One of the most successful jingles of all time is the familiar 1971 Coca-Cola commercial: “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony.” Curiously, this became popular about six years after the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” which sought to promote harmony amongst world religions.
What does Coca-Cola have to do with Nostra Aetate? In short, as a child, the Coke commercial sung by a multicultural group of teenagers on the top of a hill was the closest I had come to encountering people of mixed races, religions or skin color. As a child, these differences really didn’t mean much to me, at least not anything negative. Rather the differences in religion, race and skin color, as the commercial suggested, promoted “perfect harmony,” which was something positive.
Years later, I was at a loss to discover that certain people were surprised that the Church saw something positive and valuable in other major world religions. As a Catholic teenager I reasoned that, if a shared bottle of Coke could promote “perfect harmony” among a diverse group of young people, imagine how much more a shared belief in God could promote. I couldn’t imagine how the Church would not discern something valuable or life-giving in non-Christian religions. Why? Because hidden within would be a huge prize for those willing to examine the evidence. With Coke, perfect harmony. Within major world religions, elements of perfect truth.
The last of five documents promulgated Oct. 28, 1965, Nostra Aetate, (NA) the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” is the shortest all the Vatican II documents. Nonetheless, it speaks volumes on the Church’s development and shift in perspective regarding other world religions. Initially, when Pope John XXIII requested that this document be formulated, it was conceived as a document dedicated entirely to Judaism. The final draft of Nostra Aetate, however, addressed Judaism only after considering Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
Nostra Aetate opens on a positive note, promoting dialogue and collaboration with non-Catholic faith communities and non-Christian faith communities. The starting point of such initiatives ought to be “what human beings have in common and what promotes fellowship” (NA, 1).
While first recognizing that “the fullness of religious life” is found in Christ, “who is the way, the truth, and the life” (NA, 2), Nostra Aetate speaks about other world religions in an affirming way, acknowledging that certain aspects of these faith traditions “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people” (NA, 2). It concludes by affirming that the Church “rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (NA, 2). Therefore, according to the Church’s way of thinking, there can never be an excuse or reason for “any discrimination between individual and individual, or people and people” (NA, 5). In fact, the document insists, “the Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them on the basis their race, color, condition of life, or religion” (NA, 5).
Nostra Aetate opens with a discussion of classical philosophical questions that people of every time and place seek to answer. The origin of humanity and the meaning of life is discussed with questions such as: What is the meaning and purpose of life? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
Next, the major world religions are explored. Hinduism and Buddhism are first considered identifying “India” as their shared place of origin, Hinduism about 1,500 BC and later Buddhism in 520 BC. Islam, which originated about 1,000 years later in the early seventh century — about 610 AD in Mecca by Muhammad, is then discussed. The Council Fathers highlight Islam as a monotheistic religion (belief in the existence of one God) and makes explicit reference to our shared devotion with the Moslems to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Islam’s veneration of Jesus “as a prophet.” Finally, after mentioning our history of “quarrels and dissensions” with the Moslems, the Council Fathers ask that we “forget the past … (and make) a sincere effort to achieve mutual understanding … social justice and moral values.” (NA, Article 3).
The message I learn from this portion of Nostra Aetate is that being interested in or curious about other world religions does not mean that one is abandoning Christ to become a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Moslem any more than sharing a Chinese fortune cookie means that one is abandoning Christ to follow Confucius.
A more extensive discussion then follows about the relationship of the Church to Judaism (NA, 4). The themes covered include:
1. Our reception of “the revelation of the Old Testament” through the Jewish people of the “ancient covenant.”
2. The reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles through the “cross of Christ.”
3. The Jewishness or lineage of Christ “according to the flesh” (Rom 9:4-5) as “the Son of the Virgin Mary,” a daughter of Judaism.
4. The Apostles and first disciples of Christ being of Jewish descent.
5. The Church coming forth from the root of “that good olive tree (God’s chosen people) onto which the wild branches of the Gentiles have been grafted.”
6. The Church’s insistence that the violent death of Christ cannot be leveled against “all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today.”
7. The Church’s insistence that, “all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source” be unlawful.
8. The Jews as rejected or accursed by God is not found in Sacred Scripture and must be rejected.
9. The “deicide” charge against all Jews, (the Jews as being responsible for the killing of the Son of God), is rejected.
Following the Second Vatican Council, any conversion of the Jewish people that took place was understood as self-initiated and not the result of a campaign by the Church to “convert the Jews.” The theological reasons continue to be assimilated, however, regarding the Church’s affirmation of the Jews as God’s chosen people.
As the deadline approached to submit this article, I was overheard by a brother priest humming the Coca-Cola jingle. Unaware of my dilemma he jokingly observed, “you’re living in the past.” The message of Nostra Aetate challenges us not to live in the past but to recall it, while avoiding the mistakes and sins we mutually inflicted on one another. It challenges us to live as completely and fully as possible in the present, keeping the priorities of Nostra Aetate utmost in our minds and hearts. It challenges us to move toward the future full of optimism and hope that comes from a God who is loved and revealed as our common destiny.
While Coca-Cola may always make a lasting impression on how the world was taught to sing in perfect harmony, Nostra Aetate will make a lasting impression on how the world was taught to live, awaiting that day, “known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and “serve him shoulder to shoulder” (NA, 4).
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit www.diometuchen.org/father-hillier