Hi readers, and welcome to the summer! Glad that you are all checking back – from my last post update you know that recently I have been busy assisting our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan with his weekly radio broadcast “JustLove” on the work of the Church in the world on the Catholic Channel on Sirius/XM Radio. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve done some terrific shows on both the tragedy of the continuing oil spill in the Gulf, as well as a different kind of tragedy – a moral one – in the continued use of the practice of torture for last week’s observance of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. I’ll have more to say on both these topics in posts to come, but for now I’d like to share with you a bit about what we discussed on this week’s show which we dedicated to the observance of Independence Day. On this week’s show we had two guest – the eminent Federal Senior Circuit Judge John Noonan, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, as well as Dr. Patrick Griffin, Professor of American History at the University of Notre Dame. Judge Noonan spoke eloquently of what he referred to as “the luster of our Country” – the legacy of religious liberty that we American’s enjoy as a consequence of the First Amendment of our Federal Constitution – and Professor Griffin discussed some little known facts regarding the American Revolution – including the contribution of Catholics to the cause of American Independence.
While doing some of the background research for the show, I have to be honest and admit how astonished I was at the level of bigotry that existed against Catholics among the population of what was then the 13 colonies of the nascent United States: at the time of the Revolutionary War, only three of the original 13 colonies allowed Catholics to vote; all New England Colonies except Rhode Island and the Carolinas prohibited Catholics from holding office; Virginia would have Catholic priests arrested for entering the colony; and Catholic schools were banned in every state save Pennsylvania. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, colonists routinely celebrated “anti-Pope days”, an anti-Catholic festival derived from the English Guy Fawkes Day (named for a Catholic who attempted to assassinate King James I and blow up the entire British Parliament http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes) – and these “festivals” included mock hangings and burnings of effigies of the Pope, as well as cartoons and orations linking the Pope to the devil and his minions. In fact, a little known action of the British Parliament in 1774 helped fuel some of this anti-Catholic sentiment and caused tremendous anxiety in the populace of the 13 colonies: in that year, the Parliament passed the Quebec Act – an enlightened law that let the Catholic Church remain the official Church of Quebec. This action on the part of Parliament appalled and terrified many American colonists, who assumed that this was a British attempt to subjugate them religiously by allowing the loathsome Catholics to expand into their colonies. In fact, no less of an American patriot then Alexander Hamilton said of this action of Parliament that “Does not your blood run cold to think that an English Parliament should pass an Act for the establishment of arbitrary power and Popery in such an extensive country?…Your loves, your property, your religion are all at stake!”
Thankfully, the great man George Washington rejected this Catholic bashing – though mostly for practical, not philosophical, reasons: he was one of the first to recognize that a revolution based upon “liberty” would need to encompass a new approach to religious freedom. In addition, as Commander in Chief, Washington had to contend with the fact that Catholics were among the volunteers who were members of the Continental Army. Because of this fact, on September 14, 1775 Washington banned the burning of effigies of the Pope on “Pope Day”; and in fact, the practice of burning the Pope in effigies disappeared as a result of this decree. As a result of this tolerance, Catholic soldiers shed blood for the American cause: the Maryland militia was brimming with Catholics who helped thwart British raids from Virginia, and among the soldiers who had gone to aid Boston in its hour of need were Catholics from Maryland and Pennsylvania.
In considering this little known but critical part of our own Nation’s history, I thought of how funny it was that despite how much some things change, other things remain the same. Folks who may be reading this in other parts of the country may not be aware, but in the past few months there has been a lot of intense opposition to the Muslim community here in New York City building houses of worship for their members – both in the Brooklyn Diocese as well as here in the Archdiocese of New York in lower Manhattan and in Staten Island. In voicing opposition to these plans, some opponents have cited traffic concerns, but the overwhelming amount of objections have focused on more intangible and frankly volatile issues including: fear of terrorism, a distrust of Islam generally and a linkage between these two concerns in protesters minds. The recent case of the Times Square bomber has only exacerbated the situation. In response to these situations and the concerns that they raise, Archbishop Dolan wisely wrote in his blog that there are “legitimate and understandable concerns…about security, safety, the background and history of the groups hoping to build…(but) what is not acceptable is to prejudge any group, or to let fear and bias trump the towering American (and for us Catholics, the religious) virtues of hospitality, welcome and religious freedom”. http://blog.archny.org/?p=725
I have to be honest that on reflecting on these situations, I have a personal history that very much effects my position on these matters. Frequent readers may recall that I have several Muslims among that great community of people that I call my friends; in fact there is a particular person in that community whom I consider one of my closest friends. I have mentioned him in a previous posting here before http://blog.archny.org/onearth/?p=75 , and in fact – coincidentally – it was at a party on the Fourth of July I first met him. As with every human relationship be it at home in our families, at work or at play, our friendship has had its ups and downs. In fact – right at the moment – our friendship is going through a rough patch, the roots of which are – as with disagreements between friends – poorly chosen words, misunderstood actions, and hurt feelings. Added to that are some particular challenges and difficulties that come from being from two different places with different languages, cultures and customs. Still, difficult and challenging does not equal impossible. When it comes to arguments with family and friends, its always been my belief that the best thing to do is to extend to the other person “the benefit of the doubt” – for me, the relationship is almost always more valuable then the conflict that threatens it.
In a funny kind of way, this is exactly I think where some of the difficulties I discussed above have both their origin and at least some possible solution. I am almost certain that many of the people who oppose the Muslim community building a mosque in their neighborhood do so out of a place of fear and unfamiliarity, many – if not most – I’m sure do so with vivid memories of the horrors that our city endured on September 11, 2001 fresh in their minds. I share those memories as well. I also however share other memories: memories of good times shared with good friends – friends who are good people who may pray differently then I do, but who share a belief in a God who is Father to us all. I am mindful that the same prejudice that my good friends must endure today because of the unconscionable actions of 19 young men who were raised in the same faith that they were is of a kind with the prejudice that my ancestors in colonial New York may have encountered because of their faith as well. We should not forget that much of the prejudice that the non-Catholic, mostly Protestant population of the 13 colonies felt towards Catholics was born out of memories of religious persecution and wars that raged all over Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_wars_of_religion – at the hands of both Protestant and Catholic forces. There is a reason that the Rolling Stones, in their Rock and Roll anthem “Sympathy for the Devil” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX7pINBoXRc, put the line “I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made” in the voice of Satan; no theologians they, Mick Jagger and his band knew that God – the loving Father of the whole human race – would never countenance killing in his name.
As regards my friend and the difficulty that we recently encountered in our friendship; it is this day one of my sincerest hopes that he and I can extend to one another the “benefit of the doubt”, mend the fences that were broken, and resume to enjoy the great times, conversations and laughs that we enjoyed in the past; in a similar way, I believe it would be a wonderful thing if we collectively could – in this season of Independence Day – follow in the footsteps of George Washington, and in the spirit of the “Father of Our Country” extend to another community that worships God a bit differently then ourselves the “benefit of the doubt”, mindful of the wonderful spirit of religious liberty and tolerance that truly gives a “luster to our Country”.