The Long & Winding Road

09-27-2015Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

When William Penn began his "Great Experiment" and founded the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia was to be a place based on the principal of religious freedom. Penn, inspired by his own Quaker practice wanted to establish a city where everyone was free to practice their faith without interference from government or even other faiths. The one fly in Penn's ointment was the Catholics. Catholics were suspect because they had allegiance to a foreign power, namely the Pope. While that was true, the allegiance was more spiritual than political. Still it prevented Catholics from having the same privileges as the other faiths in Penn's new city. As a result, while Penn and the Quakers would not outright ban the practice of Catholicism as the Puritans had, Catholics would have to do what they did quietly and out of sight.

The first Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Old St. Joseph's was built off the main street and to this day is accessed through a narrow alley way. Out of sight, out of mind seemed to work best. Still the tolerance of the Quakers did not prevent violence against Catholics, which only worsened into the 19th century with the famous "Know-Nothing" Riots. Even as St. John Neumann, the Bishop tried to construct a Cathedral in the 1840's he had to build it without windows since the anti-Catholic rioters were always smashing them out. Still the Church persisted and rather than decrying the bigotry or turning into victims, Catholics continued to demonstrate that they could be both loyal citizens and faithful Catholics.

During the Civil War, Catholic Sisters, such as the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy were often the nurses that took care of the wounded on and off the battlefields. This would be the first time most non-Catholics encountered Catholic sisters. They left a lasting impression. Because of their selfless and loving service to the wounded the nursing ministry of the sisters helped break down anti-Catholicism. Still it would take until 1928 for a Catholic to become a national candidate for President of the US (Al Smith) and until 1960 for a Catholic to be elected President. Even then John F. Kennedy still had to prove to the Protestant majority that he would be first faithful to the Constitution and not to the Pope. Yet with all the success the Catholic Church has had in the US, Catholic politicians still are often accused of trying to impose their religion on the country. In fact Catholic politicians who try to uphold the dignity of all human life and the natural definition of marriage are often told that their religion disqualifies them from holding elected office.

I point all this out because recently there has been a complete media freak-out since Dr. Ben Carson, a presidential candidate stated that he did not think the US Constitution was compatible with Islam. The expected recriminations have followed: bigot, small-minded, prejudiced etc. For all those feigning self-righteous indignation and crying "Islamophobia": polls show that most liberals say they would not vote for an Evangelical Christian, does that make them bigots? In light of the above history of Catholics in the US, American Muslims need to accept the fact that integration is a process and lifting the suspicions that others may have about Muslim loyalty to the US will take time. The way to move forward is not to accuse as hateful bigots or narrow-minded idiots everyone who wonders out loud about where American Muslim sympathies lie. Just because you say you will be loyal does not prove that you will be loyal.

Many of us have legitimate questions as to how Islam relates to Democracy especially in light of the theocracies in the Middle East. How does freedom of religion comport with the tenets of Islam? What about the rights of women or other minorities? And most fundamentally since US society and law were developed within the structures of Judeo-Christian thinking can this be reconciled with Islamic theology?

Having questions or suspicions about someone's ability to be loyal to our country or wondering how a person handles seemingly conflicting loyalties is not always a sign of bigotry or religious intolerance. After witnessing so much terrorism that has been perpetrated in the name of Islam, right or wrongly, it is neither irrational nor unreasonable to question the compatibility of Islam with western democratic values.

So I suggest to our American Muslim fellow citizens: recall the long and winding road that Catholics have trudged in this land to gain political acceptance. It wasn't until the 20th century that the Catholic Church came of age in the US. Even still anti-Catholicism pops up repeatedly and so it remains the task of each believer to make the case that Catholicism has a place in this great experiment called America. Muslim Americans must now take up the same challenge.

Fr. John B.