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Are We to Admire Unbelievers?

In Anthony Clark’s article on Thomas Merton, I saw no quote from Merton’s works that troubles me as much as these words from Vatican II:

Thus, in Hinduism people explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy. They seek release from the trials of the present life by ascetical practices, profound meditation and recourse to God in confidence and love. Buddhism in its various forms testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world. It proposes a way of life by which people can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of perfect liberation and reach supreme illumination either through their own efforts or with divine help. (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [Nostra Aetate], 2)

Accurately defined insights of philosophy? A way of life by which people can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of supreme illumination? Such phrases make it very difficult to distinguish between what is being explained and what is being endorsed. These words were first brought to my attention by a Lutheran pastor. For him, they were reason enough to dismiss Catholicism. I would be most grateful if a staff apologist could explain how such words are consistent with orthodoxy.

—Jennifer Hay
Via e-mail

Jimmy Akin replies: The quotation that you give from
Nostra Aetate was not cited in the article on Thomas Merton, though how the passage is to be interpreted is a legitimate question.

Part of the problem that you sense with the passage is that you are using a bad translation. For example, the phrase rendered “the accurately defined insights of philosophy” in Latin is acutis conatibus philosophiae, which does not remotely mean what your translation represents. Instead, it means “acute exertions of philosophy” or “acute philosophical strivings.”

A better sense of the passage is found in the translation on the Vatican’s Web site (

Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.

Using a better translation helps make clear that the text is describing what these religions claim without endorsing everything they say. This is even clearer if you read the surrounding context. The passage quoted above is introduced by the statement that

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language.

Your passage is thus an illustration of the different ways in which religions connected with more advanced cultures (such as Hinduism and Buddhism) wrestle with the fundamental human perception that there is a “hidden power which hovers over the course of things.”

After your passage, Nostra Aetate goes on to state: “Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites.” So the passage you are concerned about is illustrative—meant to illustrate the different ways in which people in different religions have responded to the religious impulse.

The Council does not endorse everything in these religions, as made clear by what it says next:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many.aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, 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.

Here the Council issues a call to discernment. While the Church does not reject things in other religions that are true and reflect a ray of God’s truth, Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the religious impulse. By implication, some things in these religions do not reflect God’s truth, and none of them has “the way, the truth, and the life” that is found in the Christian understanding of Christ.

More Nostra Aetate Concerns

I’m bothered about the comment Michelle Arnold made in the April 2008 issue of This Rock, in her article “Muslims worship Allah” on page 43. In it she said “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims.” Unfortunately, she probably is right. How can the Church “esteem” a religion that practices forced compliance, issues a tax on non-believers and in many places persecutes Christians because of non-belief? Just because there is common ground on a few things, their basic philosophy, the Qur’an, does not agree with principles that we think Jesus would agree with. For example, it seems to give permission to smite the infidels because of non-belief. Isn’t that what the early Romans did? I don’t understand. I wonder if the early Church Fathers (first four centuries) would grant them “esteem.”

—Bob Bartolowits
Via e-mail

Michelle Arnold replies: The statement “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims” is not my own but that of the Second Vatican Council in
Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. The reasons the Church gives “esteem” to the Muslims follow in the next sentences, some of which include: Muslims worship the one, true God; they revere Jesus as a prophet; they honor the Blessed Virgin Mary; they try their best to submit to what they believe to be God’s will; and they value morality, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. The section on Islam concludes with:

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod [Vatican II] urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. (NA 3)

For a better understanding of the Church’s explication of its relationship with Islam, I recommend “The Catechism on Islam” by Jimmy Akin (This Rock, July-August 2002, available online at

Invitation to Chicanery

Thank you for Russell Shaw’s article “Behind Closed Doors Secrecy in the Church” (April 2008). He rightly points out there is an appropriate kind of secrecy, both in the internal forum of conscience and also a secrecy to protect people’s good names and reputations.

In all organizations, including our beloved Church, there is a great danger that secrecy will be used for improper purposes. Here are two examples.

If a teacher in a Catholic school is told by the principal that someone has written a letter accusing him of being disloyal to Vatican II, the teacher should have a right to see that letter. But there is no Freedom of Information Act in the Church such as we have in the United States to safeguard honesty and discourage shenanigans.

A second kind of inappropriate secrecy is practiced by certain Roman congregations such as the Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. If someone has a case before such bodies, there is said to be open access to that party. But open access means “You may come to Rome to inspect the file, but only in Rome and only at the office.” This is tantamount to denial and secrecy because most people cannot afford the time or the money to take such a trip, and Rome knows that.

What results here in these instances is an information economy. Information is valuable and is used as a means of exchange, i.e., “I have information which you may value and you have some that I may value and we may trade or barter.” This kind of secrecy invites chicanery.

— Fr. Val J. Peter
Boys Town, Nebraska

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