Freedom of worship in a mostly Christian society?

Dear Father, In my suburb Muslims have proposed to build a mosque. This has the people completely divided, most of them being against it. Is building a mosque something that should be allowed in a predominantly Christian society? How does the Church look on this?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The Second Vatican Council answered your question in several documents, among them the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium and the Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis humanae.

These documents spoke not only about Muslims but about people of all religions and how Catholics should respect their freedom to worship.

Before the council there was a widespread attitude that only the Catholic religion was true and that other religions, including other Christian denominations, were false.

From this it followed that Catholics had a right to build churches and to worship in accordance with their beliefs but those of other religions did not.

Thank God the council looked at the question in a totally different light. In the council’s documents other religions were considered not to be false but rather to have elements of truth and goodness, which indeed they do.

For example, the council’s document on the Church, Lumen gentium, after examining the relationship of people of other religions and of none with the Church, says: “Whatever good or truth is found among them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel” (LG 16).

In other words, the fact that someone belongs to another religion can be considered as positive. It is a preparation for finding the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church.

Similarly, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate, says: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” (NA 2).

With respect to Muslims in particular it says: “The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they worship Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honour, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting” (NA 3).

In view of this, the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae, teaches that, based on their dignity as human persons, all people have the right to follow their conscience in matters of worship.

It teaches: “The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others. The council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right” (DH 2).

In other words, people of all religious persuasions have the right to worship according to their beliefs, and therefore to build temples and whatever other buildings are needed to exercise this right.

As good Christians, we should respect this right, even though we may disagree with the religious beliefs of those concerned.

At the same time, we hope that authorities in other countries, including Muslim ones, will respect the right of Catholics and people of other faiths to build churches and worship God in them.