Catholics and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

August 20, 2010 at 10:33 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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It’s safe to assume that there are a lot of American Catholics among the zillions of people who oppose the building of the “mosque”–really the Community Center at Park51–in lower Manhattan near Ground Zero. Somebody on the radio yesterday said that 63% of New Yorkers oppose the siting of the center there.  This certainly includes a whole bunch of Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn.  Then there’s west of the Hudson.

There are some very particular reasons why American Catholics might want to think twice about such opposition, however. Now I have to apologize to some of you for telling stories you already know. But as my friend and former professor David Watt learned from his Religion in America students at Temple University a while back, not everybody knows them. (David asked one of his classes how far you would have to go to arrive somewhere where Catholics had been persecuted. “China?” they responded. “The Middle East?” “How about down Broad Street?” he replied–Temple being just above the  locations of those churches on Broad Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the City of “Brotherly Love.”)

So it seems that after a period of relative peace and openness in the early years of the American republic, in the decades before the Civil War, partly because of increasing Catholic  immigration, the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority became increasingly hostile toward the Catholic church. By the 1830s, mob attacks on Catholics and the burning of  convents and churches “became so frequent,” as historian Jay Dolan writes, “that many congregations posted regular armed guards to patrol and protect their property.” (The American Catholic Experience, 201-202). The most famous of these were in Philadelphia, where, in 1844, St. Michael’s and St. Augustine’s churches were burned to the ground, as were the homes of significant numbers of Irish Catholics, who were particularly despised because of the large numbers of them arriving then.

Now it’s tempting to argue that this persecution of Catholic immigrants and the destruction of their convents and churches was totally unjustified because these Catholic immigrants were poor and innocent, whereas Muslims really did blow up the World Trade Center. But a quick review of the history of the Wars of Religion in Europe undercuts such an argument. The Catholic Church really did execute people for deviating from the “true faith” when it was in control.  I once saw a painting of the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre in which Dominicans carried axes on their way to execute the French Huguenots. By the same token, the Calvinists in Geneva executed Michael Servetus, the founder of Unitarianism, for not believing in the Trinity. Religious people have done some pretty awful things.  (And then there are the non-religious ones–but that’s another post.)

Besides these particular events–the burning of Catholic churches down the street from my alma mater in the mid-19th century–we Catholics have another reason for thinking twice before supporting discrimination against Muslims. In point of fact, discrimination against a particular religion is not so far removed from discrimination against religion in general. And maybe particularly, it isn’t far removed from discrimination against Catholicism, which, after all, is the second largest religious body in the world, exceeded only by–you guessed it–the Muslims. 

Consider, for example, the statement posted by Rita Nakashima Brock, the liberal postcolonial feminist religious studies scholar, on her Facebook page earlier this week. In the process of defending Park51, Brock writes, “Should Catholics be allowed to have churches near playgrounds?” Now clearly, this is a rhetorical question; Brock doesn’t really mean it. After all, she then goes on to ask whether an “old Burlington Coat Factory is  hallowed ground.” It’s entirely coincidental that Brock uses the Catholic tendency toward pedophilia to make her point.



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  1. how can there be any sort of “principled” argument against letting these folks build their community center where they’ve chosen? so far as I know, they do not endorse the 9/11 attack and cannot reasonably be said to be “responsible” for it— if so, what’s the argument? The argument against their proceeding seems to be either (a) the hypocrticial “we beleive in freedom of religion/speech but not for you because you remind us of people we feel are our enemies (or we don’t believe you)”; or (b) the pragmatic “maybe you shouldn’t build there for fear that somebody will burn your building down.” The first part is just crap and the second sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy….


    • Thank you, Mr. Ronan.


    • Thank you for posting that, Mr. Ronan. It sums up my feelings as a Catholic very thouroughly. I have yet to hear a justifiable arguement against builing the community center at Park51.
      I was very relieved to see this sensible article amidst all of the ridiculous statements being thrown around!


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