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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Pointlessness of the Catholic/ Muslim “Same God” Debate

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The Pointlessness of the Catholic/ Muslim “Same God” Debate

Conservative and Traditional Catholic apologists have spilled a lot of ink over the years explaining how Catholics and Muslims either do or do not worship the same God. Conducting a web search on the topic results in a cavalcade of apologetic websites promising to explain, often in painstaking detail, one or the other side of the issue. Why? Because, of course, a few lines from two documents of Vatican II which refer to Muslims seem to indicate that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God. If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to attempt to cut through the morass created by the repeated attempt to “explain” these few lines by apologists on both sides and simplify this issue to its essentials.


First the “Dogmatic Constitution” (which teaches no new dogma) Lumen Gentium (LG) paragraph sixteen offers the following words regarding the Muslims:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.


Before we even analyze the text, my first thought is, why is a “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” speaking about Muslims, or any non-Catholics for that matter? Isn’t a Dogmatic Constitution on the Church supposed to talk about the Church? Isn’t it in effect saying to the faithful, “here is what you need to know about the make-up, role, and nature of the Church?” If so, what are we to think when this Constitution, almost as a side-tangent, starts making factual statements about beliefs of those outside the Church? Isn’t this beyond the clear purpose and scope of the document?

Further, are embedded commentaries about what non-Catholics believe or don’t believe supposed to carry the same authority as portions of the Constitution which actually discuss the Church Herself? If not, do these statements have any binding authority whatsoever? After all, did Christ give His Church authority to opine as to what non-Christians do or do not believe? Or rather to clarify and teach what Catholics believe?

In any case, on to the text. The difficulty many Traditionalists have with the above quoted words is that they say too much. In my opinion, the problem is that they don’t really say much at all. Let me explain.

Typically both Traditionalists and Conservatives assume the same initial premise from the above LG quote and then argue, ad infinitum, as to what conclusion should follow from that premise. The premise they assume is that the quotation is saying Catholics and Muslims worship the “same God.”

Conservative apologists then say, yes we do worship the “same God” and list all the similarities of Catholic and Muslim belief in God: i.e. that He is one person, He is judge, He is omnipotent, He is merciful, He is creator of the universe, He spoke to Abraham and the Old Testament prophets, etc. This is enough to show, in the Conservative’s opinion, that Muslims and Catholics are talking about the “same God”, though Conservatives fully admit the Muslims get many other things wrong in their understanding of Him.

Traditionalists will argue that Catholics and Muslims most certainly do not worship the “same God.” After all, the Muslim god has no Son as Muslims deny the divinity of Christ. Also Muslims attribute all sorts of words, motivations, and decrees to their god through the teachings of the Koran that are wholly incompatible and inconsistent with the Catholic notion of God.

Thus, the discussion typically comes to an impasse. There is no way to really resolve the conflict because both sides are looking at the issue through the subjective viewpoint of the individual Catholic vs. the individual Muslim. Thus one endlessly analyzes the evidence in order to conclude either that the Catholic and Muslim views on God are close enough to be two different understandings of the same concept, or that they are two understandings of two completely different concepts.

In my opinion, this premise traps both sides in a never ending subjective and semantic argument where neither can fully declare victory. Why? Because, in order to settle any dispute you have to have a standard to apply the facts to. What standard are we using to decide whether two sets of beliefs in a deity refer to the “same” deity?

Each person in the dispute usually comes up with his own standard of “sameness” and then argues that the evidence either meets or doesn’t meet that standard. The discussion then becomes absolutely semantic, arbitrary, and pointless which is, by the way, another fruit of Vatican II: semantic, arbitrary, and pointless arguing over poorly worded and never clarified side tangents contained in a dogmatic Constitution that proclaimed no dogma. But I digress….

In my opinion, the solution here is understanding that the Council, far from making some revolutionary statement on a changed nature of God, or proclaiming that Muslims are saved, was simply trying to cozy up to the press and be ecumenical by saying a few “good things” about the Muslims. This is more evident when one looks at the additional comments on Muslims in paragraph 3 of Nostra Aetate; a document which, by the way. Cardinal Walter Brandmüller (Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences) says is non-binding.

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

If you do some research you will find that Nostra Aetate did not even intend to address the Muslims. It was instead supposed to only discuss only the Church’s relations with the Jewish people. However, near the last hour, some of the Eastern bishops became upset at the notion that the document would not also address Muslims in whose nations these bishops functioned. Thus, the few words regarding Muslims in Nostra Aetatae were more or less injected into the document as an afterthought shortly before the final version was signed.

The Council, caught up in being only positive at all costs, felt compelled to say something positive about Muslims, as well as all other religions. So it almost exclusively focused on elements of belief Catholicism and Islam have in common. But in addition to this, one also has to understand the broader framework and perspective Vatican II was operating under to put the statements regarding the Muslims in context.

If you read Nostra Aetate or Chapter two of Lumen Gentium it becomes clear that the Council recognizes there is objectively only one God up there in the Heavens and is of the opinion that that most if not all people who worship a Creator in any way shape or form, are, whether they know it or not, worshipping the only God there is.

If one looks at the much ballyhooed few and sparse lines about the Muslims in Vatican II with this in mind, one is forced to admit that the lines really don’t say much of anything important. Why? Because not only is Vatican II saying the Muslims worship God, it is basically saying that everyone who worships a Creating deity worships God. Thus, far from including Muslims in a special club with Christians and Jews who worship the “true God,” these texts go far beyond that to say that everyone who worships (unless perhaps they worship created idols), in actuality, worships the one true God.

Evidence you ask? Well, the first piece of evidence is sitting hidden right in Nostra Aetate. In paragraph two it states, in relevant part:

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.

“…a flight to God with love and trust?” Thus, from the viewpoint of Vatican II even Hindus are contemplating the “divine mystery” (the one God), though they express it through myths and philosophical inquiry. Plus to escape the human condition they fly to this same true God with love and trust.

Still not convinced? How about the words of St. John Paul II? In a 1985 address to the Leaders and Representatives of the Islamic and Hindu Communities in Kenya he stated:

The close bonds linking our respective religions - our worship of God and the spiritual values we hold in esteem - motivate us to become fraternal allies in service to the human family…

…We are all children of the same God, members of the great family of man. And our religions have a special role to fulfil in curbing these evils and in forging bonds of trust and fellowship. God’s will is that those who worship him, even if not united in the same worship, would nevertheless be united in brotherhood and in common service for the good of all.

Thus one “close bond” linking Catholicism and Hinduism is our worship of the one and only (big G) God. In addition, St. John Paul II refers to “all those who worship him [God]”, obviously including Hindus as he is addressing the Hindus who are sitting right in front of him.

With this in mind, isn’t it curious that the notion of Catholics and Muslims worshipping “the same God” has produced countless apologetics tracts while the notion of Hindus and Catholics worshipping the same God has received almost no attention from either Conservatives or Traditionalists?

Thus, I propose the entire framework and understanding through which the Catholic/ Muslim “same God” issue has been debated ad nauseum is absolutely and positively pointless. This issue was created, yet again, by the pastoral, ambiguous, and novel method of communication the Council chose to employ, on top of its attempt to use politi-speak and selective praise to build an impression of unity with false religions Catholicism can have no real union with.

Once all of the nice words, commonalities, and praise and respect for individual non-Catholics are removed, the Council, in the above quoted statements really says nothing more interesting than the following: There is only one God who is Creator. Therefore everyone who worships the Creator, is really worshipping the one God, whether they know it or not.

So what does this mean for their salvation? Didn’t Lumen Gentium say that, “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator?” Yes it did. And a little further it cites the Scripture passage where Christ wills that all men be saved. The rub is what is not stated.

All Catholics agree that the plan of salvation includes those who acknowledge the Creator because God’s “plan” for salvation includes everybody. But the plan and the reality are two different things. The reality is that the only plan of salvation God has revealed involves Faith in Jesus Christ and Baptism into His Church. Thus God’s “plan” for non-Christians is salvation through conversion in Jesus Christ, not being saved through remaining in a false religion.

Sadly, paragraph sixteen of Lumen Gentium, crafted with the Council’s characteristic lack of clarity, opens the door for Muslims to claim the Catholic Church recognizes Islam as salvific, while Nostra Aetate can easily give Hindus and Buddhists the impression that they are on the right track, with little need to convert to Christianity.

No, the problem is not that Vatican II said too much with these statements, and it’s not even that it said too little. It’s that it didn’t really say much of anything we didn’t already know, but gave the appearance that it did. The fact that there is only one God is hardly new and the fact that many non-Christians believe in some sort of Creator is hardly new. But in presenting what it did say the way it did, in the ecumenical climate it did, with only positive statements and little no counter-balancing condemnations, it, along with the actions of many post-Conciliar prelates, has led many inside and outside the Church to believe that non-Catholic religions are sufficient for salvation, gutting in practice, if not in principle, the only true incentive of the missionary.

The Pre-Conciliar Church, focusing on salvation of non-Catholics in Her role as guardian of souls, once rightly pointed out the fatal deficiencies in false religion and the need for the conversion of non-Christians for salvation. The Council documents, in contrast, shifted perspective from a concerned Mother warning non-Christian souls of danger, to the perspective of an observer who praises non-Christians for the elements of truth they get correct.

This latter approach is similar to a doctor praising a patient for eating a good diet, having good blood pressure, and maintaining low cholesterol while neglecting to tell him he has cancer. Indeed, what good does it do one to worship a Creator, yet reject Christ and the Church He established for salvation? As St. Paul said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”



Last modified on Thursday, August 21, 2014