Posted June 13, 2013
In this ecumenical issue, several distinctions need to be made. First, as Pope Francis said,, even atheists can be saved by virtue of their sincerity of conscience; for those atheists who have a sincere but doctrinally erroneous conscience; their sincerity “excuses” them in God’s eyes, as St. Paul says (Rom. 2:15)–but only if they have a truly sincere conscience, such as sincere abortionists, sincere cannibals, sincere pagans, etc. That sincerity is a kind of faith, which is authenticated through good works. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal. 5:6).
That’s why the Pope says that charitable atheists can be saved; their altruistic good works imply a kind of undeveloped faith that they don’t even know they have. They are motivated by seeing human dignity in others, and act on it by concern for their welfare. Implicitly, not explicitly, they “believe” in an underlying God-presence in any suffering human who cries out for help.”God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God” (1 John 4:16)—even atheists who deny that fact. That’s what the Pope implied.
Much of that theology is applicable to Muslims and Jews—and all of those 2800 forms of paganism professed by the majority of the world’s population.
In 1 John 3:14 John says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brethren.” That’s what Pope Francis was emphasizing. He was not approving error and certainly not malice. This is the situation among many but not all Muslims—not usually extremists or terrorist Muslims who seek to kill non-Muslims as “blasphemers and heretics.” Where there is malice, there is no sincerity. With no sincerity there is no semblance of either faith or love.
God’s wrath says Paul, is against “godless people who suppress truth by their wickedness, when knowledge about God is plain to them” (Rom. 1:18). That is culpable ignorance, not inculpable ignorance (nescience). Mere ignorance says Aristotle, is not nescience–that is, lack of ability to know something that one is not obliged to know.
And in sincere non-Christians (even uncivilized savages) that charity (concern for others showing recognition of their human dignity) is a sign of a primitive kind of faith that is alive but seriously crippled or undeveloped. God sees this retardation in the same way as a parent sees an infant’s inability to embrace a religious creed. These weak, unlettered religionists are “bruised reeds” which the Lord is careful not to crush, ”nor will he snuff out a smoldering wick” (Is. 42:3 and Matt. 12:20).
Another issue to be discussed here is whether Muslims believe in the same God that we Christians do. I feel that they do. Why?, because they believe in only one God, and therefore the one and only God, as we do.” St. Thomas calls that “unicity”–the “only-ness” of the Deity. We believe in one God who is the only God, and Muslims and Jews do the same, but Muslims call him Allah, while the Jews call him Yahweh or Jehovah or Eloim, Adonai, Lord, etc. The Old Testament one God is the same as the New Testament God, but the New Testament God calls him Father (even though that one God is triune in personhood). Using various names of the one true God does not “create” or design a new God with each new name.
To a Mexican he is Dios, to a Frenchman he is Dieu, (adios, adieu, etc.). Human cultures using various names for the Deity has no effect on their belief in the “unicity” the one-ness of the one true God; changing names doesn’t change our grasp of the nature of any entity–including the nature of the Almighty.
A totally different issue is the belief in the Trinity, which Muslims reject. That involves doctrinal incompatibility with Christianity, just as does non-belief in the divinity of Christ, the God-man–the God Incarnated.
Related to the Trinity issue is the Christology issue, which shifts the controversy into an entirely different dimension. St. John writes, “Who is the liar? It is the man that denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist; he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2: 22). That was written by a Jew and it stands today as an indictment against all Muslims and all pagans–and also all Jews–God’s chosen people who transmitted to us Christians most of the Bible with all of its truths–the Old Testament!).
Vatican II in the document on ecumenism points out all the issues of compatibility and of incompatibility of Christian vs. non-Christian religions. In that document and also in the Catechism you’ll find all the distinctions and answers to your question and those arising from the new movement of “Christ-limism.” All debaters who ignore these subtle distinctions will soon expose their ignorance when arguing this issue.
John H. Hampsch, cmf