Why the Tibhirine monks were right to pray at a mosque

A scene from Of Gods and Men, about the martyrdom of the Tibhirine monks

In my last blog about Michael Voris I related an anecdote he told about the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen. A young man had approached Sheen to tell him that he had written a book synthesising Eastern mysticism with Christianity. Sheen told him to get lost, saying “the Catholic Faith is a gift from Almighty God! I will not have you polluting it!”

I thought of this exchange again as I happened to read the letters page of the September edition of an obscure American monthly magazine called Chronicles. The letter was from Fr Steven Allen, St Clair Shores, Michigan, and concerned an article on the film Of Gods and Men in the previous month’s edition, written by George McCartney. Fr Allen took issue with McCartney’s contention that the Trappist monks of Tibhirine monastery in Algeria (the subjects of the film) had died as Christian martyrs. He wrote: “If the film portrays [the monks] accurately, they prayed in the local mosque regularly; in other words they repeatedly and publicly worshipped a false god. The Church has always and everywhere condemned this action as the commission of apostasy. Apostates cannot be martyrs for a faith they reject.”

There is much in the same vein, in particular a condemnation of Dom Chretien de Chergé, the head of the little monastic community, for being too loving and inclusive towards “the children of Islam”. Fr Allen writes: “Dom Christian, as proclaimed by his own words, did not die for the only true God, the Holy Trinity, but for the false god of pan-religious syncretism.”

George McCartney’s reply to Fr Allen is also printed on the same page. Among other remarks, he wrote: “…let me say that [De Chergé’s] reported actions and written testament reveal a man passionately convinced that all human beings are God’s children, whatever their respective beliefs… By attending services in the Algerian mosque, De Chergé was simply testifying, I believe, to this conviction. He was making visible his brotherly love for Muslims. It hardly follows he was worshipping Islam’s, let us say, special conception of God. He was simply recognising that, regardless of the official religions in which we happen to find ourselves, we all harbour the presence of the second Person of the Trinity within ourselves. This is not always a comfortable belief – for one thing it gets in the way of properly hating others – but I’m afraid it’s as orthodox as one could demand.”

I quote this exchange because when I blogged some months ago of my approval of the late John Paul II’s meeting with the leaders of other faiths at Assisi I received a large and angry postbag. I believe that Pope John Paul II was, like the Trappist monk-martyrs, simply showing reverence for the image of Christ within every man. This is quite different from accepting heretical or pagan beliefs. Archbishop Sheen is right to say that the Catholic Faith is a gift from God and that we must not “pollute” it (which was what the young man was doing with his syncretic book). But it surely is possible to make a distinction between the person and what he believes? And to love the first even as one rejects the second?