Responding to “Church Militant:” Do Muslims/Catholics Worship the Same God?
A friend of mine sent me an article from an organization called “The Church Militant” claiming I miss-represented true Church teaching in answering a question from a caller on Catholic Answers Live concerning “how Muslims could be said to worship the same God Catholics do:”
The claim is made by Mr. Robert Spencer interviewed by Dr. Jules Gomes, the Rome correspondent for “Church Militant,” that I “ducked the question.” In truth: I didn’t “duck” anything. I never really answered the caller’s question, at least in full. And here’s why.
First, and generally speaking, when I am asked how we Catholics can say Muslims worship the same God we do there are almost always at least two questions needing to be answered, even if they are not both voiced by the caller. First, there is the problem the caller asked about: “How can Muslims be said to worship the same God we Catholics do when St. John tells us (5:23), ‘He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him?’ Isn’t that saying that if you reject the Son, then you cannot be worshipping the same God we worship as Catholics?”
And then the second and related question asks, “How can CCC 841 teach both Muslims to worship the same God we do—and even worse, the claim is made—teach ‘the plan of salvation includes the Muslims’?”
The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (Citing Lumen Gentium, 16; Nostrae Aetate, 3).
I focused on the first of the above two questions, while the caller’s original question was the second. Mea culpa! The only thing I am guilty of is doing a lousy job of answering the caller’s stated question. Though I must say, judging from his positive response, I do think the question about “the plan of salvation [including]… the Muslims” was on his mind as well. You can hear the actual caller and call here:
Just for the sake of clarity, I should take note here that “the Church Militant” (I am assuming the folks at CM agree with the article posted on their website) is not disagreeing with Tim Staples (for that, get in line, and that would be appreciated if it were to help me to be a better Catholic!); they are disagreeing with the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church. And that is where the trouble starts. Robert Spencer objected to Church teachings contained in Lumen Gentium 16, Nostra Aetate 3, and CCC 841 as we will see in detail below. These represent official, magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church. In one case, it appears he is objecting to a particular teaching of these three documents which requires the assent of divine and Catholic Faith. And the second teaching he rejects is a teaching that requires religious assent of the mind and will, as we will see below.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is it was the occasion of the above article by Dr. Gomes that became the impetus for me to both respond in a better way to the caller’s actual question asked and to correct some theological errors made in the above-cited article from “Church Militant.” Hopefully, I can do some good in both cases. And I will do so by responding to what boils down to three issues Mr. Spencer and Dr. Gomes have with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church:
- Let’s begin with the first and most important matter. Mr. Spencer (and I am assuming the team at CM agrees) declares quite definitively that the Church’s magisterial teaching stating “[God’s] plan of salvation… includes… the Muslims” in both Lumen Gentium 16 and CCC 841 represents “false teaching.”
“… nowhere does Jesus or the Bible or 2,000 years of Sacred Tradition teach that Muslims are included in God’s plan of salvation.”
The Catholic Response:
All one has to do is peruse a few of the sections before and one section after Lumen Gentium 16 to discover this great and prophetic document of Vatican II was reiterating the infallible teaching of the Church that has been taught for hundreds of years on the level of the universal and ordinary magisterium. The Church teaches infallibly that every single person who has ever been or ever will be conceived to be included in God’s plan of salvation because God wills the salvation of all (Lumen Gentium 13-17; cf. II Cor. 5:15; I Tim. 2:4; II Peter 3:9; I Tim. 4:10; I John 2:1-2; Synod of Arles, AD 473; Synod of Quiercy, ch. 3; Pope Innocent III, Maiores Ecclesia; The Council of Trent, Session Six, Decree on Justification, chs. 2-3, canon 17, CCC 1741; 851; Gaudium et Spes, 22; Dominus Iesus, 14, etc.). Muslims are certainly included in the words of St. Paul, II Cor. 5:15 (cited in the Council of Trent, Session Six, ch. 3): “Christ died for all.”
This teaching of the Council and of the Church does not mean everyone is going to be saved—including Muslims. Lumen Gentium 14 warns that even fully initiated Catholics are not guaranteed heaven by being “included in God’s plan of salvation.” But it does mean, as para. 13 says, “… all men are called by the grace of God to salvation.” That is Catholic teaching. And that is the clear context of the Council’s teaching.
Now, in Mr. Spencer’s defense, the article in question here was very vague. He did not explain specifically what it was that he was objecting to when he objected to Muslims being taught to be “included in God’s plan of salvation.” I am responding to the assertion based on what those words actually mean in the teaching of the Church. But given the fact of the vague nature of the article, I don’t know what Mr. Spencer was actually affirming other than that the Catholic Church is wrong in teaching Muslims to be “included in God’s plan of salvation.” So that is what I am responding to. But it must be emphasized here that the statement objected to is rooted in a basic truth of the universal and ordinary magisterium that requires “firm and definitive assent” (Doctrinal Commentary on Concluding Formula of Professio Fidei,, sec. 6). To reject the truth that God’s plan of salvation includes Muslims would seem to mean the opposite to be true. “God’s plan of salvation does not include the Muslims.” And that would seem to imply, “God does not will the salvation of Muslims.” And that is contrary to the Faith.
- Mr. Spencer states: “Catholic apologists such as Tim Staples have to twist themselves into pretzels to make it appear as if Vatican II is correct on this point [Muslims adore the same God as Christians] when there is a superabundance of evidence that it isn’t.”
And he goes on to say, “… the false teaching about Christians and Muslims worshipping the same God is one of the foremost arguments for affirming that Vatican II is simply a pastoral council with no dogmatic value.”
In this instance, Mr. Spencer is certainly not objecting to an infallible teaching of the Church. Here we are talking about a teaching that requires “religious submission of mind and will” (Lumen Gentium, 25; Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, 22, cf. Denz. 2879; Doctrinal Commentary on Concluding Formula of Professio Fidei, 10). But because this is a teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church, caution should be advised. No priest, or bishop, much less a lay person expressing an opinion, is at liberty to declare himself the corrector of the Magisterium in a matter such as this. I would suggest questions could be asked for clarification. But we must always maintain the healthy understanding that it is most likely we who are mistaken rather than the Magisterium of the Church.
For an excellent exposition on the proper manner in which to question non-infallible magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church, I recommend a careful reading of the document from the CDF, Donum Veritas, especially paragraphs 30-31.
Rejecting magisterial teachings aside, the good news is there is no “twisting into pretzels” necessary to affirm what is quite simple, really. And entirely Catholic. The Church is correct in asserting of Muslims, in Nostra Aetate 3:
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.
The Council Fathers here refer to the fact that Muslim scholars for centuries have defended God’s absolute unity and—generally speaking—his absolute simplicity. In fact, on a purely natural theological level, Muslim scholars are far closer to us than many Christians (William Lane Craig immediately comes to mind) who deny God’s absolute simplicity. For if a theologian (or anyone, for that matter) denies this that is an infallible teaching of the Church (See: Fourth Lateran Council, Constitutions: Confession of Faith, 1), there is nowhere to go except to say God would then have “parts.” And in the process, the one denying absolute simplicity would have reduced God to needing a “composer” to compose his “parts.” He would no longer be pure actuality. He would have “potency.” He would ultimately be reduced to an idol.
And as is almost always the case, heresy tends to beget heresy. Among Christians who deny God’s absolute simplicity, this error in natural theology often leads to faulty notions of the divine revelation of the Blessed Trinity as well. For example, you will tragically some, no doubt, well-meaning believers in Christ to have reduced the truth of the Blessed Trinity to somehow God becoming “part” Father, “part” Son, and “part” Holy Spirit, thereby creating another heresy.
Most important for our point is this: Muslim scholars agree with us in general on this point. And inasmuch as they teach God to be “the one God, living and subsisting in himself [absolutely simple]; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,” they can’t get any more correct than that on the level of natural theology. That is an excellent description of the divine nature (and God, of course, because God is his nature). And as such, it is correct to say the Muslims who believe this believe in and adore the same God we do.
Oddly, Spencer just passes over this tremendously important truth that can be and is the foundation of Muslim/Catholic dialogue, claiming, somehow Muslims actually do not know the true God and do not worship him because, Spencer claims:
Islam denies the Trinity, the incarnation, and the divinity of Christ (Qur’an 5:116, 19:35), the Crucifixion (Qur’an 4:157) — and hence its redemptive value — and the Resurrection. It denies free will and says that God could have guided some people to the truth but decided arbitrarily to send them to Hell instead (Qur’an 32:13).
Because Muslims reject what has been revealed by Jesus Christ concerning “the Trinity, the incarnation… the divinity of Christ… free will” does not mean that, somehow, their belief that God is “one” and “absolutely simple” becomes wrong, or non-existent. They are wrong, and gravely so, in rejecting the revelations of the Trinity, incarnation, etc. In fact, they are wrong about the historical facts of the crucifixion, resurrection and more we could speak of. Moreover, if they knowingly reject the truth concerning God’s revelation, they will be lost for all eternity. And that is where John 5:23 comes to the fore: “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” But their rejection of these truths no more makes their belief in the one, true God disappear than the demons’ rejection of God would somehow make their belief in the one, true God become non-existent:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19).
Moreover, Calvinists “deny free will” just as stridently as Sunni Muslims do. But does that somehow mean their belief in the “one God” somehow disappears as well? Of course not! If a Jew who was raised to believe in the unicity of God were to then knowingly reject the revelation of God through Christ as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, his belief in God as “one” does not somehow become wrong either. Thus, inasmuch as Muslims believe God is one, absolutely simple, self-subsistent, all-powerful, etc. they are correct about God’s nature and they would be, because of that fact, worshipping the true God.
Now, if God reveals to any Muslim the truth of the Trinity, and he rejects it, he will be rejecting the truth about the one, true God who has revealed himself as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But he will reject the true God—not another God. He will reject God who still remains absolutely one. And he will still remain correct that God is absolutely one and simple. And he both can and ought to continue to worship the one, true God as well. And hopefully, down the road, he will come to acknowledge what that one, true God has revealed about himself.
- Spencer claims the authority of Vatican II to be a bit of a puzzle to him. He seems to briefly question its authority in general and then conclude there to be “no dogmatic authority at all” in the documents of Vatican II. Now, that I find very interesting. There is “no dogmatic authority at all” in The Dogmatic Constitution on Church. Ponder that for a while. Moreover, his final judgment concerning the two magisterial teachings we considered earlier is not only that they have no “dogmatic authority,” but no authority whatsoever! These, says Robert Spencer, are “errors” plain and simple.
We can agree that Pope St. Paul VI stated after Vatican II: “In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, [The Council] avoided any extraordinary statement of dogmas that would be endowed with the note of infallibility” (Pope St. Paul VI, “After the Council: New Tasks,” The Pope Speaks, Vol. 11, 1966, p. 154). That is common knowledge. However, to say this means “no dogmatic authority at all” from Vatican II is incorrect. The Council did proclaim dogmatic teachings already dogmatic as well as develop some of them. The Council also reiterated teachings that were already infallible teachings of the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium; thereby making them clearer to the faithful and to the world. As an example of this, anyone perusing Lumen Gentium 52-69 will readily discover the most developed and thorough dogmatic presentation concerning Mariology of any Ecumenical Council in history. There is nothing even close. So while there was decidedly no new dogmatic pronouncement at the Council by way of an infallible definition, there was much “dogmatic teaching” with “dogmatic authority.”
We must also note that whenever we are considering any papal document, we have to ascertain what teachings are being declared as actual teachings of the Church, and which are not. There can be juridical statements in church documents that are not intended to be “teachings” at all. These can be disciplines or directives and not the “stuff” of infallible decrees. Some other statements in church documents may not be intended to be Magisterial either. For example, a document might include a stated opinion of a Church father, or some Christian writer not intended to be magisterial. It may be stated as “an opinion of theologians,” or something akin to that. One would have to examine the language of the document to ascertain what was and is the intention of the author or authors of the document in question. Is the statement a clear statement of the Magisterium intended to be a statement of faith or morals to be believed by all of the faithful? The language and context will reveal the level of authority. So there is much that must be considered here.
Having said all of that; however, this much is clear: There can be no doubt whatsoever that the statements in question regarding the Muslims worshipping the same God we do as Catholics, and the matter of “God’s plan of salvation including the Muslims” are clearly magisterial. There is nothing in these statements that would call this into question in the least. And, as such, these teachings require “the submission of the mind and will” in the case of the former and the assent of divine and Catholic Faith with regard to the latter (if the statement is understood to mean what it actually says, “Muslims are included in God’s plan of salvation” along with every human person who has ever and will ever live).
Truly, we live in odd times. As an apologist, I see it from all sides. It seems a growing number of Catholics today claim to be the authority to correct the Church. The above represents one more unfortunate example of this we see far too often. I could cite many more examples. Are Mr. Spencer and all of the folks at “Church Militant” that I assume agree with Mr. Spencer sincere in their belief that seems to compel them to attempt to correct the Church? Absolutely! But unfortunately, the results are error, confusion, and, at times, even scandal. And I would argue this all follows when very well-intentioned people fail to note the words of that great theologian/philosopher, Dirty Harry. “A man has got to know his limitations.”