Muslims and Nostra Aetate: Fifty Years of Rapprochement

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

The Vatican II document Nostra Aetate marked a watershed in the relationship of Catholics toward Muslims.

For the first time, a major church document broke with the old missionizing and Orientalist way of looking at Muslims and spoke of these fellow Abrahamic believers in terms of deep respect. These words of respect were not meant only to shape Catholics’ thinking; they were a call to action: Quote: “This sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and … to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” End quote.

We Muslims are naturally deeply grateful for these words, and particularly for their call to move beyond past hostility to a future of mutual respect and cooperation. But American Muslims today owe Catholics a debt of gratitude dating from centuries before Vatican II.

It was the lone predominantly Catholic colony, Maryland, that passed the first law in America establishing religious freedom, the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649. Over the succeeding centuries, Catholics waged an uphill fight for acceptance in Protestant America, a struggle that became acute with the immigration of millions of Catholics from Europe that started in the mid-nineteenth century.

The situation of American Catholics at that time has many parallels with that of American Muslims today: reviled, misrepresented, and defamed because of real or alleged offenses of Catholics abroad over which they had no control, American Catholics by their steadfastness and their devotion to both their faith and country helped win religious freedom and equality not only for themselves but for all minority religions.

To name but one specific point: the Catholic school system has served as a model for the growing network of Islamic schools in America today.

We need that inspiration today more than ever. As pointed out in the document A Common Word, which I like to think of as a Muslim counterpart to Nostra Aetate, there can be no peace in the world without peace between Muslims and Christians.

And, in the spirit of both documents, peace means more than kind words; it means common action, based on the profound ethical values we both share. Pope Francis has shown us the way, washing the feet of Muslim women on Holy Thursday and just now calling on European Catholics to welcome Middle Eastern refugees to their homes as he himself is doing at the Vatican.

To close in the words of A Common Word: “Let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works.” That is the daunting and beautiful challenge to which Nostra Aetate continues to call us.