Advice for the archbishop

Over at the Huffington Post's religion page, Jim O'Grady has some ideas on how Archbishop Dolan might contribute to the Islamic cultural center debate. O'Grady writes that the archbishop is "uniquely qualified to...promote understanding and help tamp down an incendiary issue by telling the story of Irish Catholics in America." He recommends in particular the example of the nineteenth-century archbishop of New York John Hughes, who fought back against the claim that Catholicism was an enemy of democracy by proclaiming, "I am an American by choice, not by chance.... I know the value of that civil and religious liberty which our happy government secures for all." O'Grady:

Since I'm scripting Archbishop Dolan's press conference, I would also have him look into the cameras and say solemnly: "I'm confident that those principles espoused by Bishop Hughes are today held by an overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans. And that is why, when this cultural center and house of worship is built, I will travel downtown to pay my respects to my fellow Americans, Imam Faisel Rauf and Daisy Kahn."

Of course, it could be dangerous to start quoting Hughes under the circumstances. He wasn't exactly the "sensitive" type. On the question of Catholics' threat to the American project, he announced in 1850 that Roman Catholicism

will convert all Pagan nations, and all Protestant nations, even England with her proud Parliament.... Everybody should know that we have our mission to convert the world -- including the inhabitants of the United States -- the people of the cities, and the people of the country, the officers of the navy and the Marines, commander of the Army, the legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the president and all.

O'Grady also brings a new analogy into this discussion in recalling Cardinal John O'Connor's reaction to the outcry against Salman Rushdie.Meanwhile, another situation ripe for analogy has presented itself in Northern Ireland. The BBC reports that, according to a new police-department probe, in 1972 "the police, the Catholic Church and the state conspired to cover up a priest's suspected role" in an IRA bombing that killed nine people. On one level, it's the same dynamic we've seen revealed in the sex-abuse scandal applied to a different crime. But it's also the real-life illustration we didn't know we were looking for on the question of how much responsibility ordinary believers ought to take for the worst atrocities committed in the name of their religion. After all, the Catholic church wouldn't tolerate, let alone harbor, terrorists. Certainly not terrorists implicated in the death of eight-year-old girls. Would it?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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