It has been 50 years since Nostra aetate, the Vatican II declaration that changed the course of Catholic Church relations with Jews and Muslims.

On Nov. 10 and 11, Patrick Ryan, SJ, the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, made that brief document the focus of his fall McGinley lecture.

The document, 1,152 words in length, dedicated 433 words to the Jewish faith but only 133 words to Islam.

“Each section deserves careful analysis; each has a pre-history as well as a post-history with which we are living to the present day,” he said.

Father Ryan said some of the document’s pre-history included a tradition of anti-Semitic bias among Christians that cried out for “authoritative rejection” by the Church.

Father Ryan noted that one passage, in particular, repeated the early Church’s rejection of the teaching of the second-century heretic, Marcion of Sinope, who rejected everything that was Jewish in the Christian tradition. Paraphrasing St. Paul’s teaching that reaffirms God’s continuing love for the Jews, Father Ryan showed how the Council document rejects centuries of anti-Jewish hatred.

“[B]ut as regards election [the Jews]are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Father Ryan quoted from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

“Nineteen centuries of Gentile-Christian hatred of the Jews as enemies of Jesus, himself a Jew, are here clearly renounced,” he said.

Father Ryan noted that the document’s short section on Muslims is not as detailed as the section about Jews. However, even the statement that the Church “regards Muslims with esteem” is an about-face in Church attitudes, very different from a prayer composed by the papacy just four decades earlier that asked God to “illuminate the minds of those still involved in the darkness of idolatry or of Islamism.”

“The document recognizes the centrality of Abraham to the faith of the Muslims,” he said, but it also acknowledges the long history of tension between Christians and Muslims that reached its apex during the Crusades.

Nostra aetate, brief as it is, and especially its section on Muslims, marks a starting point for the process of dialogue between Christians and Muslims—perhaps even among Jews, Christians, and Muslims—that must be continued today and tomorrow for the sake of humankind and for the glory of God.”

The McGinley Lecture was followed with responses from Jewish and Muslim perspectives. This year’s Jewish response came from Magda Teter, PhD, the recently appointed Shvidler Professor of Judaic Studies.

Teter said the document represents both tradition and change in a complex way, and should be defined more by what followed it than by its actual content. It became a springboard for new dialogue between Jews and Christians. Still, she said the conciliatory voice was charged with facing down centuries of blame for the death of Christ.

“Jews lived this curse around the world,” she said.

Professor Hussein Rashid, PhD, a faculty member from Hofstra University, shared the Muslim point of view. He said that while Nostra aetate certainly spurred new conversations, it was burdened by a cultural memory that carries hope alongside stigma.

Rashid said he found hope in Pope Francis’ recent visit to the 9/11 memorial, where he said the stigma of the “cultural memory that Muslims are the violent Other” still lingers.

“Yet in listening to the words of Pope Francis spoken there, we understand that he saw the location as a transforming space in our relationship with each other,” said Rashid.

“It is in Pope Francis that we see the embodiment of Nostra aetate . . . the rejection of the worst in us and a commitment to the best in us, inspired by the vision of a more peaceful society, [and]the transformation through acts and a deep listening to each other that is our challenge for the next 50 years.”


Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.