Opinion

America is seeing a surge in anti-Catholic vandalism

Catholic buildings are being burned and our sacred images destroyed. But this is not an occasion for despair.

A monument to the victims of abortion inscribed with a verse from Isias knocked over in a village in Sullivan County, New York. A crucifix smashed with a hammer in Rockford. A statue of the Virgin Mary beheaded in Gary. Another statue of her, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, desecrated with garbage; yet one more in the same city burned after plastic flowers in the hands of the Blessed Mother were set aflame. Satanic symbols and obscene messages scrawled on the doors of a parish in New Haven. More statues of Christ and Our Mother toppled, decapitated, or otherwise besmirched in Florida, Tennessee, New York, and Colorado. Representations of St. Junipero Serra tumbling down across the state that would not have existed without his glorious apostolate. The cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Nantes burning, with arson suspected. Priests attacked as far afield as Fargo and Washington, D.C. A vehicle driven into a church in Florida by a masked lunatic who filled the narthex with gasoline, igniting a blaze with parishioners inside.

Most of these are headlines from the past week; all date from no later than a month ago. They do not represent an exhaustive list, nor are they meant to do so. I am ashamed to say that it was not until very recently that I saw any of this for what it so obviously was. When words that cannot even be printed in this space were scrawled on the exterior of St. Patrick's in Manhattan, I thought the incident, while regrettable in itself, at least harkened back to an earlier age when cathedrals were the natural repositories for inchoate social energy — the Florence of Savonarola, say.

It was always wishful thinking, but the more realistic assertion that such vandalism was evidence not of hatred but of indifference, of churches being (reasonably or otherwise) indistinguishable from post offices or courthouses as generic symbols of authority was briefly a source of comfort. This, alas, was also untenable. Catholic buildings are being burned and our sacred images destroyed for the not very complicated reason that we are increasingly the objects of suspicion and loathing in the United States and Western Europe, just as we have long been in the Middle East and parts of East and Southeast Asia.

This has nothing to do with any protest movement, worthy or otherwise. It is about one thing: hatred of the Church, Her sacraments, Her immutable teachings, Her glorious saints, Her bishops and priests and religious brothers and sisters, and the faithful themselves. Why such a painfully obvious conclusion has not been more widely drawn, much less broadcast and made the object of public regret, seems to me not especially mysterious. The unmistakable corollary is that it is because such hatred is considered eminently reasonable in polite society, a piece of received wisdom comparable to finding cigarettes distasteful.

In this country it is now considered unremarkable for a senator to declare belief in Catholic "dogma" an immovable obstacle to participation in our civic and political life, for membership in anodyne charitable organizations such as the Knights of Columbus to be considered tantamount to belonging to the Ku Klux Klan (which had its own problems with us). Revealing among other things risible ignorance of the almost impossibly rich diversity of images of Christ and His Mother, activists who call for the destruction of millions of pieces of religious art find their views presented as a meaningful contribution to discussions about race relations. Worse still, there is even a kind of self-loathing Catholic who has more contempt for the pious sensibilities of his brethren than for the iconoclastic rage of those who despise the faith, and heaps scorn on anyone who expresses outrage about any of this.

How should Catholics respond to the unmistakable realities of the present? By quietly acknowledging that there is nothing especially new about our current situation, that the era in which Catholics hold a majority of seats on the Supreme Court may well prove a brief interval between the old Know-Nothing era persecution of Catholics of the 19th century and something perhaps even more terrifying that is to come. The United States is not a Catholic country, nor has she ever been one; the very watchwords of her founding were understood by the men who uttered them as talismans against the Romish menace of priestcraft. This is why I do not even remotely hope for deliverance from anti-Catholic violence at the hands of the public authority, why it seems to me likely that when crimes even more hideous than those enumerated above become commonplace they will be reported (if at all) as mere "local crime stories."

Should this be the occasion for despair? Hardly. Nor should it lead us to retreat from political life. If anything, in an age in which the norms of liberal discourse no longer obtain, we should take heart in our ability to speak truth unburdened by the fetters of compromise with an establishment that rejected us long ago, does so now, and will do so in the future.

Here my mind turns to the words of the late Cardinal George, who told a group of reporters in 2010 that while he expected to die comfortably in his bed, "my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square." It may well be that another generation or two will pass before this grim prophecy is fulfilled, if indeed it ever is.

What is often omitted from this popular quotation is what the cardinal said next, about the successor of the martyred bishop: "His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history."

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