I’ve read a few news reports today about a Catholic parish in Belgium which allows use of its church to a group of Muslim faithful who are temporarily without a place of worship of their own. The local priest, Fr. Henry Rémy, sees it a simple act of hospitality towards fellow faithful. The Dean of Gilly, in whose deanery the parish lies, has approved of the decision.
It is of course very hospitable to allow one’s own facilities to be used by others if they have need, but this situation immediately made me think if it was this simple. Catholic churches have a very specific identity which dictates how they may be used, and, likewise, Islam has very specific rules of how its tenets must be followed. Wouldn’t there be problems from either side if faithful Muslims would pray in such a highly Christian environment? Wouldn’t it, at the very least, be rather disconcerting for faithful of either religion to be confronted with symbols and texts which deny your own faith, in a place where that faith is all-important?
Not being Muslim, I can’t speak for them, of course. But I am Catholic, and the Catholic Church has a rather handy and extensive body of documentation to fall back on. For this question, I only referred to the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Can. 1219 of the Code says this: “In a church that has legitimately been dedicated or blessed, all acts of divine worship can be performed, without prejudice to parochial rights”. That seems pretty straightforward. It may be assumed that ‘all acts of divine worship’ refers only to Catholic worship, but it doesn’t say so specifically, so can. 1219 offers no objections to Muslim worship in a Catholic Church.
Can. 1220 §1: “All those responsible are to take care that in churches such cleanliness and beauty are preserved as befit a house of God and that whatever is inappropriate to the holiness of the place is excluded”. This is a bit more difficult. Use and appearance of the church must be appropriate to the holiness of the house of God. The question now becomes: is Muslim worship appropriate in God’s house? Christianity and Islam are not the same, and neither are their respective concepts of God. Is a misrepresentation of God, in the form of Allah as the Qur’an describes him, not inappropriate in His own house? I would say so. Of course, there are also similarities in our different concepts of God, and these must not be forgotten. But belief in the divinity of Jesus, the Son of God, is integral to our concept of God, and the foundation of the Church and of every church. Denial of that divinity, as Islam does, is rather inappropriate if uttered in God’s house.
The Catechism tells us a thing or two about the church building and its function.
§ 1180: “When the exercise of religious liberty is not thwarted, Christians construct buildings for divine worship. These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ”. Church buildings have very specific functions: they, and the use they are put to, are the visible manifestation of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, of all men united in Him. Muslim worship (and many other possible uses too) are at odds with this important point. The physical building allows us to show others that we are part of Christ’s Church, and also reminds us that we are. Other uses waters that down, ultimately obscuring our identity to others and to ourselves. That is a true risk, and that is why it is so important to be on our toes when it comes to church usage.
§ 1181 defines the above even further: “A church, “a house of prayer in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar for the help and consolation of the faithful – this house ought to be in good taste and a worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial.” In this “house of God” the truth and the harmony of the signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place”.
How an easy act of solidarity can have some hidden risks. I don’t envy the Muslims in this parish for their use of the church, nor do I blame them. It’s great that they have a place to continue their worship until they have a new permanent roof over their heads. But, based on the two main points outlined above, use appropriate to the holiness of God and to the identity of His Church, it would perhaps have been better to allow use of a parish hall or some other room outside the church itself.