In recent years many self-styled “traditionalist” Catholics have expressed shock that Pope John Paul II has stated on various occasions—usually during his apostolic journeys to nations with a strong Muslim presence—that the followers of Islam, together with Christians, worship “the one true God.” But the Holy Father has done nothing more than restate the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which said, “The Church also views with esteem the Muslims, who worship the one and only God, living and subsistent, merciful and omnipotent, the Creator of heaven and earth” (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions 2).
Some “traditionalist” Catholics cite these statements of the Council and the Pope as evidence for the sedevacantist position, which holds that the See of Peter is vacant, i.e., that there has been no true pope since Vatican II. Their thinking is that since Allah is a false god, the statements of Paul VI and John Paul II to the contrary constitute public heresy—even apostasy and idolatry—which is incompatible with their being true popes.
These people use this issue as a litmus test for determining who is Catholic and who isn’t. Simply ask a professing Catholic, they say, whether Muslims worship the one true God (as John Paul II says they do). If the person answers yes, then you can know without further ado that he has already reached “the end of the road”—total apostasy.
I have long been in public discourse with sedevacantists via letters and articles in various publications. (See, for example, “White Smoke, Valid Pope,” This Rock, March 2001.) I am on record agreeing with Pope John Paul II that it can be said truly that the Muslims “worship the one true God” even though they deny his trinitarian character. At the same time, I believe unequivocally in the revealed mystery of the most blessed Trinity—as does John Paul II along with all his predecessors.
As for the sedevacantists’ litmus test concerning Allah as the one true God, they err by confusing two distinct questions: whether one person or two separate persons are being referred to in a given situation; and what the qualities or attributes of a given person are. Let me explain.
Imagine two people with their television sets in two adjacent houses, tuned in to the same channel at the same time, watching the same news bulletin. One TV set is in excellent condition, and the image of the news broadcaster can be seen perfectly on the screen. The set (or antenna) in the next house is in poor condition, and the image comes out on the screen in a blurry, confused, and partly unrecognizable form. Are the two viewers seeing the same man? Of course they are—there are not two different men in the TV studio producing the two respective images. Because of the second viewer’s defective receiving mechanism, he does not see the true attributes and qualities of the broadcaster’s face.
In the same way, there is only one supreme and eternal Creator of the universe who is recognized as such by both Muslims and Christians. But because of their defective “receiving apparatus”—i.e., they do not accept Christian revelation—Muslims err grievously by not recognizing God’s trinitarian character.
When we say that Muslims and Jews worship the one true God (while rejecting the Trinity), this by no means implies that such worship is as acceptable and pleasing to God as Christian worship “in spirit and in truth,” whose principles the Incarnate Word has revealed and which the Catholic Church transmits to us in her teaching, liturgy, and sacraments. Satan has many different lies in his armory; he works by obscuring and twisting our understanding of God and his revelation as well as by seducing us to deny God outright.
Mr. Richard J. M. Ibranyi, an active and zealous sedevacantist, took issue with my analogy of the television sets, which I originally posed in a letter to him. My letter was in response to his criticism of an earlier article of mine against sedevacantism. To give you a taste of his rhetoric, I quote at length from his critique, which appeared in his own publication, Exurge Michaël (March 2002):
“Fr. Harrison, using black magic, exploits the craft of illusion. He tries to imprint a lie on the mind of the reader by using a false analogy. He wants you to believe that every false god mentioned in the Bible and by the saints is actually the true God who is not clearly seen. In other words, there is no such thing as a false god. A false god is actually a blurred and confused image of the true God. . . .
“According to Fr. Harrison, King David lied when he said, ‘The gods of the Gentiles are devils’ (Ps. 95:5). The new version according to Fr. Harrison reads, ‘The gods of the Gentiles is [sic] the true God not clearly seen.’ St. Paul says, ‘The things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God’ (1 Cor. 10:20). Fr. Harrison teaches, ‘The things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to God not clearly seen.’ The First Commandment is, ‘I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me’ (Ex. 20: 2–3). ‘What strange god?’, says Fr. Harrison, ‘a strange god is nothing more than the true god not clearly seen.’. . .
“[Fr. Harrison’s] piece of work is surely cursed, and with it goes a legion of demons to throw your mind off balance so that it would accept his apostate teaching that Moslems worship the true God. A conclusion of his false analogy is that if a man believes in one God, but that god is the sun, then when that man looks at the sun to worship it, he is actually looking at God, not the sun, thus the sun is God.
“The trick of his analogy lies in the statement, ‘Imagine two people with their television sets in two adjacent houses, tuned in to the same channel at the same time, watching the same news bulletin,’ both viewing ‘the same newscaster.’ The truth is that those who worship a false god are not even on the same channel (station) as those who worship the true God. The true God, the God of the Catholic Church, is only on one channel. All the other channels are real images of either a false god, if the non-Catholics believe in one God, or multiple gods (newscasters) if the non-Catholics believe in more than one god.
“There is no possibility of defective TV sets (receptive equipment: eyes, ears, and a mind) for those with the use of reason, because God gives these to men to clearly see all things. It is men’s wills and hearts that are defective, not their eyes, ears, and minds (TV sets). A Hindu is tuned in to a channel in which there are many newscasters (gods) in the same studio, and views many gods on his TV set. A Moslem’s channel is tuned in to Allah, he really sees Allah in the clear image invented by Mohammed. He truly sees a god that is not Jesus Christ and the Most Holy Trinity. . . . The defect is not in his capacity to see, his eyes, ears, and mind (TV set). Nor is it in God’s grace that is motivating him to believe. The defect is in his heart and will.
“Be gone, Fr. Harrison, with your black magic, for the deepest pit of hell awaits you unless you repent, convert, and abjure.”
I replied to Mr. Ibranyi in a second letter dated March 30, 2002. The relevant parts (edited) read as follows:
“You write, ‘Fr. Harrison wants you to believe every false god mentioned in the Bible and by the saints is actually the true God who is not clearly seen. In other words, there is no such thing as a false god.’ You go on, ‘According to Fr. Harrison, King David lied when he said, ‘The gods of the Gentiles are devils.’
“The fact is, I never said or implied any of this, and have never believed it. I agree that all the false gods mentioned in the Bible are false gods, who are rightly styled as ‘devils’ by the inspired writers. I was talking only about Islam—a religion totally unknown to the human authors of Scripture and to the Fathers before the seventh century A.D. That is, I am not talking about the polytheistic and idolatrous cults that the biblical writers had in mind when they spoke of ‘the gods of the Gentiles.’
“You do not seem to realize that Allah is merely the word for God in the Arabic language, just like Deus in Latin, Gott in German, Dieu in French, and so on. (It means literally the Divinity—the only one that exists.) So it is that Arab Catholics worship Allah just as much as Muslims do. In all Catholic Bibles printed in Arabic, God is called Allah in both Old and New Testaments.
“So it is nonsensical and unjust to call Muslims ‘idolaters’ and thus to apply to them all the biblical strictures against pagan polytheism. The essence of idolatry is to worship some limited, finite being or object (real or imaginary)—either itself visible (e.g., the sun or moon) or represented by visible images—instead of the one, invisible, supreme, eternal, and infinite Being. And it is obvious that in polytheistic worship all the supposed gods are limited and finite: none of them is thought to be omnipotent and eternal. That is precisely what Scripture condemns as idolatry.
“The clearest biblical teaching on this point is probably Romans 1: 20–23. Here Paul condemns polytheists for refusing to acknowledge God’s ‘invisible attributes of power and divinity’ (v. 20) and instead ‘exchang[ing] the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes’ (v. 23).
“It is obvious that Muslims are not guilty of false worship in this sense. Indeed, Muslims are notorious for their zeal in insisting on the ‘invisible attributes of power and divinity’ of God and for their fanatical abhorrence of anything that they consider worship of any finite or created being (e.g., their detestation of our Christian veneration of images of Christ and the saints).
“So my analogy with the one man in the TV studio, seen correctly by some viewers and confusedly by others, in no way implies that pagan polytheists like those condemned in Scripture are also worshiping the one true God. The analogy in the latter case would be, as you say, with viewers of two completely different channels.
“Nor does your argument regarding the sun have any validity as a supposed reductio ad absurdum refutation of my own argument. My analogy in no way implies that ‘when a man looks at the sun to worship it, he is actually looking at God, not the sun, thus the sun is God.’ Sun-worship is idolatry because the sun is a finite, limited, visible object and as such cannot possibly be identified objectively with the one, true God. Recognizing the invisibility of God is an essential part of any worship (correct or incorrect) that can legitimately be described as worship ‘of the one true God.’ Of course the Muslims do recognize God’s invisibility.
“Basically, the great difference between Muslims and all idolaters/polytheists is that the former do, and the latter do not, recognize those attributes of the divinity described by Paul in Romans 1, which are in principle accessible to unaided human reason. What the Muslims lack is knowledge of the Trinity, which is accessible only through the supernatural revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“So again, for the record, I deny that idolaters and polytheists worship the one, true God in any way at all, and I deny that my aforesaid analogy regarding the Muslims implies that they do so.
“You also miss the mark in arguing against me that ‘there is no possibility of defective TV sets . . . for those with the use of reason.’ This, you claim, is because God gives to all of us the same good-quality sensory and mental ‘equipment’ for gaining knowledge. Of course he does. But (in terms of my analogy) you are confusing the viewer with the TV set. By ascribing all false belief to bad will you are implicitly denying the possibility of invincible ignorance of the true religion—a possibility clearly recognized by Scripture (Acts 17: 30) and traditional Catholic doctrine.
“In my analogy, the defective TV set does not correspond to any supposed defect in the senses and mind of normal adults. Rather, it corresponds to the Koran and the doctrinal system of Islam as such. Individual Muslims who are in invincible ignorance have been molded since infancy to see God through this distorting prism of a false ‘Scripture’ written by the false prophet Mohammed who rejected the Trinity and the Incarnation.
“In the case of the Muslims, Vatican II and Pope John Paul II are clearly presuming that the majority of them are not rejecting Christian revelation on the Trinity and the Incarnation out of malice, like the Pharisees, but out of ignorance. I think this presumption is reasonable. After all, only a minuscule proportion of Muslims would ever have been confronted with those ‘motives of credibility’ that, when recognized, morally oblige us to accept Christian revelation and become Catholics.
“I believe it is your position, not mine, that is contrary to Scripture. Since the Jews have the same concept of God as the Muslims—i.e., belief in his naturally knowable essence as outlined by Paul in Romans 1 but rejection of the supernatural revelation of the Trinity and the Incarnation)—your logic requires you to assert that the Jews do not worship the one true God any more than Muslims do. Paul, however, does not suggest for a moment that the Jews are idolaters, or that the God they worship is not the one true God. On the contrary, he says (speaking of the Jews in general, not those bad-willed leaders who conversed with our Lord in John chapter 8), ‘I testify with regard to them that they have zeal for God, but it is not discerning’ (Rom. 10:2).
“Paul obviously means by the word God here the one true God, not some idol or false deity. Under the heading of that ‘zeal’ which he ascribes to the Jews, their acts of worship would certainly have to be included. Hence, the Apostle’s divinely-inspired ‘testimony’ supports what I am telling you: the object of Jewish and Muslim worship is indeed the one true God, and not some finite spirit, creature, or idol; but the way they worship the true God is wrong (‘not discerning’).
“Indeed, it seems to me that your position logically implies the absurd idea that not even the ancient patriarchs—Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, et cetera—worshiped the one true God. They too were idolaters if the Muslims are idolaters, for, as regards their explicit belief, those holy patriarchs (like Jews and Muslims today) had no knowledge of the Trinity. And they had no idea that God himself would take on human nature. As Paul says, ‘The mystery of Christ . . . was not made known to human beings in other generations, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets’ (Eph. 3:5).”
Since the attention of the world has been focused more than ever on the Muslims as a result of the horrendous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it is important that Christians have a clear understanding of what the followers of Islam do and do not believe. Indeed, it is becoming ever clearer that in the twenty-first century this resurgent religion will play an increasingly important part in world affairs.
Vatican Council II and Pope John Paul II have taught rightly that in spite of their disbelief in the Incarnation and the Trinity, Muslims cannot justly be classified as idolaters. Allah—nothing other than the Arabic word for God—cannot be equated with Baal, Zeus, Ashtaroth, Krishna, Aphrodite, and the other local, finite, false deities of pagan polytheists. The nature of Islam is more that of a heresy—an offshoot of Christianity and Judaism that retains the basic monotheistic concept of the one true Creator God. In short, although Muslim worship, which includes a flat denial of Christ’s divinity, is not in itself fitting, God-pleasing, or salvific in character, the object of that defective worship—that is, the Being toward whom it is directed—is nevertheless the true God, imperfectly understood, as distinct from a disguised demon or a nonexistent figure of myth or legend.