As we approach the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 8, I feel as if I may be repeating myself in reviewing some of the documents which are of great importance as we consider our stance as Catholic Christians in the "big small world" we live in today. But as we think of the diversity of our world, and our inclination to think that a "simpler" world society would be better, we must recognize with great pride that our church does, in fact, accept and honor the world as we find it.
We remember in particular the Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, issued Oct. 28, 1965 and known as Nostra Aetate, as well as the Declaration on Religious Freedom, issued Dec. 7, 1965 — the day before the close of the Council — and known as Dignitatis Humanae.
St. John XXIII, who opened the Council in 1962, was greatly concerned about examining how we in the Catholic Church are in dialogue with the rest of the world. We remember that he called for the Council as he reflected on the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century and the vast and bitter wars which the world experienced.
The document Nostra Aetate originated in the pope's concern that Catholics need to evaluate our attitude toward the Jewish people. It had to weigh on us that the many centuries of Christian teaching and practice were unable to stop an assault which aimed at the extermination of the people from whom sprang a belief in one God and Jesus himself.
And so this document expressed the sense of responsibility which we Catholics hold ourselves to as we remember the covenant God made with his chosen people, and as we repent of the sins against humanity which have been committed out of religious hatred. It was fitting that, when we reflected on our relation to Judaism, we also considered Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-Christian religions, and recognized the depth to which all these religions meditate upon the mysteries of human existence and purpose.
Dignitatis Humanae, which affirmed religious freedom as a fundamental human right, was an occasion for us to ask: What freedom do we expect as we live in the larger world community, and do we see that such freedom is the right of all?
This document's development was an occasion of great controversy. The arguments against recognizing a right to religious freedom coalesced around the idea that "error has no rights." We can appreciate the concern of many that affirming religious freedom would lead to great confusion.
Error, indeed, has no rights. For it is only people who have rights. Every one of us has the right to seek the truth. If we as Catholic Christians find that we have such rights, we must recognize that all people have the same right.
The teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and especially these two documents, equip us to live in a complicated world and to discover that we can find people of differing viewpoints to be, not threats to us, but rather partners in seeking what is good and true. Our Christian faith can only flourish under such conditions.