Saturday, October 23, 2010

Apologia pro Nostra Aetate

Some time ago, my friend Pr. Lehmann declared that Nostra Aetate (Latin text, English text) was “the most satanic document ever written by the Christian Church.” Now, it will come as no surprise that not only do I disagree, I happen to find it to be an eminently Biblical Document. In fact, it reminds me of one passage in particular; a passage from which it derives its ideas and even its structure. The passage in question is Acts 17:22-33, St. Paul's great speech upon the Areopagus of Athens (the Mars Hill of the Authorised Version).

Let us consider the passage first and then how the Conciliar Document interacts with it. St Paul begins by praising the Athenians for their scrupulous religiosity (the Authorised Version and the Challoner revision* of the Rheims version both imply Paul mocks them for their superstition, but in fact he praises them) by noting that they are so thorough as to worship an “unknown god.” And then he says one of the most startling things, “this god you worship unknowingly, Him I proclaim to you.” This one statement gives the lie to people who assert that either you worship the Trinity or you worship Satan. For Paul himself states it is possible to worship God incompletely and not even have any experience of His revelation in either the Old Testament alone or the Old and New Testaments. For, the Athenians knew neither. And yet, Paul declares that although defective, their unknown god was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. St Paul then goes on to preach to them using Scripture, but not our Scripture. The Scriptures Paul quotes are pagan. “In him we live and move and have our being” is Epimenides of Crete, whom Paul again quotes in Titus (the famous statement that all Cretans are liars) where he describes him as a prophet. “We are indeed his offspring” is from Aratus' Phaenomena . And in this great speech, which converted a number of people like Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, he mentions Christ never by name, but only in passing. Indeed, he exclusively uses pagan reasoning, pagan verbiage, pagan scripture, pagan concepts, etc.

Now why is this important? Because we are often told, either outright or by implication, that if you're not Christian then you have no truth at all and worship Satan. But the Catholic position, articulated in Nostra Aetate and drawing heavily from Paul's example, is that while other religions cannot save, they are not totally devoid of truth either. God calls out to Man, a point made by Paul, and they grope about for him. Some people get it completely right by becoming Christians, but others, even in their ignorance, can see some parts of the truth, while not grasping it entirely. But it is a foundation that can be built upon. And that's what Paul does. He takes those points of intersection, where the Greeks grasped at but did not yet come to the truth, and Paul pointed them in the right direction. And I still marvel that he did so, he brought people to Christ, and yet never mentioned Christ by name. Indeed, Christ is hardly noted by the people; the point of contention that causes people to mock Paul is his assertion of the Resurrection. Nostra Aetate goes farther even than Paul; Nostra Aetate says very clearly that “[i]ndeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.” Paul doesn't even mention salvation, but Nostra Aetate does, and makes it the central pivot point around which the whole document revolves.

Like Paul, Nostra Aetate talks about those points of intersection between other religions and the Christian religion. It does not, as some assert, claim that other religions are equally as valid, or that they can save. A careful reading shows that these assertions are made about the document but are absent from it. Rather, it notes, for example, that the Muslims are monotheistic, wish to be associated with Abraham, revere Christ (though not as God), have special regard for Christ's Mother, etc. All of these statements are true, and are also points to build upon. The Catholic position is toward “positive proselytism,” building upon the common points where the Other has grasped partially the truth so the Other can be brought to its fullness. At the same time, Nostra Aetate takes great pains to distance itself from mistakes of the past. For example, Nostra Aetate makes this quite clear: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” The preceding quote being a reference to all the terrible tragedies associated with Blood Libel and the like. In the final assessment, the Council Fathers took the position that emulating Paul would lead more souls to Christ. If the Council Fathers issued a Satanic document, then it is because Paul gave a Satanic speech.

But how can this be? St. Luke, who recorded it, praises it as winning people to Christ. And he didn't say, “many came to believe in spite of Paul's abject surrender to Satan's power.” Clearly, the Holy Ghost, who inspired Luke, thinks that Paul's speech was praiseworthy. But maybe Paul was playing a joke on the people, or maybe he deceived them for some reason. Really? This is how we win people to Christ? By deception? We are left, unfortunately for some, with the clear warrant of Scripture that what Paul and the Council Fathers did was not Satanic at all. Now, I am sure we'll be told that some pluperfect, some preposition, some adverbial phrase in Ephesians or the Gospel of St John says this or that. But I tell you now that's just missing the Gospel Forest for a few grammatical trees. What did Paul plainly do? What did the Council Fathers plainly do in emulating the Apostle?

I can tell you that it involves Satan; his defeat to be precise.

*I have no idea what the original Rheims version said on this point, as I don't have a text to consult.