Paragraph 841 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church causes much confusion because it seems to say that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God.
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.” ~ Paragraph 841, Catechism of the Catholic Church
Not So Fast
At first glance, this paragraph appears to say that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God. Not so fast. This paragraph was born of Vatican II, part of the aim of which was to re-frame some traditional Catholic teachings into a positive context, rather than a negative one, in order to foster dialogue between Catholics and followers of other religions.
For example, paragraph 838 of the Catechism also resulted from Vatican II, and addresses the Catholic Church’s relationship to other Christian faiths. It looks at what the Catholic Church has in common with non-Catholic Christians– without ever denying the differences!
“The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian [Protestant Christians, and Orthodox Christians], but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.” Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.” With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.” ~ Paragraph 838, Catechism of the Catholic Church
Vatican II happened in the 1960s, when travel and technology had made the world smaller than ever. Catholic interaction with other faiths was happening more and more, and a means of positive engagement was desired. And by that point in the 20th Century, there had been not one but two world wars, increasing the urgency for constructive dialogue. So, without denying the differences among religions, Vatican II sought to highlight the similarities, and thereby establish positive points of dialogue with other religions. This echoes what Paul did in the Book of Acts.
Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. ~ Acts 17:22-23
The pagans of Athens worshiped many gods, but Paul looked for a point of commonality upon which to build dialogue with those pagans, and he found it in their description of an unknown God. Paul goes on to explain “the unknown God” as the God of Israel. The pagans of Athens were not knowingly worshiping the One True God, but that did not stop Paul from ceasing the moment. Man has a propensity to worship God, and Paul merely directed their worship to its proper target by identifying the one possible point upon which he could build dialogue.
Paragraph 841 of the Catechism employs the same strategy with Muslims as Paul employed with Athenians– that of identifying common ground. Here is paragraph 841 again, line by line, with my comments in red.
The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator [The plan of salvation does indeed include those who acknowledge the Creator. God is not willing that anyone should perish. The Lord… is… not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. ~ 2 Peter 3:9. Although God desires that everyone be saved, everyone will not be saved. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. ~ Matthew 7:14.], in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims [Saying that Muslims are in first place among the non-Judeo-Christian faiths is a nod of chivalry meant to wipe the slate clean between Muslims and Catholics after many centuries of war resulting from the fact that Muslims have been trying to conquer the entire world by force ever since the establishment of Islam six centuries after Christ walked the earth. This intent is seen in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (Latin for “in our time”). Here is the statement: Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod [Vatican II] urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice [by the way, the Catholic Church established the idea of social justice, and runs more hospitals and old-age homes and orphanages than any other organization on earth, but the term “social justice” has been hijacked of late by atheistic Leftists] and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. ~ Nostra Aetate, Vatican II]; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham [Notice that the Catechism says that Muslims profess to hold the faith of Abraham. It does not say that they actually hold the faith of Abraham. This too comes from Nostra Aetate from Vatican II: …Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself… ~ Nostra Aetate, Vatican II. Vatican II does not say that Islam is linked to Abraham, only that Islam links itself to Abraham.],
and together with us they adore the one, merciful God [This highlights two attributes of God upon which Christians and Muslims agree– God is merciful, God is One. Islam links itself to the God of Abraham, and then worships what it believes is that God. Again, Vatican II sought to highlight commonalities without denying differences. The fact is that Islam and Christianity are polar opposites. In Islam, saying that God is a Father and has a Son is blasphemy. They say, ‘God has begotten a son.’ God forbid! Self-sufficient is He. His is all that the heavens and the earth contain. Surely for this you have no sanction. Would you say of God what you know not? ~ Koran 10:68. Those who say: ‘The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,’ preach a monstrous falsehood, at which the very heavens might crack, the earth break asunder, and the mountains crumble to dust. That they should ascribe a son to the Merciful, when it does not become the Lord of Mercy to beget one! ~ Koran 19:88. Never has God begotten a son, nor is there any other god besides Him. Were this otherwise, each god would govern his own creation, each holding himself above the other. Exalted be God above their falsehoods! ~ Koran 23:91. In Christianity, saying that God is not a Father and does not have Son is blasphemy. Who is the liar? Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist. ~ 1 John 2:22.], mankind’s judge on the last day.” [God as the judge of mankind is another point of agreement between Muslims and Christians.] ~ Paragraph 841, Catechism of the Catholic Church
Context Is Everything
Although Paragraph 841 causes much confusion, and seems to indicate that the Catholic Church sees no difference between a church and a mosque, reading Paragraph 841 in the larger context of the Catechism adds great clarity.
Outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation
How are we to understand this affirmation [the affirmation that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church], often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively [Here again is the finger print of Vatican II, which sought to re-formulate positively some traditional Catholic teachings, without ever denying the negative formulations of those teachings.], it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the [Catholic] Church which is his Body:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the [Catholic] Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the [Catholic] Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.
~ Paragraph 846, Catechism of the Catholic Church
To My Protestant Friends
Before my Protestant friends get too outraged at me for posting a Catechism excerpt implying that only Catholics are saved, let’s be honest here. Protestants routinely believe that Catholics are not saved, and are going to hell. Is what’s good for the goose not good for the gander? That is, if you believe Catholics are going to hell, you should not be shocked that the Catechism of the Catholic Church implies a similar fate for you. Having said that, I will also say that in my almost two years back in the Catholic Church, I have learned that the Catholic teaching on salvation is much more merciful and submissive to God’s sovereignty than the Protestant teaching. From the Catechism:
VI. THE NECESSITY OF BAPTISM
1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.62 The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments [Read that again. It means that the normal door God left us for entry into salvation is baptism, but God is not bound by that door. Therefore, Catholics (including me) do not go around declaring people (including my Protestant friends) “saved” or “not saved.” Only God makes that determination. This is in stark contrast to the very common Protestant practice of declaring people “saved” or “not saved.”
The sacrament of Baptism grants entry into salvation, and the other sacraments (Reconciliation, Communion, Confirmation, etc.) grant maintenance of that salvation throughout one’s life. A person is not eternally saved at baptism. A person is granted entry into the house of salvation at baptism, but is free to leave that house whenever they want. The Protestant concept of “once saved, always saved” is an invention of recent vintage. Christians are free to leave God’s salvation anytime they want, just as people were free to leave the houses protected by lamb’s blood in the Passover.
Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood [of the spotless lamb]… and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning. ~ Exodus 12:22
God advises us to stay in the salvation of the house, but he does not force us to stay. “Once saved, always saved” is false.]
1258 The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith [martyrs] without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.
1259 For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament [This explains how the faith of the thief on the cross next to Jesus was sufficient for salvation, even if the thief was not physically baptized. However, nowhere does the Bible say that the thief was not baptized, so we cannot assume that he was not. The thief may have been among those baptized by John the Baptist or others during that time. We know only that even if the thief was not baptized, his faith at death’s door saved him.
But please observe that the thief’s hands and feet were nailed to a cross, and he was moments from death. If your hands and feet are not literally nailed to a cross (like the thief’s) or figuratively nailed to a cross (like those living in nations where Christianity is outlawed), and you are not clearly moments from death, then the thief’s example does not apply to you. A very popular and very grave error in Protestantism is to justify “faith alone” by applying the thief’s example to everyone. The only place in the Bible where the words “faith” and “alone” are together, they are preceded by the words “not by.” You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. ~ James 2:24]. ~ Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraphs 1257-1259
The Obligation To Evangelize
Again, Paragraph 841 of the Catechism does exactly what St. Paul does in Acts 17:22-23. It identifies commonalities between Christians and a non-Christian faith. Constructive dialogue can then be built upon these commonalities. Paragraph 841 by no means suggests that Catholicism and Islam have all things in common.
The Muslim who sees a priest blessing himself in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of Mass is not likely to become a member of the Catholic Church because to the Muslim it is blasphemy to say that God is a Father and has a Son. Therefore, it is our job as Catholics to evangelize.