But the Lord is the true God: he is the living God, and the everlasting king, at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his threatening. —Jeremias 10:10
And we know that the Son of God is come: and he hath given us understanding that we may know the true God, and may be in his true Son. This is the true God and life eternal. —I John 5:20
With the great emphasis that is currently placed on ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, some cautionary doctrinal notes might be helpful. We’re all for dialogue, in the Platonic and Augustinian sense, as a pursuit of truth and wisdom. In the religious realm, though, it bears repeating that the Catholic Church already possesses the fullness of God’s revealed truth, just as she already possesses Christian unity. Neither Christian truth nor Christian unity are things that Catholics seek outside of the Church, unless we seek to spread them where they do not presently exist. These blessed realities are things we already have, by the grace of God.
It seems to be taken for granted, by and large, that all those who identify themselves with a monotheistic tradition of one variety or another believe in and pray to the same God.
In Vatican Council I, we are taught that,
…holy mother church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
The council further anathematizes anyone who says differently.
This teaching is based on the doctrine of St. Paul, as stated in Romans 1:20: “For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.” In the rest of that chapter, St. Paul goes on to show how the true idea concerning the God of nature was corrupted by human malice, and in that manner, by a headlong descent into moral perversity, breeding spiritual darkness, breeding worse moral perversity, our race plummeted into the humiliating and crass sins of idolatry and unnatural sexual vice.
Perhaps it was this skepticism of the Apostle concerning human corruption that motivated Vatican I to teach also that,
It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error.
The obvious implication is that, without the clear supernatural revelation entrusted to the Church and to the Church alone, “those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason,” are not often known “in the present state of the human race… without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error.”
It is a legitimate philosophical and theological question to ask: whether those who mangle and mutilate the most fundamental questions of the natural law believe in the very God of Nature who wrote this law on their hearts. We may further inquire whether those who belong even to the “three great monotheistic religions” all believe in the True God, when they deny what He has revealed about Himself, either by His “natural” revelation, or, especially by His supernatural revelation.
Are we all praying to the same God?
I would argue that the rejection of what God has revealed about Himself would entail a substantial alteration of one’s idea of God. For instance, to claim, as the Moslems do, that “God neither begets nor is begotten,” would entail a rejection of something God has taught us of His Essence.
In the philosophical discipline of logic, we refer to the knowable attributes of an object as “notes.” The more “notes” I predicate of a thing, the more thoroughly have I defined it, the better do I intellectually grasp it. For instance, to the fact that God exists, we add that He is 1) the Creator, 2) a good God, 3) one who rewards goodness in His creatures, and 4) punishes their evil. These numbered “notes” give us further data for our definition of God. But when we insert false notes into our definition (for instance, “God is composed of matter”), we have defined a false god. The four genuine attributes I listed are naturally knowable. But the same God who reveals Himself by nature also reveals Himself supernaturally. Among other things, He revealed that the Divine Essence is in three consubstantial Persons. So, supposing we insert this false note in our definition of God: “God is not a Trinity.” Do we have the True God?
I think not.
My speculations aside for the moment, let’s see what someone more reliable than I has to say of the matter. In his Summa Theologiae, II-IIa, Q. 2, Art. 2, St. Thomas Aquinas defends the Augustinian three-fold distinction of the act of faith:
1) Credere Deo — “To believe God.” This is the formal object of faith, i.e., to believe revelation based upon God’s authority as First Truth.
2) Credere Deum — “To believe in a God.” This is the material object of faith: i.e., the content of our faith: God, and other things that are objects of faith, inasmuch as they are referred to God.
3) Credere in Deum — “To believe in God.” This is the volitional motive of faith, i.e., the will pursuing God as its end, and moving the intellect to the act of faith.
In that same article of the Summa (ad. 3), St. Thomas outright denies that unbelievers (infideles) “believe in a God”1. Here is what he says:
‘Unbelievers cannot be said “to believe in a God” as we understand it in relation to the act of faith. For they do not believe that God exists under the conditions that faith determines; hence they do not truly imply believe in a God, since, as the Philosopher observes (Metaph. ix, text. 22) “to know simple things defectively is not to know them at all.” ‘
In other words, the material object of our Catholic faith — God — is not believed in by unbelievers. That is most significant, for it means that Catholics don’t believe in, or pray to the same God as unbelievers.
But what are “unbelievers” to St. Thomas? In ST II-IIa, Q. 10, St. Thomas treats of “unbelief in general.” Those he considers to be unbelievers may surprise us, for they belong to “the three great monotheistic religions,” and they include Christian heretics.
In our own day, a modern critic of ecumenism, Professor Enrico Maria Radaelli, is making the same point. A student of Romano Amerio’s and a serious intellectual critic of ecclesial novelties, Professor Radaelli has earned the respect of some well-placed ecclesiastics. Read the following from a review by Corrado Trinci O.M.R.I., of the Professor’s book: The Mystery of the Blindfolded Synagogue:
For the first time in the history of Theology, this book contains a metaphysical thesis which demonstrates that, after Revelation, one has to distinguish even rationally the Christian Trinitarian monotheism (as revealed by Jesus Christ) from other monotheisms and false gods (of Judaism and Islam, for example), basing oneself on S. Thomas’s affirmation that “God is the Three Persons” (S. Th., I, 39, 6).
Also, for the first time in the history of Catholic resistance to fundamentalist ecumenism, an essentially anti-ecumenical book can boast of an Introduction by an important churchman of the Pope’s own University (The Lateran). Monsignor [Antonio] Livi strongly supports the arguments developed on the Blessed Trinity as he sees in them a decisive barrier against the prevalent, current spirit pervading the Church, which is anti-Dogmatic, doctrinally relativistic and naturalistic — all enemies of those who love Truth.
Professor Radaelli holds that the other monotheisms are essentially false monotheisms, with different gods of their own devising.
Some may wonder if these considerations are harmful to ecumenism, a binding dogma that has the sanction of the Church’s magisterium. To this, I reply that ecumenism is no dogma, but a praxis. Given that it has existed for less than one twentieth of the Church’s history, it is not a praxis that can be considered part of tradition. Furthermore, none other than Pope John Paul II, in Redemptor hominis, No. 6, said:
There are people who in the face of the difficulties or because they consider that the first ecumenical endeavours have brought negative results would have liked to turn back. Some even express the opinion that these efforts are harmful to the cause of the Gospel, are leading to a further rupture in the Church, are causing confusion of ideas in questions of faith and morals and are ending up with a specific indifferentism. It is perhaps a good thing that the spokesmen for these opinions should express their fears.
- Or “believe in God,” which is probably a better translation of credere Deum, but this makes it difficult in English to distinguish credere Deum with credere in Deum. ↩