The final volume of the History of Vatican II series (Orbis 1995-2005) presents Nostra Aetate as “the outcome of one of John XXIII’s original insights.” Ever since the idea for that declaration originated as a request in 1960 to reformulate Christian teaching, preaching and catechesis on Jews, Catholic-Muslim relations have stood in the shadow of Catholic-Jewish relations. Not until 1964 was the decision made to extend and rename the draft “On the Jews and Non-Christian Peoples.” Its fourth section, on Jewish relations, remained the centerpiece, but the third, much shorter section on Muslim relations was equally remarkable as a reversal of history.
Relations with the world’s one billion Muslims would seem to overshadow relations with fewer than 20 million Jews; nevertheless, Christianity’s roots are in Judaism. Christians and Jews share a scripture and, on occasion, offer prayers together. Jewish relations remained under the direction of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, while Islamic relations, though qualifying as “Abrahamic,” fell to the junior secretariat for interreligious dialogue.
U.S. bishops, staunch supporters of the conciliar initiative on the Jews, promptly befriended Jewish leaders. After the council, they reorganized their ecumenical commission into the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious affairs and funded full-time staffing for Jewish relations. Coincidentally, U.S. immigration law changed in 1965, the year in which Nostra Aetate was issued, and populations of Muslims and other religious groups grew rapidly in the United States during the next decades. In time, the American bishops agreed to full-time staffing for interreligious relations beyond Jewish relations. Besides the council’s directives, population changes and world affairs required such attention.
When I began working for the bishops in 1987, Jewish relations already had a history of more than two decades. The majority of bishops had voted favorably for Cardinal William Keeler’s proposal because they wanted dialogue with Muslims but were perplexed about how to bring it about. By 2001, that dialogue was beginning to match the pace of Jewish relations. Interaction with Muslim communities was increasing in dioceses; African-American Muslims enjoyed special bonds with Catholic groups; and three regional dialogues met annually under the bishops’ sponsorship. We also planned institutes on Islam for bishops and diocesan personnel, and new programs appeared on Catholic campuses. We then weathered the terrible storms of Sept. 11, 2001, drawing closer as friends despite an environment that was hardly conducive to mutual trust and cooperation.
The Holy See had similar success. Muslims publicly thanked John Paul II for his leadership in promoting peace and other common values. He had spoken substantively to Muslims and had even set foot in a mosque, 15 years after his historic visit to the synagogue in Rome. Dialogues, some on theological topics, met regularly under Vatican sponsorship; yet some critics scoff at these steps as misguided, impractical and even detrimental to Jewish relations.
In 1965 Nostra Aetate pleaded with “all to forget the past” and urged mutual understanding for preserving and promoting peace, liberty, social justice and moral values. John Paul II’s emendation in 2002, “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness,” is a new call for Muslims and Christians to review together the history of their relations accurately and with sensitivity, to conduct joint scriptural study, to share spiritual resources and to promote communally the values the world needs for peace. Suffering and sorrow cannot be compared measure for measure. All inequity aside, we cannot afford, nor do we wish, to return to the time before Nostra Aetate.