I want to tell you a story.
Many years ago, there was a beautiful country that foreigners fleeing famine and war saw as a land flowing with milk and honey, a place where they could find jobs, prosper, and raise their families in peace. Among the immigrants who came to this country were many Catholics, whose religious practices were viewed with suspicion by some of those living in their new land. In certain parts of the country anti-immigrant leaders were elected. Among the laws they passed was one requiring that the sacred writings of the majority group be read in public schools. When a Catholic priest objected, he was forced to leave town. In another town on election day, a Catholic priest was killed as he ventured out to visit a dying parishioner while anti-immigrant protesters caused fights and burned homes. The opposition to immigrants became so grim that the future president of the country wrote in a letter that although the nation’s constitution declared that “all men are created equal,” he feared that when the anti-immigrant party gained control of the government it would read that “all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.”
Before you take offense at the antiquated language, please know that this is a quote from an actual letter written in 1855 by Abraham Lincoln.
The rest of this story is true, as well. In the mid-1800s the anti-immigrant political group known as the American Party, also called the Know-Nothings, gained power in certain parts of New England. They mandated that the King James Bible be read in public schools. When Jesuit Father John Bapst denounced this, he was covered with tar and feathers and ridden on a rail out of the town of Ellsworth, Maine.
The election-day violence that erupted on Aug. 6, 1855 in Louisville, Ky. was caused by Protestant mobs attacking German and Irish Catholic neighborhoods. At least 22 people were killed, and more than 100 businesses and residences were burned or looted.
Today, we in the United States seem to be proving true the adage “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The suspicion, hatred and violence directed against Catholics by the Know-Nothings is frighteningly similar to that which is experienced by today’s immigrants. The Catholicism of German and Irish and Italian immigrants threatened basic American values – so said members of the American Party in the 1800s. You can hear that same fear expressed about the Islamic religion brought by modern Muslim immigrants.
The phobia against Catholics 150 years eventually abated, so much so that in 1960 the United States elected a Catholic president. Still, we have not learned the lesson of history, as is evident by the events in Charlottesville last Saturday and the racist flyers that were placed on the University of Utah campus last Friday.
We as Catholics are called not only by our knowledge of the past but also by the Gospel we profess to believe to stand with others of all races, colors and creeds to protest racism. As Father James Martin, SJ put it so well in his blog post in response to the incident at Charlottesville: “for Jesus, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ … There is only us.”
Immigration and the race problem are two sides of the same coin, said Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, speaking on the radio program “The Crux of the Matter.”
“If we think that we can solve this problem simply by focusing on race, we will leave the head of this dragon unaffected,” he said. “We all must raise our voices in condemning the vile acts that have taken place, and also standing in solidarity and union with those who are speaking out in their communities.”
“Silence in these matters is construed as approval,” added Archbishop Gregory, the highest ranking African-American Catholic prelate in the United States, as he called for his fellow bishops to speak out against racism.
Numerous other U.S. Catholic bishops have condemned “the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism,” as Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote in their Aug. 13 statement. They joined hundreds of public figures, faith leaders and people across virtually every segment of American society in the call for unity.
I am so grateful for this widespread acknowledgement that our American Catholic past is the present for modern immigrants and minorities, and together we can build a great future.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.