Vatican II

Catholic Doctrines on Jews and Muslims

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Gavin D'Costa
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gavin D’Costa sets out to challenge the interpretation—whether applauded or lamented—that the Second Vatican Council represents, in its teaching on other religions some “doctrinal discontinuity” with the previous magisterial tradition of the Catholic Church. He looks particularly at Judaism and Islam, given their theological proximity to and phenomenological prominence for the Church. His fundamental argument is that no basic doctrinal teaching has been reversed or changed with Vatican II, but that doctrine has developed and even, in some cases, been birthed anew: that in some cases minor traditions and implicit teachings have been given official magisterial status through the Council. Where discontinuity can be found, he argues, is entirely with regard to pastoral practice, ethos, and perception.

In order to distinguish the areas of continuity and discontinuity, and to engage the post-conciliar debates on hermeneutics, D’Costa painstakingly offers clarification on the relative authority of discreet teachings in the Council documents (12-13, 53-58) in his first chapter. For reasons that are unclear, D’Costa prefers the scholastic terminology of “theological notes” rather than the conciliar language of a “hierarchy of truths,” but the exercise remains helpful. He even includes in his conclusions (214 ff.) a summary of these doctrinal statements each with an attached “note.”

In the remainder of his first chapter, the author engages four hermeneutic “types” he sees in the post-conciliar debate, all of which accept the development of doctrine and magisterial teaching authority, but that differ in emphasis on method and in how closely they parse the relative teaching authority of conciliar statements and their respective continuity or discontinuity with previous tradition(s).

D’Costa is critical of those who eschew theological methods and the presumption of doctrinal continuity, instead focusing exclusively on historical and pastoral discontinuity (type one). He is hard pressed to provide many examples of such extreme occasions, however, instead focusing on valuable historical work that is closer to a “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” (e.g., Alberigo, Hünermann, et al.) than anything else. He also rejects those who seem incapable of making distinctions between doctrinal continuity and pastoral discontinuity (type two: Lefebve, et al.). A third type he associates with Ratzinger, Congar, and Dulles, which honors doctrinal continuity and recognizes pastoral discontinuity. A fourth type he does not bother to engage in detail is simply that the Council was “too little too late,” and therefore basically irrelevant.

The second chapter addresses a single question: “What, if any, are the doctrinal or theological teachings on non-Christian religions as a general class?” (59) In answering the question, D’Costa identifies five distinct doctrines, only the first of which is properly “dogma” (de fide): (1) The necessity of the Church as a means of salvation. He sees here a qualification and contextualization of an ancient de fide teaching, but one that is “in no way reversed, modified, or changed” (62-80). (2) The universal necessity of missionary activity. Novel in its definition and as a subject of Conciliar teaching, it nevertheless represents complete continuity as something assumed in the nature and mission of the Church (81-89). (3) The Thomistic category of ordinatur describes the relationship of other religions to the Church, so all humanity is somehow oriented toward it: Catholic Christians are “incorporated,” catechumens and the elect are “joined,” non-Catholic Christians are “connected” through their churches or ecclesial communities, and non-Christians are now “related to” it (89-99). (4) That these religions can be “preeparatio evangelica” to Catholic Christianity, though the language of an “implicit desire” to baptism is avoided (99-107); (5) That sin damages all humans and that Satan has a particularly dangerous effect on the unbaptized. (107-112).

The final two chapters are each dedicated to one of the monotheistic religions that enjoy the most attention of the Council: Judaism and Islam. Regarding Judaism, D’Costa contests the claim that the Council represents a “dramatic change in doctrine”’ rather, where such change exists, it in the direction of the long theological, pastoral, and devotional traditions of the Church (153-59). He recognizes three definitive (fides ecclesiastica) doctrines on Judaism: the rejection of deicide charges, the Jews as a people dear to God, and the faithfulness of God to his covenant and promises to the Jewish people.

D’Costa controversially rejects two interpretations of conciliar teaching: First, the idea that the Council affirms a valid covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. In fact, he says, the Council remains silent (113). Elsewhere recognizing that the Council affirms the enduring quality of God’s fidelity to the covenant, this seems to be commentary on the silence of the Council on the nature of the Jews’ fidelity to this covenant (144 ff.). Second, the idea that no mission to the Jewish people is possible. On the contrary, he says, theologically the possibility is retained and implicitly affirmed as part of the universal missionary character of the Church, though it is recognized that it may not be prudential given the recognition of the above (113, 143).

The central question of the fourth chapter is whether there is a radical change presented by the Council when it recognizes that Muslims “worship with us the One God” and that this a doctrinal statement and a theological evaluation of Islam rather than merely a phenomenological categorization of Islam as monotheistic. D’Costa acknowledges this as difficult to discern in its continuity and novelty. Certainly, despite popular theological tradition to the contrary, there is no authoritative magisterial teaching that the one God of Islam is a false god, or other than the God of Judaism and Christianity (167). Moreover, the medieval trope of Islam as a Christian heresy is rejected, if only implicitly (192). Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate place Islam beyond simple natural theology, if not quite in the fully revealed Trinitarian understanding of God. Like Judaism, Islam is an Abrahamic theological typology, if not a historical Abrahamic covenant. That Muslims worship the One and same God as do Christians is affirmed as a second-level (fides ecclesiastica) doctrine by the author (216).

For the most part, D’Costa succeeds in his intended purpose, though his criticism of the hermeneutic of the “cheerers” shows a greater distinction in theory than in practice from the hermeneutic he himself prefers. His research and examination of the doctrines defined by the Council, however, is excellent, and offers a valuable resource for engaging the question critically.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew James Boyd is lecturer in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue at Pontifical Beda College, Rome.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gavin D'Costa is Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Bristol and has advised the Vatican and the English and Welsh Catholic Church and the English Anglican Church on interreligious dialogue. His publications include The Second Vatican Council: Celebrating its Achievements and the Future (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Religion in a Liberal State (Cambridge University Press, 2013).


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