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Why the Tibhirine monks were right to pray at a mosque

One priest suggests they cannot be Christian martyrs if they repeatedly worshipped a false god

By on Wednesday, 31 August 2011

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

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?

  • Anonymous

    Ma’am no offence – but your dismissal of Catholic teaching while fallaciously appealing to personal opinion and dodgy wordplay and quasi-sub-theological spin is not helping!

    We are commanded to render unto God that which is God’s.

    This includes a constant, unswerving love of our neighbour – but this love must be real – and being from God – being God – MUST BE TRUE.
    If our actions inadvertently seem to collaborate, conspire or submit to misconception, a distortion or a downright lie? It offends God , ourselves and our neighbour.

    In loving friendship we can pray alongside our misguided neighbour – but we are commanded by Holy Mother Church [and Pius XI drove this home repeatedly] that we cannot pray WITH them – for then we would be bearing false witness and appearing to accept that which is simply not true ; thus scandalising Truth itself: The Person of Christ.

    To do so is false pity, false humility and most definitely a failure to evangelise.

    Now we can speculate on these monks’ personal motives and the direction of their prayers in their hearts and the intention of their living witness and potentially their evangelical purpose being ‘you do not recognise the God you worship – come let us show you Christ and the Holy Spirit for whom your hearts yearn ‘…


    Whether it was personal in full conscience ‘right action’ – it does not remove the objective moral disorder of the action itself. It CANNOT ever be deemed an action which was good-in-itself.

    ergo Mrs Phillips you are most definitely wrong to adjudicate in a way contrary to that which the Church teaches – they were not objectively right [and that is what you are saying Ma'am]. This was not objectively morally ordered…

    ..whether or not it was a subjective intention towards morally ordering in the presence of moral disorder is NOT for us to judge – that’s solely for God.

    We are not in the business of excusing, mitigating or equivocating the hidden motives of the individual when they perform morally disordered acts – the Sermon n the Mount forbids it.

    Our duty is to the Person of Christ: Love in Truth.
    Anything which compromises and ostensibly contravenes this – for whatever motive – can never be considered nor approved as a categorical imperative.

    You have no right to say this Ma’am.

    All we can say is that the action itself was wrong – is wrong – and always will be wrong.

    The innocence/culpability of those who performed it is solely in the remit of God.

  • Paul

    Not to make a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, but don’t you think its a bit funny that these things are happening around the same time that priests have been sexually abusing children and that the late Pope JP2 kind of protected some of them from investigation a la maciel.

  • Thomas Mathew

    I saw  the wonderful movie ‘Of Gods and Men’  some time ago , and I do not remember any scene which shows the monks praying in a mosque  

  • Conchúr

    Fr Steven Allen is a Greek Old Calendarist, that is to say the Orthodox version of a sedevacantist.

  • Tom Piatak

    These monks were heroic, their story is inspiring, and the movie that tells their story is magnificent.  I have a hard time understanding those who wish to trash the movie.  For those who are interested, Steve Greydanus offered a sturdy theological defense of the monks from criticism along the lines offered by Allen at the National Catholic Register:

  • Anonymous

    Sorry Tom but you’re falling foul of the martyr/underdog fallacy – the lone hero[es] are not axiomatically vindicated because they’re heroes; nor because of their virtuous natures or benign intentions.

    If they were wrong – they were wrong.
    if it was in full conscience inadvertently or confusedly for all the best intentions? Well culpability can be mitigated even to the point of negation.

    What’s being argued is the objective nature of the act – not who performed it.

    Mrs Phillips has neither remit nor right to excuse it to the point of advocating/promoting it. Look at the title of this blog-thread. Ironic when you look at the actual http address which posits the question which Mrs Phillips dismisses only to answer in the defiant affirmative.

    A martyr [one who bears witness] lives for the faith – the fact that they had to die during the process doesn’t  remove the prime principle that they lived for the faith – and what they did during that living as a testimony to the Love and Truth of Christ- MATTERS!

    Sure it might be upsetting/distressing seem intolerably cruel and nitpicking and hypocritical to criticise the daily lifestyles of those who died in such a way ; but it would scandalise their deaths to use their martyrdom to justify any errors in their religious praxis – and shame them as members of the Church Triumphant if they thought it could be used for such purposes….

    Whether this Priest who criticised the actions of these martyrs is a nutter of the first calibre is an irrelevance – there is a great difference in his condemning them for praying in a mosque in the wrong way for all the right reasons and Mrs phillips declaring they were right to do so in the right way for all the wrong reasons!

  • Tom Piatak

    The movie does not show the monks praying in a mosque.  That is simply a factual error.  What the movie shows is men living their lives in fidelity to Christ.  I suggest you actually watch the film or, at the very least, read the Steve Greydanus commentary I linked to.

    Or you may wish to read what John Paul II said about the martyrs of Atlas:

  • Anonymous

    There you go again Tom : I don’t give tuppence for what really happened for that simply clouds the issue with sentiment and subjective equivocation; this has been turned into an objective ethical hypothetical by Mrs Phillips – nothing to do with events themselves , but the rightness/wrongness of an action – and she’s wrong! I’ll watch the film when I choose thanks ; but don’t require it to vindicate a moral position which conforms with Church teaching;

  • Anonymous

    Pity the early Christian Martyrs didn’t know any of this, they could have been saved a lot of bother, in fact sacrificing to pagan gods would have been a Christian act by ‘showing reverence for the image of Christ within every man’.

  • Anonymous

    Once again, Ms Phillips, you get it wrong.

    Respect for all human beings is one thing. Showing respect for an evil and false religion is quite another. I have seen this film, and I do not recall seeing them worshipping in a mosque, nor does it follow that they did so in life just because the film would have it so: but if they did, then they were wrong.

  • Thomas Mathew

    I saw the film (DVD version)  in Kuwait, and the audience comprised of  Arabs , Westerners and very few Asians (  Which included  Indians  like me).  From the expressions  of   viewers , if I read correctly, the message
    filtered across was that of tolerance, Christian concepts of love, charity and
    sacrifice. That  the monks had  a copy of Quran , showed that  understanding others’ faith does not amount
    to discarding own faith.  Refusing
    official offer of protection by armed personnel, only enhanced the monk’s
    Christian image.  Accepting  it would have resulted in  putting a kind of wall between the monks and
    villagers ,which   the monks  rightly rejected in true Christian spirit . 

  • Anonymous

    “One priest suggests they cannot be Christian martyrs if they repeatedly worshipped a false god”

    Thank God there are still some priests who are Catholics. Sorry, but worshipping false gods is a damnable sin. if the Pope does it – bad cess to him. If other bishops do it, they should be excommunicated (Vinny & Cormac, that includes you). Newflash: devil-worship is not a practice in which the martyrs of Christ took part.

    Thank God for the Founder of the SSPX, that’s all I can say. That man was a Catholic bishop, worth a thousand of the liberal monsters who plague the Church today.  At the rate the Church is going it will be so poisoned by the AIDS that is liberalism that traditional Catholics will be the only ones left, while the rest become Devil-worshippers or atheists or something ghastly. A Church that can applaud apostasy and idolatry is not the Church of Christ.

    “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.”

    Sorry, but that at best lethally ambiguous, and at worst, blasphemy and heresy. It is made deadlier by containing a lot of truth – like the lies of the serpent in Genesis 3. “Official religion” ? As silly old St.Paul, who knew so very little, pointed out, “the gods of the nations are demons”. And, “What communion has Christ with Belial ?” The Catholic religion is the only true religion. There is one Church, & only one, & Jesus established only one. These devils in human form who deny that need to be exorcised. Those who want to pollute and pervert & sap the Catholic faith should do so from outside it.

    “Sheen told him to get lost, saying “the Catholic Faith is a gift from Almighty God! I will not have you polluting it!”” That is how a Catholic should speak. But the men in mitres pollute it without ending – and teach others to do likewise. A demon from the abyss could hardly do worse :(

  • Peter

    To pray in a mosque implies worshipping a God who not triune, which breaks the first commandment.

  • Cjkeeffe

    In the CTS booklet on the Atlas Martyrs, the author writes that his own community where concerned at this monks (what I would call) assimilation of Islam. He would fast during the month of ramadam – why???
    Common prayer amongst Christians can be problematic (I don’t necessarily mean the orthodox) due the there rejection of key doctrines, i.e. transsubstaiation (spelling ???). To promote common prayer across faith boundaries achieve only one result and that is to diminish the absolute revelation of Christ as the Incarnate Word of God and the second person of the Trinity.
    In respect to Islam I think this is more problematic as how can any Christian maintain that Islam is a revealed religion like Judaism or Christianity and they hold that Jesus Incarnation is the crux moment of human history when god took human flesh and redeemed us through his death and resurrection. The only logical position if one accepts Islam as a revealed religion is to accept that God the Father got it wrong with the Incarnation and to re reveal himself to Mohammed six hundred years later. This of course is nonsense.
    Equally ridicules is the annual subservient letters/messages from the Vatican City to the Muslim world at there Eids or for other religions for their high days.
    As Catholics the Church should preach its message in season and out of season, watering down does no one any favours in the long run. The Church only reason for being is to lead all humanity to the Father in Heaven, I don’t think it can do that if we bow our heads in honour of all the worlds false deities and creeds.
    Enough is enough we should get preaching and living the gospels of Christ’s as mediated through the teaching office of the Catholic Church.

  • Lee

    The one and most important thing i being a Christian wherever one happens to be or situation they are in is worshipping Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Failure to do this with all thy heart, soul, might and body puts the person in serious sin. Therefore, if these allegations are true about the Atlas ‘Martyrs’ however commendable they are, there are serious problems that must be looked into. As sending messages to heretics like Muslims on their ‘holy’ days, that needs to be stopped because I don’t think Muslims who come like multi-headed hydras where central authority is concerned have never done and are unlikely to do the same. It is a bit like how we Catholics have bent over backwards to welcome and accommodate schismatic Orthodox y returning relics which in all truths do not belong to schismatics whether they are nice or not. Just peeves me off that we are not ‘The Church MILITANT’ as we should be sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    Have we not been commanded to love our enemies?  To be graced with a keen awareness that the Holy Trinity resides by nature in all human creatures is a gift that we should hold dear, as it is the seed of justice and peace.  To be aware of the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Trinity within each creature who is in a state of sanctifying grace is a gift that leaves one breathless and trembling before God.  Who are we to challenge God? 

  • Dcn Joseph Suaiden

    This is a bad analogy, as Orthodox have no Pope, but to follow it properly, most Greek Old Calendarists would be more akin to Conclavists who have elected an Archbishop of Athens in opposition to the New Calendar Archbishop of Athens.

    Also unlike Conclavists, there are millions of such Orthodox throughout the world.

  • Thomas Mathew

    Thanks for the links to Steve Greydanus commentary and Martyrs of Atlas. Being an ordinary Catholic, and a film buff , I found the  movie moving, inspiring and cathartic. And I am sure majority of those who saw the along with me ,would have  felt the same, irrespective their faith (or lack of it).  Irrespective of what the theologians  and scholars say, these monks epitomize to non- Christians , what a true  a true Christian should be. Isn’t that Christ wanted his followers  to be? I  am not a regular reader of the Bible, but I think Jesus told his disciples to let know others of his words; he never told them to convert ,or to despise other  faiths .  

    Unlike most of the faith/religion  based  films , Of Gods and Men  has been  raved by critics . Excerpt from Wikipedia:Of Gods and Men has received widespread critical acclaim. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 92% based on reviews from 98 critics, with an average score of 8.1/10.[18] Metacritic gave the film a weighted score of 86/100, based on 29 critiques, which it ranks as “universal acclaim”.[19] Le Monde’s Isabelle Regnier wrote: “We can, we must, even, consider this film as a profession of faith. But it is in the cinema where Beauvois always has placed his own, and where he places it here more than ever. Confident in the talent of his cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, … he signs a powerful and stripped mise en scène[.] … Relying on the arid majesty of the Atlas’ landscapes (Moroccan for the filming), the milky purity of monks’ robes, the rhythm of the ritual, Xavier Beauvois plays with the tracking shots with a breathtaking mastery”.[20] Didier Péron of the left-wing newspaper Libération was positive overall, but remarked: “Of Gods and Men has without doubt lost itself into grandeur and lyricism … which political content would have benefited from if it specifically had examined the place of the monks and the profound role of their unctuous paternalism against a failing state and in the middle of a deprived population.”[21]
    In the United Kingdom, Tom Dawson of Total Film gave the film four stars out of five, and Tim Robey rated it three out of five in The Daily Telegraph. Both critics praised the performances of Wilson and Lonsdale. Dawson called the film a “masterful drama”, and Robey wrote: “It’s a grave and thoughtful film, and certainly not a bad one, for all my twinges of scepticism about how deep its insights really go.” Robey’s main complaint concerned the ending of the film: “There’s one serious mistake, in a picture that’s almost passive-aggressively careful in most of its scenes: a last supper, while the monks sip wine, look at each other in silent, welling close-ups, and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake overture crescendoes over the top. Those last three words are operative – Beauvois could hardly milk this emotional catharsis more coercively if he came down the aisles handing out tissues.” Dawson on the other hand approved of the scene’s manner: “The Last Supper-style sequence, where the monks listen to Swan Lake and share red wine, is particularly affecting.”[22][23] Radio critic Mark Kermode gave an extremely positive review of the film, later ranking it as the 2nd best film of 2010.

  • Thomas Mathew

    Sorry for the typos:  1. And I am sure majority of those who saw the movie  along with me ….(‘movie’ was missing in the original post.)2…..these monks epitomize to non- Christians , what   a true Christian should be (‘a true ‘ was  typed twice ).  Also the links  per  Wikipedia are not working.

  • LocutusOP

    President Ahmadinejad of Iran sent Christmas greetings to the people of Britain, if I am  not mistaken, so clearly there is room for recognising one another. That doesn’t mean we should be celebrating their holidays, however, any more than non-Christians should be celebrating ours.

  • Joseph D.

    I see the faux-Catholic lunatics are thriving in England as much as they are here in the states. Worshipping false gods? Heretical beliefs? Polluting the church?????? Would you like to know what pollutes the church? Its members who still have the mental reasoning skills and intellect of medieval peasantry. Do you know what else pollutes the church? An antiquated hierarchy lead by a platoon of clowns in red dresses who reside in Rome and expect the educated world to believe that when they all gather in their little den of sin and some white smoke comes out of a chimney, it was “God’s Will” to choose the new idiot-in-chief.

    What I love the most about Trappists is the fact that they are truly Catholic; that is to say, truly universal, truly worldly, truly educated about this gift of life. The fact that the vast majority of so called “catholics” cannot understand what it is that Trappists do only proves to me that the Trappists are doing something right. The people who lived among Jesus, Pharisees, Romans, commonfolk, didn’t understand what He was saying either, and 99% of his followers today STILL don’t.

    Your buffoonery precedes you, ye self righteous “Catholic” fools!

  • Guest

     Incorrect comparison.  He belongs to a legitimate Orthodox Christian group.  Although I happen to be in a New Calendar community, I have known Fr. Steven personally for many years.