NEW YORK — Controversy surrounding plans to build an Islamic mosque and cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero prompted Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York to offer his services as a mediator — even as he avoided taking sides in the dispute.
Almost a textbook example of a moral dilemma, the debate over the future of the proposed mosque calls on Americans to choose between the constitutionally protected right to religious freedom and reasonable accommodations for post-9/11 sensitivities and security concerns.
That balancing act is especially delicate for U.S. Catholic bishops, who still confront anti-Catholic prejudice and political challenges to the religious identity of Catholic social institutions — most recently in legislative battles over same-sex marriage and a health bill that included federal funding of abortions.
This week, Archbishop Dolan addressed the competing perspectives of the mosque’s opponents and supporters during an unscheduled press conference at Covenant House, a Catholic social agency for homeless youth. A solution to the impasse remained his “major prayer,” he said. But while the archbishop stopped short of opposing or endorsing the plan, he seemed to lend support for an alternate site.
“Those who wonder about the wisdom of the situation of the mosque, near such a wounded site, ask what I think are some legitimate questions that I think deserve attention,” the archbishop said.
John Paul’s Example
Setting aside the issue of religious freedom, the archbishop underscored the need for flexibility while emotional wounds inflicted by the 9/11 attacks remain unhealed. He recalled the adroit leadership of Pope John Paul II who intervened in a protracted eight-year dispute between Jewish leaders and Polish Carmelite nuns residing in a convent on the grounds of the German concentration camp at Auschwitz, where millions of Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust.
In 1993, the Pope essentially ordered the nuns to relocate to a convent in a new location, after acknowledging the extent of Jewish opposition to their presence.
Pope John Paul is “the one who said, ‘Let’s keep the idea, and maybe move the address,” said the archbishop in a reference to the Holy Father’s intervention in a dispute that drew the attention of Jews throughout the world. “It worked there; might work here.”
The archbishop said he was pleased that New York Gov. David Paterson recently called for the mosque’s supporters to find a new site. But Archbishop Dolan also applauded New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for endorsing the right of Muslims to build the mosque.
The archdiocese declined a request for further comment or clarification regarding the archbishop’s remarks or related issues.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg confirmed the importance of securing religious freedom for all faiths in a diverse nation that has witnessed the long predominance and recent decline of mainstream Protestantism, even as Catholics and Jews struggled to overcome deep prejudice that once excluded them from the legislature, certain neighborhoods and elite institutions.
“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion — and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780’s,” Bloomberg noted during his remarks that supported the mosque initiative and traced the inclusion of various religious groups during the course of American history.
“Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure — and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us today can attest,” said the mayor.
Subsequently, President Obama also lent his support to the Ground Zero mosque. But the explosive public reaction to the president’s initial endorsement, which he qualified twice in the following days, underscored the extreme sensitivity of this issue.
Yet critics of the mosque plan say the stakes are higher and the issues more complex than an open-shut matter of religious freedom.
Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, has been a stalwart defender of religious liberty. But she contends that Americans are still learning to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate interpretations of religious belief.
In a recent commentary posted on NationalReview.com, Shea wrote, “It is important to remember that shutting down a particular religious establishment — or preventing it from being built — does not constitute barring a religion as a whole.”
Archdiocese Nixed Other Mosque
While the Ground Zero mosque provoked national attention, Archbishop Dolan was directly involved in a similar, but more contained local controversy resolved in July, following three months of negotiation and review. At that time, the board of St. Margaret Mary Church in Staten Island, a New York City borough, voted against the sale of its vacant convent to the Muslim American Society.
Father Keith Fennessy, the pastor of St. Margaret Mary, had initially agreed to the proposed sale, until strong local opposition forced the parish board to reverse its decision. Archbishop Dolan is on the parish board, but he has said little about the decision — except for a recent post on his blog regarding the Staten Island and Ground Zero mosques.
“Legitimate and understandable concerns about these two endeavors have arisen, and it is good these are being aired and discussed,” wrote Archbishop Dolan.
He wrote that it was “acceptable to ask questions about security, safety, the background and history of the groups hoping to build and buy.” But he rejected attempts to “prejudge any group, or to let fear and bias trump the towering American (and for us Catholics, the religious) virtues of hospitality, welcome, and religious freedom.”
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the attendant increase in Christian-Islamic tensions, the Catholic Church has encouraged multilateral initiatives to defuse conflict, though at times, the Church also had fueled it — if unintentionally.
Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture provoked a firestorm of protests from Muslims who said he mischaracterized the faith during the academic talk. Critics blamed the scholarly Pontiff for his undiplomatic language, but two years later in 2008, the Vatican hosted a ground-breaking Christian-Muslim “summit” that provided a forum for discussion of issues raised by the Regensburg lecture, as well as theological and historical disagreements dating back to the Crusades.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, suggested in a published interview that the summit marked a promising “new chapter” in relations between the two faiths, and it surely served as a testament to the way controversy can be transformed into an unexpected opportunity for honest dialogue.
“This dialogue is not about finding the lowest common denominator, saying we’re all alike. It reminds us instead of the exigency of the truth, which for us is Jesus Christ,” the cardinal observed. “You need to look, listen and respect the other. But then, affirm your own identity.”
That may be the long-term goal of religious leaders who seek to defuse the Ground Zero dispute, but it won’t be easy to establish a framework for that kind of engagement.
Recent polls confirm broad opposition to the mosque, and it seems increasingly likely that the issue will emerge as an election-year litmus test. That prospect could make it tough to identify an alternate site and convince U.S. Muslims they should accept the plan with good grace.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.