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December 21, 2015

The approval 50 years ago of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, was one of the great accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council. The council fathers honestly did not realize what they were doing when they approved that document. It has opened up a new realm of dialogue and tolerance among Catholics and people of other faiths. That goal was on nobody's agenda prior to Vatican II.

St. John XXIII came to Cardinal Augustin Bea two years before the council began and asked him to write a statement on the Church's relations with Jews. When Arab states got wind of this, they created a huge ruckus, one the Vatican feared might jeopardize the position of Christians in the Holy Land. So, the document was expanded to include sections on the Church and Islam as well as the Church and Eastern religions.

The pope wanted to put the Church's ugly history of anti-Semitism behind her, a history which unfortunately had not yet come to an end, despite the attempted genocide of the Jews during the Second World War. However, influential cardinals at the council still wanted to hang the blame for Christ's crucifixion on all Jews of Jesus' time as well as on those living today.

Prior to Vatican II, the Church had no dialogue with those of other faiths and tended to view them as "pagan" or Satanic. The sole "dialogue" was one of attempted conversion.

We have learned a lot since the council, although interfaith dialogue is still in its infancy. The Catholic Church, for instance, is starting to come to grips with the horrific persecutions of Jews and Muslims carried out in its name, especially during the Crusades, but not just then.

We are learning that we have to overcome simplistic understandings of other people's faiths that fail to appreciate the richness of their spirituality and discipline. We are learning no major religion is unidimensional, that there are currents and disagreements within each faith which at times dwarf those between different faiths.

Of particular concern is the rise in recent decades of extremist political Islam, which today represents perhaps the greatest threat to world peace. In order to function intelligently amidst religious pluralism, Christians urgently need a deeper understanding of Islam. We are responsible for knowing the extent to which Islamic terrorism has been denounced by leading Muslims and the extent to which it distorts basic Islamic teachings. Further, we ought to become aware of the contribution that Western governments have made to provoking and entrenching the resentment of a broad spectrum of Muslims.

Nostra Aetate opened a door we need to walk through. It has launched an era of dialogue that is one of humanity's main hopes for preventing war and for building lasting peace.