Nostra Aetate Resource - Cirelli

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedThe Church in Relationship with Muslims

by Dr. Anthony Cirelli
Associate Director, Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

I am honored to speak on the topic of the Church's relationship with Muslims—a relationship that has become increasingly important in this post-9/11 world and one that is being especially highlighted for the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions or, as it is more commonly known, Nostra Aetate (NA). In this seminal document, broadly speaking, the Council bishops exhorted the faithful to "enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions" (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [Nostra Aetate], in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1996], no. 2). This is our mandate as Catholics—that is, to seek out and promote ties of understanding, collaboration, solidarity, indeed, friendship, with non-Christians . . . and of these, the Council Fathers make plain their "high regard" for Muslims (NA, no. 3).

And what is the basis of this "high regard"? Here, the third chapter of NA is instructive when it says:

The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the Day of Judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting. (NA, no. 3)

And so, it is helpful, and indeed encouraged, that for the sake of promoting greater understanding and ties of friendship, the first thing to acknowledge when speaking of the Church's relationship with Muslims is not our differences, however real and theologically significant these might be, but rather those aspects or practices of our faith traditions that we share in common—indeed, practices that occupy the center of our lived lives as Catholics and Muslims, such as devotion to God through the cultivation of a robust life of prayer and fasting, as well as acts of mercy and charity. These are not insignificant virtues—these are, in fact, the keys to living in harmony and relative peace. And these virtues, despite being ignored by many in both traditions, do in fact emerge plainly in the sacred texts of both Christianity and Islam.

To the extent, therefore, that we Catholics, with the cooperation of our Muslim brothers and sisters, endeavor to highlight these foundational commonalities between our traditions, as well as point out together where such are lacking, we will, in fact, make an enormous contribution to the overall well-being of the world.

And so to do this, we must commit ourselves, in the first place, to dialogue, that is, to sharing and listening, to forgiving and cooperating, to, in a word, building one another up by seeking the good of the other rather than tearing down so as to dominate and destroy. As Pope Francis stated at the beginning of his papacy: "It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam" (Pope Francis, Address to the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, March 22, 2013,

We really do need to ask ourselves—what is the alternative? We have seen of late how the endemic inability to cultivate the virtues of listening, forgiving, and building up the other—serious prerequisites to entering into positive dialogue—have led to very real scenarios of ignorance, hatred, and violence. It is our belief, therefore, that the most efficient way to work toward ending or at least curtailing these tragic realities is through building wide networks of dialogue . . . for it is such networks that alone offer the best chance at creating bonds of friendship and trust.

In short, Nostra Aetate offered the world a prophetic call when it stated the following: "Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all people, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values" (NA, no. 3). This call makes plain for all that the purpose and meaning and direction of the Church's relationship with Muslims—a path that Muslims too must pursue if they are to honor their own sacred texts and tradition—is irrevocably ordered to dialogue for the sake of peace and social harmony.

And so, practically speaking, what are we doing here in the United States to advance this mandate?

For nearly twenty years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (CEIA) has been engaged in official dialogues with several national Muslim organizations. These dialogues have already produced many fruits, not least of which include jointly prepared documents on education, marriage, revelation, and cooperation in the public square. Perhaps most importantly, our work together has forged true bonds of friendship that are supported by mutual esteem and an ever-growing trust that enables us to speak candidly with one another in an atmosphere of respect. Through dialogue, we have been able to work through and overcome much of our mutual ignorance, habitual distrust, and debilitating fear. Indeed, Pope Francis summed up our own experience of dialogue with the Muslim community when, in his address to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on November 28, 2013, he asserted:

As I stated in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, "an attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides" (no. 250). Indeed, situations in the world where coexistence is difficult are not lacking: often political or economic motives overlap with cultural and religious differences, which also play upon misunderstandings and mistakes of the past: this is all likely to generate suspicion and fear. There is only one road for conquering this fear and it is dialogue and encounter marked by friendship and respect. When we take this path it is a human one.

Dialogue does not mean renouncing one's own identity when it goes against another's, nor does it mean compromising Christian faith and morals. To the contrary, "true openness involves remaining steadfast in one's deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one's own identity" (ibid., no. 251) and therefore open to understanding the religions of another, capable of respectful human relationships, convinced that the encounter with someone different than ourselves can be an occasion of growth in a spirit of fraternity, of enrichment and of witness. This is why interreligious dialogue and evangelization are not mutually exclusive, but rather nourish one another. We do not impose anything, we do not employ any subtle strategies for attracting believers; rather, we bear witness to what we believe and who we are with joy and simplicity. In fact, an encounter wherein each party sets aside his beliefs, pretending to renounce what he holds most dear, would certainly not be an authentic relationship. In this case we could speak of a false fraternity. As disciples of Jesus we have to make every effort to triumph over fear, always ready to take the first step, without becoming discouraged in the face of difficulty and misunderstanding.

Echoing the pope, the bishop members of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs asserted that they "therefore affirm with the pope that 'dialogue does not mean renouncing one's own identity' nor accepting compromises on 'Christian faith and morals.' Like the pope, we are convinced that the encounter and dialogue with persons different than ourselves offers the best opportunity for fraternal growth, enrichment, witness, and ultimately peace." (CEIA, "Dialogue with Muslims," [emphasis added]).

The bishops continue:

Our path is therefore to proceed confidently in our Christian faith with an openness to receive intimations of truth wherever it is found in other traditions, including Islam. We are not alone in our commitment to dialogue. In the 2007 document A Common Word etween Us and You, 138 of the Islamic world's most respected leaders asserted the following:

To those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say that our very eternal souls are all also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony. . . . So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.

Following the lead of the Second Vatican Council, the unambiguous and consistent support of recent popes, and the goodwill of many celebrated leaders in the Islamic world, we Catholics must strive to whole-heartedly reassert our commitment to interreligious dialogue and, given the severe tension between Christians and Muslims, dialogue with Muslims in particular.


The words of Nostra Aetate beckon all of us, Catholics and Muslims, to commit ourselves to pursuing paths of peace, mercy, and mutual esteem. Though this reality may seem more like a dream than a possibility, we nevertheless must strive to attain these goals, fully aware of the difficulties and dangers they present, but also hopeful of the potentially unforeseen fruits, indeed, joy, that such commitment can engender. Mindful of the difficulties, we must hold fast to this possibility and join our words to those of Pope Benedict XVI who, in a 2012 address to youth in Lebanon stated:

"Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society" (September 15, 2012,

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI, Address, September 15, 2012,copyright © 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope Francis, Address, March 22, 2013, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from documents of the Second Vatican Council are from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, OP, © 1996. Used with permission of Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.