The Dispatch: More from CWR...

The “Mosquing” of Hagia Sophia: Why should Catholics care?

Catholics should have a greater awareness of Eastern Orthodoxy for at least three reasons.

Hagia Sophia in a 2013 photo. (Image: Arild Vågen/Wikipedia)

Here is an instructive contrast: on the one hand, the massive, immediate, and ongoing Western media coverage of the fire of Notre Dame de Paris last year, including commentary from the U.S. president, along with the instantaneous offers from people around the world of hundreds of millions in donations to rebuild it.

On the other hand, the slow, halting, and mostly tepid reactions to the recent news that the Great Church of Constantinople, the church which dates back to the Emperor Justinian in the fifth century, the church of holy wisdom known most widely today as Hagia Sophia, is to become a functioning mosque once more. Fr. Seán Connolly, in an insightful piece for CWR, was one of the first commentators, well before the pope of Rome or, more recently, the American bishops bestirred themselves to respond.

These mostly sluggish responses are not surprising within the context of American Christianity. Such a lack of interest in Hagia Sophia is depressing but not surprising, as most Christians—most Catholics!—in this country have very little understanding of their own monumental history, much less that of other traditions.

When I am teaching my introductory course on the Christian East, as I do every semester, my classes are almost invariably composed of roughly 30% Catholic students of wildly uneven catechesis, another 60% of students from some vague and often vacuous Christian background, with the remainder having a mixture of Jewish, Islamic, atheistic, and agnostic backgrounds. All are welcome in my classroom, but nearly all of them have not the faintest, vaguest, shallowest understanding of Eastern Christianity. Many express shock that Orthodoxy is Christian at all. Others regularly profess their certain belief that all Middle Eastern peoples are “Islams”, as a few of them—not, manifestly, having mastered English adjectives—put it.

My first (and in some ways overriding) task is then to unpack the basics of Christianity as such, starting with its aboriginal geography. We scrutinize a lot of maps, ancient and modern, to understand that Christianity really is an “eastern religion,” even if your local bookstore or encyclopedia never categorized it thus. It began in the eastern end of the Mediterranean and spread out from there throughout north Africa, Asia Minor, and only later into Europe, and much (much!) later to North America. We look at a lot of iconography, too, including my favorite, Ethiopian iconography, to help disabuse students that Jesus and His Mother were fair-haired blue-eyed WASPs avant la lettre.

We move into the Council of Chalcedon in 451, seeing how Christians have a shared and relatively unified “deposit of faith”. Only after that council can we speak of the emergence of the first major divisions into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian (sometimes called Oriental Orthodox) groups. Only much later do we speak of the emergence of “Orthodox” and “Catholic” churches after the eleventh century (but really after the Fourth Crusade in 1204). And only long after that do we get to Martin Luther and his infamous German hammering, which seems to be the only division in Christianity of which most students have the faintest recollection.

Then I have my students watch (or, pre-pandemic, attend) Orthodox liturgies. When I first started doing this well over a decade ago, I admit that I was a little punch-drunk on the so-called Russian Chronicle, which tells of how the conversion of the East-Slavs was motivated by Kyivan ambassadors witnessing liturgy in Hagia Sophia when it was the greatest church in the world—long before St. Peter’s was anything to write home about, or Westminster Abbey even existed. Those emissaries reported back to their prince Vladimir that, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, but we cannot forget that beauty.”

That, too, was my experience of Byzantine liturgy more than twenty years ago, when I was a student, and so I romantically assumed my students would also swiftly fall in love with such liturgy and its stunningly theophanic beauty. I had not reckoned on how weird it would be for many of them. Americans seem to suspect overwhelmingly that if you are not white, do not speak English, and do not sing (and certainly not chant!) songs on guitars or organs in suburban cinderblock churches surrounded by huge parking lots then are you are not really Christian.

The reaction (or lack thereof) to the news about Hagia Sophia would seem to suggest that my question above is answered in the negative by many people today. After all, what kind of name for a church is Hagia Sophia anyway? “St. John’s” or “First Presbyterian” or even “First Community” are normal names for churches. But “Hagia Sophia”? It sounds too foreign, and we don’t want foreign Christians in this country or care about them in their own. (This latter point is not new, by the way, as a moment’s glance at, say, the history of the Crimean War makes clear.)

Catholics should be different. Catholics should have a greater awareness of Orthodoxy for at least three reasons: first, they are the closest to us in terms of doctrine; second, the popes of Rome for half a century have made outreach to Orthodoxy a top priority; and third, and most controversially, millions of Orthodox Christians in the last 400 years have sought communion with Rome, leading to the creation of the Eastern Catholic churches. For Catholics, Orthodoxy is not some strange “other” but part (proleptically) of the one Church already.

In this light, I want to suggest that Hagia Sophia is and always has been part of the patrimony all Catholics share with our Orthodox siblings. Whatever harms them harms us. Whatever pain they endure we also suffer for we are—as I said four years ago on CWR—all part of the one Body of Christ, present impairments notwithstanding.

So, rather than ignoring Orthodox Christians or disdaining them as a bunch of exotic ethnics with a weird liturgy, let us remind ourselves anew that the Eucharist on Orthodox altars is the same as on ours. The sins shared in Orthodox confessions are just as much absolved as in ours. Those wed in Orthodox temples are truly man and wife. And the fate of those temples themselves should move us to the same solicitude as we have for our own basilicas and cathedrals. Otherwise our lack of care does not bode well for the prospects of Christian unity to which all Catholics are solemnly and irrevocably bound (cf. Ut Unum Sint no.3). Nor, more important, does our inability to weep and mourn make us very blessed in the eyes of our one Lord (cf. Matt. 5:4).


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 84 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

13 Comments

  1. You want it back? Launch another Crusade. They own it, they get to do with it as they please. Don’t like it? Too bad unless you want to take it back by force. Them’s the rules. And stop whining that something you don’t own is being used by its owners in a way that doesn’t please you. You don’t get to decide if you don’t own it. Historical inertia isn’t an argument.

    • If “historical inertia isn’t an argument” (as you say), then why does the inertia of the 1453 A.D. conquest confer “ownership” of Hagia Sophia to its Islamic expropriators?

      • That’s not historical inertia. It’s who currently occupies and controls the land. Like I said, you want to decide what to do with Hagia Sophia? Then you have to figure out a way to control the land it’s on.

        If you succeed in ousting the Turks and controlling the land, then you own it and you get to decide what to do with it, regardless of what was done in the past, recent or ancient. The Turks’ prior claim to ownership would then have no inertia.

        • I get it. To paraphrase George Orwell: “All inertias are equal, but some inertias are more equal than others.”

          A facile card trick, to substitute sitting on some real estate for a deeper grounding in human history. By that reasoning, the recent protesting “occupiers” of six blocks of land in Seattle (including the evacuated police East Precinct Station) were there by squatters’ rights. End of story? Likewise the police no-go Sharia Law zones in suburban Paris. Wake up and smell the coffee.

          • I think he may be awake, and onto something here, brother. Some say war is simply politics by other means.

            Let me first assure the reader that I am aware of our Lord’s command to turn the other cheek. That applies in many situations. Now, before I proceed, let me remind the reader that in addition to the above command, out Lord also said that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life for a friend; a command that applies in other situations. Now on to the meat and potatoes…

            If we want to control, we need to have the “arm” for it. And don’t come back at me with some version of “turning the other cheek,” brother. Let’s look at it thomistically and see if just war is a possibility in this case, weighing the treatment and martyrdom of Christians in contemporary muslim controlled lands, the possibility of success, and other important aspects of action. In current situation, I’d say Christian influence is too weak and disjointed to mount any kind of attack against this resurgence of Mordor like moon dog religion, but then, a rational mind would likely find that the same was said about the effort launched by st. Pius V that culminated in the battle of Lepanto, or the long ride of Sobieski’s winged warriors to break the siege of Vienna. Odds were against them, too, but God was with them.

        • This is an Islamic issue not one of ethnicity. Islam appropriated churches all over the Ottoman and in a variety Arab-Islamic empires. Islam also ‘appropriated’ the non-Muslim citizens as dhimmis, so called protected People of the Book. Protection was of course never guaranteed. Are you implying that I a descendant of Syriac Christians ought to just put up with being airbrushed from the landscape of the Near East, likewise the Armenians and Orthodox Greeks?
          For a greater part of its existence the Ottomans ruled over more Christians than Muslims. Constantinople was a majority Christian city well into the 19th century.
          I suggest you and all Latin Catholics including clergy read some religious history of the Near East and cease being so narrowly Western in thinking. The Latin Catholic church does have its origins in North Africa after all, although you’d have to visit museums to find signs of it.

  2. If the current change had been from a church to a mosque, I think people would be more startled. But since it has been a museum for the last eighty or so years this news has less impact on the ordinary Christian.

  3. Catholics are far from Catholics just 60 years past when approx 70% practiced regularly to today’s meager 30% mainly the elderly. Discouragement, disillusion, loss of faith is widespread. Those who remain faithful in pockets among the virtual apostate struggle to cling to Apostolic Tradition, when most hierarchy seem more concerned with open borders and open migration, ecology than with abortion and rampant sexual immorality. Few have an historical grasp of Hagia Sophia and Turkish incursion, be it Ottoman or its resurgence under Erdogan. Historically, we the better read are aware of the complex doctrinal and political causes of a Latin West Orthodox East drift apart. Greek preeminence among the great Fathers, both in language and culture the move of the center of Empire by Konstantin to Byzantium exacerbated that sense of preeminence and distancing with Latin Rome and the Chair of Peter. Opportunity for reunification occurred during 1453 prior to Mehmed’s victory. Unfortunately it came too late. Although Genoa and Venice sent troops who fought alongside Greeks in defense of the City [the pope intended to send warships], the West was unable to enlist a sufficient crusade in time to successfully protect Constantinople. Although I agree with author DeVille there should be greater response by Catholics, that sin of omission is largely due to the present state of Catholicism. We can’t abandon Christ and expect happy dividends. It’s more significant to grasp that the desecration of Hagia Sophia is likely a warning to all Christians to renew faith and practice.

  4. Tricia Carr ,
    Those were my thoughts too. It went from being a church to a mosque over 400 years ago. That’s a lot of water under the bridge- or Bosphorus. Now the Hagia Sophia’s just reverting back to it’s most recent form of worship.
    As a Christian I deeply regret what happened in the 1400’s but I don’t know why secular use as a museum is a better thing than a place of worship.
    I’m more concerned about Christian churches being sold off & converted into nightclubs or condos. A former Catholic altar rail was rescued from a bar recently in our state. That’s something we might be working on instead of worrying about distant historical events in Istanbul. There were a lot of moving parts in the past & we can’t go back & fix them today.

  5. Built in the time of Emperor Justinian when christianity was the state religion, Hagia Sophia was never a mosque. Please read its history and enjoy the architecture, grandeur of the great byzantine church of The Holy Wisdom that was converted into a mosque, a museum and now again into a mosque.
    This isn’t the only thing…there is a mosque over the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. How is that theirs rightly and justly.
    When the Hagia Sophia was completed in 6 years Justinian declared outdoing Solomon, and so envied and turned into a mosque.

    • Diana,
      I’m a little confused by your comments, sorry, but I think we can all agree that the Hagia Sophia site has served both as a church and subsequently as a mosque for many centuries. It’s reinvention as a public museum is a modern thing.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. THVRSDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
  2. Vatican II as “chosen trauma” and “chosen glory” – Catholic World Report
  3. Vatican II as “chosen trauma” and “chosen glory” - Catholic Daily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*