Dialogue: Vatican II & Other Religions (“Nostra Aetate”)

Dialogue: Vatican II & Other Religions (“Nostra Aetate”) June 14, 2019

This is a discussion with a radical Catholic reactionary who thinks that Vatican II compromised the Catholic faith. His words will be in blue.
*****Your argument has two sides to it: one is a defense of the Second Vatican Council, another is an attack on those who dare to question it; let’s examine the defense. 

I am not attacking the people, of course, but their positions. I always make that distinction, and it is absolutely crucial in the field of apologetics, as well as all legitimate dialogue.

I proceed now to quote from the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, paragraph two:
It [Buddhism] proposes a way of life by which men can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of perfect liberation and reach supreme illumination either through their own efforts or by the aid of divine help. . . She [the Catholic Church] has a high regard. . .for the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ, Who is the way, the truth and the life. In Him. . . men find the fullness of their religious life.


In Hinduism men explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy.

I will note, before I proceed, that if even one statement of one document of the Second Vatican Council is proved to be fallible, your case founders.

Not exactly. The catch is in the criterion of “proof.” As you well know, our anti-Catholic Protestant friends think they have all kinds of proof that Catholicism is unbiblical, idolatrous, false to history, pagan, a departure from early Christianity, etc. They think they have an airtight case. You and I would surely agree that they don’t. So don’t be so sure that you can disprove beyond all doubt something or other in an Ecumenical Council. Luther thought the same, and I’m sure he had at his disposal all the garden-variety charges of supposed “Romish” error through the centuries (Honorius et al). So let’s take a closer look at your “proof.”

These two quotes are so ambiguous and contain so mixed a message, it cannot be said they are either definitive or binding. This is the case for two reasons: the failure to use definitive language and assertions which are contrary to fact.
1. Lack of definitive language: “proposes a way of life by which men can…” What does this mean? Propose means “to set forth.” For example the propositions of such heretics like Wyclif, Hus and Luther were condemned because they proposed, i.e. set forth errors as true beliefs. Yet according to the above quote, the way of life which Buddhism proposes is a way BY which men can, that is ARE ABLE to attain perfect liberation. 


You misunderstand the language almost totally. The Council is not agreeing with Buddhism per se; it is merely recognizing the sincere and worthy goals to be found in almost all world religions, including Buddhism. This is diplomatic, conciliatory language. It is obviously an attempt to find common ground with other religions — not an exercise in indifferentism or relativism. You needn’t create a contradiction where in fact two ideas are complementary.

I find that people who are predisposed to be critical of Vatican II often find in it what they wish to find, but in so doing, they make their bias evident to all. I believe this is one such case. I am glad you have brought up specifics of the Council, because then we can observe the evident fallacies entailed in your interpretation.

The key phrase in the document is: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” In other words, what is true is good (and that is what is discussed), and can be gladly acknowledged. The errors are bad. It is not the purpose of this particular document to document those. It is difficult to be both conciliatory and apologetic at the same time (though we are indeed called to both). E.g., in the present debate, we are being very apologetic, and defending our own viewpoints. We are all fairly aware of what unites us, so we don’t have any particular need or desire to discuss that. Nostra Aetate has precisely the opposite purpose.

You could, I suppose, argue (similar in spirit to a hyper-Calvinist fundamentalist) that all religions besides Catholicism are thoroughly evil, through and through, but this is patently (and I think, obviously) false. St. Paul engaged in a tactic not unlike this document, in his sermon on Mars Hill, in Athens. He cited pagan poets and philosophers, and the “tomb of the unknown god,” rhetorically built upon them, and proceeded to make the case for Christianity. So he engaged in both endeavors, but consecutively.

It is difficult to do them simultaneously, just as a prophet cannot easily bring forth a message of love and pastoral concern, and a scathing jeremiad, at the same time. Pro-life activism offers another analogy. One can block doors of clinics (as I used to do), and one can counsel women who are trying to get an abortion. Both are very valuable. But they are also difficult to do together.

Furthermore, St. Paul teaches the notion that much good can be found outside of the “law” (by extension, the Church) in Romans 2:12-16 (cf. 3:29). This is nothing new in Catholic teaching. Ecumenism finds its roots right in Holy Scripture. The early Jesuit missionaries to North America, e.g., are famous for their attempts to synthesize Native American culture with Christianity, as much as possible.

So your argument really boils down to a curious version of the tired anti-Catholic Protestant objection that Catholicism is deliberately compromised with paganism. They make the same arguments you do, and I have answered them in largely the same fashion (Is Catholicism Half-Pagan?). You yourself know their arguments are false, and misrepresent true Catholic teaching; likewise, I reject your argument here as false and a gross misrepresentation of Vatican II (which is magisterial Catholic teaching, and perfectly consistent with Tradition).

This incorporation of what was true and good in pre-Christian religion was also very much in evidence in the Virgin Mary’s appearance at Guadalupe – perhaps the greatest and most rapid mass conversion of all time.

All throughout its documents the Council asserts the liberation that comes through Christ, so the context of the other documents only clouds this statement further. Is this “way of life” a false proposition?


You yourself give the solution; you just can’t see it. Of course the Council teaches Christ as the “way of life.” In this very document, it states:

Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 1:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19), men find the fulness of their religious life.{section 2; p. 739 in Flannery edition}

The document does not say this clearly, and then it rushes to praise these very same errors.

You have it exactly backwards: it is not praising the errors at all, but rather, whatever truth can be found in other religions.

Then we hear that in Our Lord we find the “fullness” of the religious life. The implication here is that the religious life of man can be partially located outside of faith in Christ.


Whatever is true does eventually emanate from Christ and the Church. This isn’t denied.

Our Lord said “who does not gather with me scatters.” He did not say that those who do not gather with Him only partially gather. No Council or Father prior to this one would ever assert that any belief that rejects Jesus Christ as the only way of Salvation has any merit. The ancient fathers may have held that a man can perform objectively moral acts while disbelieving in Christ, not because he embraced a religion that rejects Christ, but DESPITE it.
This teaching is unclear, implies falsehoods condemned by earlier councils and has been an occasion for modernists and heretics to shield the assaults they make on the Church. Further what “divine mystery” is it to which Hindus are privy? Certainly not the mysteries of the Trinity or the Incarnation, in fact, not even the knowledge of One God. Which divine mystery does the Council assert that Hinduism explores? Are we to take it that the faithful are to profess with an assent closely related to the assent of faith that Buddhism or Hinduism explore divine mysteries or are capable of proposing methods by which men can attain perfect liberation?
If I assert, as I wholeheartedly do, that these two systems are false and that everything they teach is contrary to the Catholic faith, am I disobedient or schismatic? Have I separated myself from the Catholic Church for the bizarre “crime” of refusing to honor Hinduism, a religion whose devotees are known to practice AS A TENET OF THEIR FAITH, the immolation of widows and the strangulation of children?


In this instance, the very “vagueness” you deplore was put to very good use! Not much in Hinduism was praised, and what was can hardly be ascertained in any specific sense. And that is what diplomatic language seeks to achieve – harmony as much as possible, as opposed to arguing every point of difference.

The Fathers and Pre-Vatican II Popes (from Catholic Apologetics Today, by Fr. Most):

St. Justin Martyr (d.c. 165)

Those who lived according to Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists, as among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus. (Apology, I, 46)

St. Augustine

From the beginning of the human race, whoever believed in Him and understood Him somewhat, and lived according to His precepts . . . whoever and wherever they may have been, doubtless were saved through him. (Epistle 102, 12)

Pope Pius IX

[God] does not allow anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.

Pope Pius XII

[those who are merely] ordered to the Church by a sort of unrecognized [by them] desire and wish [can be saved]. (Fr. Most’s interpolations)

2. Errors of fact: Buddhism teaches a system of self-annihilation. This is not akin, as some modernists have said, to the Catholic notion of embracing one’s cross or dying to one’s self: it is a doctrine which teaches the obliteration of self. Its idea of “illumination” is to know nothing, to seek nothing, to have affections or feelings for nothing, not even God or a “divine mystery.” In Buddhism it is considered wrong to love God or to desire His presence. It does not teach perfect liberation or supreme illumination.

This is simply incorrect. Hinduism expresses the divine mystery through the accurate insights of philosophy? Are we idiots? Please name one doctrine of Hinduism which Catholics are bound to accept as being accurate in any way, let alone an accurate expression of the divine mystery. The Buddhism and Hinduism described in this passage are a Buddhism and Hinduism which exist only in the minds of the Council Fathers, not in the theology or practice of their adherents. This is how we get Balasuriyas.

Perhaps you have some valid points here. I can only appeal (without a lot of research I have no desire to do) to the diplomatic nature of the document; it is not a treatise of comparative religion. That gets back to the purpose of ecumenical statements. Nor is it binding Catholics to any particular belief about these religions, other than the most general outlook.

It might be interesting to find a Hindu and a Buddhist and ask them what they think of these descriptions. The document does presuppose a certain attitude or spirit towards other religions, whereby we recognize whatever truth is in them. They are not entirely evil. Thus stated the Council of Trent, St. Justin Martyr, St. Augustine, St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many other Catholics through the ages.

I have never denied that there are great complexities in the operation and nature of conciliar infallibility. It would be foolish to do so. But criticizing particular passages and language in the Council is a far cry from rejecting entire decrees, stating that the Council violates or overthrows Catholic Tradition, not accepting it with submission of mind and will, etc. That’s why I am far more interested in your take on certain passages. I think we saw your (false) bias when it came to how you interpreted the Council’s view of other religions (as if it were espousing them in toto).

You claim that the notions of ecumenism were something radically new. I think I have shown that they certainly aren’t new, and are, rather, legitimate developments. This is what interests me in this discussion, as it gets down to brass tacks – as opposed to arcane discussions of the precise nature of the levels of infallibility, etc. I am neither a canon lawyer, nor a theologian, and I won’t presume to be one (as far as I know, no one else here is, either). But in any event you have to deal with previous “ecumenical Tradition,” as outlined above.

Can it be realistically asserted that Christ came, in part, to tell us that Hinduism expresses the divine mystery through its accurately defined philosophical principles? And that such a teaching has anything to do with faith and morals? As you said above, a clear teaching of the Church is binding: where is this clarity which you ascribe to the entirety of the Second Vatican Council?
None of this injures indefectibility: indefectibility requires that a Council be incapable of error when it defines matters of faith or morals. Much in these documents is cleverly insinuated or implied, little is taught definitively. 


So you pick arguably the most deliberately vague document (by its very ecumenical nature) to make your case that the entire Council lacked definitive teaching? That hardly follows.

If, as I have shown, a teaching not only is not infallible or definitive or helpful in better understanding faith and morals but seems on the contrary, to be positively harmful to the faith, then there is a clear responsibility to object until it is clearly defined.


I deny that anything you have cited from the Council is “harmful to the faith,” and I have shown why.

(This has nothing to do with “modernism,” since modernists dispute matters which are clearly defined like women’s ordination or contraception). 


So you think it is controversial to assert that some good can be found in other religions?

In connection with all this, Dave, not only do I have “business being a Catholic,” my difficulties cannot be characterized by you as being contemptible or scandalous. I speak in good faith, as one who wants to defend the Catholic Faith from its enemies external and internal. I may disagree with you Dave, but I will not uncharitably impugn you, your faith or your motives.


Good. Thanks. I am passionate about ideas, about my Church, and about what I feel to be the truth. I would have to examine the context of these remarks of mine again, but I know that my intent was not to impugn you or your motives. If it appeared that way, or if indeed I was overly-harsh (which is quite possible), I offer my sincere apologies. Oftentimes I utilize the argumentum ad absurdum or attempt to show inconsistencies in principle (my comparisons to Luther are an example of that).

In so doing it may look like I am intending to attack people personally, or accusing them of deliberate intent to distort. But such is never my purpose, I can assure you. I accept virtually anyone’s sincerity and good faith, unless and until I see very strong and compelling evidence to the contrary.


Related Reading:

Ecumenical Gatherings at Assisi: A Defense: Ecumenism in St. Thomas Aquinas (Fr. Alfredo M. Morselli) [8-1-99]

Defense of 2nd Ecumenical Gathering at Assisi (Mark Shea) [2-6-02]

Anathemas of Trent & Excommunication: An Explanation [5-20-03, incorporating portions from 1996 and 1998; abridged on 7-30-18]

John Paul II Kissing the Koran: Dialogue with Traditionalists [2012; new Introduction added on 6-4-19] [6-4-19]

Does the Catholic Church Equate Allah and Yahweh (God)? [article for Seton Magazine, 18 June 2014; see additional important clarifications and vigorous discussion on my Facebook page]

Biblical Evidence for Ecumenism (“A Biblical Approach to Other Religions”) [National Catholic Register, 8-9-17]

Is VCII’s Nostra Aetate “Religiously Pluralistic” & Indifferentist? [6-7-19]


(originally from group e-mail discussions: 1 August 1999. Terminology updated on 8-12-13)

Photo credit: sasint (2-22-16); Buddhist monk. [PixabayPixabay License]


Browse Our Archives