The Catholic University of America

June 4, 2015

Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish Scholars Gather for Nostra Aetate Conference

  University President John Garvey speaks with Cardinal Kurt Koch during last month's Nostra Aetate conference.

Representatives from three of the world’s major religions who came together at The Catholic University of America May 19 to 21 for a conference celebrating interreligious friendship and dialogue agreed that their continuing collaboration is essential for the good of mankind.

The conference, “Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims,” was planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions, that provided the catalyst for the Catholic Church to reach out to other religions.

Monsignor Paul McPartlan, acting dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies, said the conference was an occasion to celebrate Nostra Aetate’s call for dialogue. “Understanding, peace, and collaboration between the major faiths of the world is vital for the peace, happiness, and prosperity of humanity,” he said, “and it is an urgent task, as we know only too well.”

The conference was co-sponsored by CUA and the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Three cardinals offered keynote addresses over the three days of the gathering, including Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York; and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and also of the Catholic Church’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Other participants in the event included Muslim scholars and Jewish rabbis.

During his introductory remarks at the conference, University President John Garvey said that, though Nostra Aetate was the shortest of the 16 documents resulting from Vatican II, it has been hugely influential in promoting interreligious understanding ever since. To describe what he believes interreligious dialogue should look like, Garvey called upon the story of the two pilgrims on the road to Emmaus.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauron  

“In an interreligious dialogue, I think we too are traveling in the same way toward the truth,” Garvey said. “Interreligious dialogue is also an act of friendship. We engage in dialogue to share with one another what we have found to be the greatest source of joy.”

The first day of the conference focused primarily on dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America, said Nostra Aetate represented “a major leap” in Catholic acceptance of Muslims, many of whom had begun to move to the United States after escaping colonialism abroad.

As Muslim communities have struggled to find spaces for worship and schools, Syeed said they have often received strong support from Catholics and other Christians.

“We in America were the greatest beneficiaries of these new ideas and new attitudes shaping the Catholic Church’s relationship with other faiths,” Syeed said. “The Catholic Church acted as a big brother and facilitated our community building in America.”

Syeed’s presentation was followed by responses from Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and former apostolic nuncio to Egypt, and from Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden, former chairman of the Secretariat on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the USCCB. Each gave personal examples of what they believe to be progress in the relationships between Catholics and Muslims.

Later that evening, Cardinal Tauran gave a keynote address on promoting dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. In order to better enter dialogue with Muslims, Cardinal Tauran said Christians need to have a deeper understanding of Islam as a religion and a political system.

  Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks with Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

“Despite 50 years of Nostra Aetate, we still don’t know each other well enough,” he said. “Most of the problems we face are problems of ignorance.” 

One strength of Nostra Aetate, Cardinal Tauran said, is that it allows Catholics to recognize and appreciate truths in other religions.

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” he said, quoting Nostra Aetate. “She regards with sincere reverence those ways of acting and of living, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the one she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all.”

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, responded to Cardinal Tauran’s address by giving a history of the Muslim reaction to Nostra Aetate. The following morning, he expanded on his remarks in his own keynote, “Muslim Theology of Dialogue with the Church after Nostra Aetate.” At first, Nasr said, many Muslim communities were suspicious of the document or apathetic toward it. Only within the past 25 years have more Muslims begun to see interreligious dialogue as important.

When it comes to interreligious dialogue, Nasr believes the greatest challenges are theological, including the fact that Christians have difficulty understanding Islam as a “post-Christian religion.” He also said that Christians and Muslims have much in common, and that Islam can learn from the problems faced by Christianity, particularly when it comes to confronting modernity and secularism.

“There is a great battle going on in the world between dark and light, and on almost every issue we are on the same page,” Nasr said. “It’s time for us to understand that we are in the same boat and that we can cooperate.”

In his response to Nasr’s morning address, Rev. Sidney H. Griffith, professor emeritus of the University’s Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, spoke of the importance of “mutual understanding, perhaps not mutual agreement, especially in regard to mutually contradictory doctrines.”

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan  

“I think beyond ideas of interreligious dialogue, we need to think in terms of serious studies of one another’s writings, of one another’s scriptures,” Father Griffith said. “We should want to see Christian and Muslim scholars sitting together to delve more deeply into one another’s scriptures, to think about what is the deep truth that lies under even mutually contradictory statements.”

With his May 20 address, Cardinal Dolan shifted the conversation to the Catholic Church’s dialogue with Judaism since Nostra Aetate.

After giving examples of times when the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism has been strained, Cardinal Dolan shared several tasks on which the two faiths can work together: reclaiming the primacy of God in a secular world; exploring pastoral issues like passing on the faith to future generations or preserving the Sabbath; confronting the fact that organized religions are rapidly losing numbers; facing the realities of religious persecution; and reclaiming the ideas of sin and redemption.

In response to Cardinal Dolan’s keynote, Rabbi Noam E. Marans gave a presentation on the ways in which the American Jewish Committee has benefited from the teaching of Nostra Aetate. Though he acknowledged the document is not perfect, he believes it led to a reduction in discrimination against Jews. For that reason, Rabbi Marans called Nostra Aetate “a life-saving document.”

Nostra Aetate’s power is not limited to the past, but is ongoing,” he said. “Nostra Aetate did not just gather dust on the shelf.”

That evening, Cardinal Kurt Koch spoke on the international Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, former president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, provided the response.

  Rabbi Noam E. Marans

Cardinal Koch said that the Catholic Church "cannot understand itself without reference to Judaism." Quoting Saint John Paul II, he said, “The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us but in a certain way is intrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

Though the relationship between Christianity and Judaism has been strained tremendously over the years and reached “its lowest possible nadir” during the Holocaust, Nostra Aetate helped set the foundation for a restored relationship, said Cardinal Koch.

Rabbi Greenberg agreed and said Christianity and Judaism "need each other as partners."

"We need to show that in humility we can work together and be an extraordinary witness," he said.





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