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You cannot say this blog shirks the big issues. Last week we majored on hell, and, on the way there, the question of whether Muslims and Catholics worship the same God found itself somehow attached to the handcart, whence it has continued to rattle on in the comments boxes. Let me begin this survey with a link to a list of statements by the Catholic Church. The key text here is Nostra Aetate which states:

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.

It is sometimes said that the fact that CCC 841 states Muslims ‘profess’ the same faith as Abraham should be read in a conditional way – as though what it is really saying is ‘well, they claim they do … but …’. Had the Church wished to say that, it would have done so. It does not do so. Dr Taylor Marshall makes a valiant attempt to major on this point, but in so doing slides away from the statement that we both ‘adore the one, merciful God’. He offers a good analogy from Aquinas, but since no Magisterial statement has used it, that is his opinion; set against that long list of Papal and Magisterial statements, this is a valiant attempt, and, as we shall see, has something in it. But it does not contradict what the Vatican has said about adoring the one God. There is a good piece at Catholic Answers which goes into this very fully, and it is also good on the many doctrinal differences which divide us from Islam. These differences are very important, indeed, critical if we are to understand what the Church teaches.

Given the long history of conflict between our faiths, this is a difficult conclusion for some Christians and some Muslims to accept; the old certainties and hostilities have the comfort brought by familiarity. In the context of recent events, the conclusion that we and the Muslims worship the same God is, for many of us, even more difficult to accept. I have huge problems with this idea, as this post shows, and my doubts are shared by Jessica and Geoffrey, and others here. Our good friends, Dave Smith and Ginny both offer statements such as Dr Marshall’s in evidence, but good though his piece is, it is not an official Vatican statement, and set against that long list of Papal pronouncements, does not outweight them.

Fr Aidan Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy offers us some thoughts on this and an interesting paper to consider for those who want to delve deeper. It is interesting to note that the early Christian Father who commented most knowledgeably on Islam, St John of Damascus, thought it was a Christian heresy. Anyone familiar, as St John of Damascus was, with the Nestorian heresy and with docetism, would have recognised, as he did, elements of both in Islam. This seems to me where Dr Marshall’s Aquinian reservations kick in. Muslims are Monotheists who recognise one God – but they do not recognise His True nature; they have an occulded view of Him. So yes, they do worship the same God, but they are in grave error about Him, as they are about other matters pertaining to salvation.

This line of thinking seems far more profitable (and in line with what the Church has always taught) than the common resort to cries of ‘Novus Ordo heresy’ which one encounters on the Internet when looking up this subject. That post-Vatican II there has been a serious attempt to engage with ecumenism there can be no doubt, and if some of those involved occasionally stray into syncretism, that would not be a surprise, as that is the occupational hazard of that line of work; but there is no reason to conclude that that is where the Church as a whole has ended – or that it is what the statement about us worshipping the same God mean. The Church is not saying that Islam has a true perception of what God is like, just that it worships the One True God, albeit in a way which the Church does not condone. 

The bald statement that we adore the ‘One True God’ elicits a visceral rejection and an attempt to explain it away – on the personal assumption it cannot be so. If we resist that temptation and examine what the Church means by this statement, we see a bigger picture. The CDF document Dominus Iesus rejects religious relativism and states clearly that:

Only the revelation of Jesus Christ, therefore, “introduces into our history a universal and ultimate truth which stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort”.

The often criticised Vatican II Council:

in considering the customs, precepts, and teachings of the other religions, teaches that “although differing in many ways from her own teaching, these nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”.23

That is key to understand what the Church is saying when it says we worship the same God. We do so in the full light of the Resurrection of Christ, others do so less fully. That does not mean there is no merit in other faiths, but:

the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.

Christ offered the final revelation of God’s purpose for us. The Christian Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has developed its understanding of that revelation. Outside of that there can be no certainty of salvation, just as even within it there can be no certainty unless one is repentants and accepts Christ in one’s heart, by faith, with thanksgiving.

Fr Longenecker has some good words on all of this over at his excellent blog, which I commend in closing. Rather than react with our viscera, let us attempt to understand the teaching of the Church. This is my own attempt so to do.