If I had never encountered a five-paragraph document, with a Latin title, written 50 years ago, it is very unlikely that I would still be Catholic today.
That brief declaration, Nostra Aetate, was put forth by the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council, which concluded fifty years ago this fall. Meaning "in our time," Nostra Aetate is not revolutionary for how it speaks about Catholicism, but rather how it speaks about other religions. I came across it in an undergraduate course on Catholicism, during a time when I was reconnecting with my faith after a few years of exploration and questioning. But, assuming Catholicism had a very oppositional stance theologically to other religions, I was hesitant to return wholeheartedly. I had explored Islam and gotten to know many Muslims, and didn't think I could make a home in a religion that absolutely closed the door of salvation to non-Christians (a stance I thought Catholicism must certainly espouse.)
But upon reading Nostra Aetate and the other council documents that lay out the Church's orientation to other religions, I realized that the Church's stance was much closer to my own view than I had previously known.
Without compromising its own truth claims, the Church in Nostra Aetate praises what is "true and holy" in other traditions like Islam and acknowledges that aspects of other religions "reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men." In a section of Nostra Aetate dedicated particularly to Muslims, the Church praises their belief in a "merciful" God, their commitment to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and their devotion to Mary and Jesus, among other things (Nostra Aetate, 3). As Francis X. Clooney put it in a talk he gave last May, it points out "whatever is true and honorable -- period." The declaration was intentionally uncritical and singularly positive.
In Lumen Gentium, the most important theological "constitution" of the council, the Church leaves the door of salvation poetically ajar to those of other faiths, saying that because the "Saviour wills that all men be saved," "the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator" as well as those who sincerely seek God and live by their conscience, and even those who "have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God..." (Lumen Gentium, 16).
These statements pleasantly surprised me when I read them as a college sophomore. They seemed to reflect the vague ideas I had but didn't have words to put around. My time spent among Muslims and learning about Islam had revealed to me true beauty in the religion, and I was thrilled to see that, as Clooney put in a recent article for America, the Church finds "... Jesus is radiant and alive in whatever paths lead to God, whatever is true, whatever is life giving."
In the years since I encountered Nostra Aetate, I have come to embrace my Catholic faith even more, while also feeling empowered by my tradition to remain engaged with Muslims and their faith. During this time, I have discovered myriad rays of Truth in Islam, revealed to me by Muslims and their holy scripture itself. I've witnessed this Truth in the generosity of my Muslim friends in the United States and in the hospitality of total strangers I encountered in Amman, Jordan. I've heard it echoed in the call to prayer that hovers over Jerusalem at twilight, and I've seen it the Qur'an, in verses like this one:
Have they not looked at the heaven above them - how We structured it and adorned it and [how] it has no rifts? And the earth - We spread it out and cast therein firmly set mountains and made grow therein [something] of every beautiful kind, giving insight and a reminder for every servant who turns [to Allah]. And We have sent down blessed rain from the sky and made grow thereby gardens and grain from the harvest and lofty palm trees having fruit arranged in layers as provision for the servants, and We have given life thereby to a dead land. Thus is the resurrection. (Qur'an 50: 6-11)
Because of Islam, I think I see God's creation in a new way, and I'd like to think that I know God a bit differently than if I had only encountered God through Christianity. I have found that my Catholicism is complimented, challenged, and bolstered all at the same time, due to my engagement with Islam.
This 50th anniversary doesn't only call to mind how Nostra Aetate has facilitated my encounter with Islam, but also reminds me of the Catholics who have truly embodied it in their immersion among Muslims: Fr. Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit who ministered to Muslims and Christians in Homs, Syria until his murder in April 2014; Charles de Foucauld, who lived among Muslims in Algeria around the turn of the 20th century; and Christian de Cherge, a French Cistercian monk who lived in Algeria in the 1990s and was murdered during the civil war there. He and his neighbor, Mohammed, spent much time sharing about their faiths, or, in their words, "digging a well" to God. They spent idle time together, taught one another their prayers, and recognized that "what we'll find [at the bottom of the well] is God's water!"
I am grateful not only that the Church has given me Nostra Aetate, but also the examples of Christian and Mohammed, along with countless others. These models, more than the text of Nostra Aetate itself, are what keep me Catholic. And they remind me that "wherever [I] turn, there is the face of God." (Qur'an, 2:115)