous statements by the Catholic Church. Muhammad Shafiq (Nazereth College) echoed other presenters when he credited Nostra Aetate with greatly advancing interfaith dialogue. John T. Pawlikowski (Catholic Theological Union), one of the foremost Catholic proponents of Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last thirty years, speculated positively about the connection between Nostra Aetate and developments in biblical studies which have indicated ever greater historical and theological connections between Judaism and early Christianity. Rabbi David Fox Sandmel (Director of Interfaith affairs, Anti-Defamation League) credited Vatican II with reshaping Jewish-Christian relations.

In total, the conference captured a wide array of opinions from a diverse number of religious traditions. That Nostra Aetate was transformative but showing its age, in Cohen’s words, appeared to be the general consensus. For RiAH readers, the most notable aspect of this conference may be its demonstration of the increasing pluralism and diversity in American religion. Even in the frameworks in which we discuss one tradition’s document, we require a multiplicity of voices. Nostra Aetate is certainly an exceptional document that still stimulates a pluralistic response, but it is not exceptional in highlighting how Christian recognition of non-Christian religions seems a very dated exercise in the twenty-first century.

A couple brief observations of the Lubar community in action. The interdisciplinary environment highlighted useful contrasts that would be hard to find in other settings. The two plenary sessions evinced one contrast I have already mentioned between a focus on Vatican II’s historical context and a second focus on the future of interreligious relations. John Borelli’s historical approach to the writing and revising of Nostra Aetate gave a thick political context for understanding the document’s origins. Conversely, Paul Knitter’s (Union Theological Seminary) second plenary focused on possibilities in transcending or (to borrow an explosive interreligious term) superseding the boundaries set by Nostra Aetate. By focusing on Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si, Knitter suggested a transition from “competition” among religions for superiority to “collaboration” on solving the environmental crisis. More common contrasts included the theological and theoretical reflections of theologians and the more historical methodology of historians. The exchanges in the question and answer periods furthermore demonstrated a strong breadth and depth of interdisciplinarity.

A second observation is that virtually all of the criticism of Nostra Aetate at the conference came from what I would call the left of the position that the document stakes out. Concern was overwhelmingly for more inclusivism, more diversity, and more theological reform. Some panelists, including Rabbi Or Rose, called for additional forms of dialogue outside the theological: contemplative practice, prayer, and interpersonal dialogue. On the other hand, I observed very few criticisms of Nostra Aetate  - either in the presentations or in discussion - from what I would call the right or conservative camp. Conservative Catholic circles have found disturbing concessions in Nostra Aetate, and similar figures in other religious traditions are concerned about policing the border between constructive dialogue and self-destructive inclusivism. Of course, there is an element of self-selection at work here at an academic conference, but it is still notable. Traditionalists exercise strong influence in their religious communities, and it is in those communities that the effects of Nostra Aetate are less discernable or manifest in unexpected ways. In short, the conversations seemed oddly disconnected from a large group of Protestants, Muslims, and others who would (and have) criticized Nostra Aetate and similar documents for breaking with historical doctrines and beliefs instead of defending them.

This observation aside, the conference succeeded in its goal to assess the origins and legacy of Nostra Aetate from a variety of perspectives, and to offer suggestions for how the document might function in an increasingly pluralistic twentieth century.

*Full disclosure: Charles Cohen was a member of my dissertation committee. I have no formal ties to the Lubar Institute.


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