In the midst of a painful and challenging cultural moment, a series of attacks on Catholic churches and religious symbols around our country is cause for grave concern.
As our nation grapples with issues of racism in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, an impulse to remove lingering Confederate imagery from places of honor has, in some quarters, escalated to mob violence and wanton vandalism — but this vandalism didn’t stop with these monuments.
Now, an iconoclasm has taken root, and the destruction, which at first focused on problematic historic figures, has begun to increasingly include religious statues and churches.
This is particularly worrisome because history has shown us more than one revolutionary movement that embraced anti-religious sentiment — with devastating consequences. This happened in the French Revolution in 1789 and again in the Russian Revolution a century ago. In the United States, where our first constitutional freedom is religious freedom, we cannot allow this anti-Christian pivot to occur.
Over the last few weeks, destruction of Catholic parishes and property has occurred across the country. Some of these instances of anti-Catholic vandalism seem to have followed a call from a controversial activist for the destruction of certain types of religious art that he deemed too “white.”
Shockingly, these incidents are occurring almost daily now. In Florida, a man allegedly drove a vehicle into a local Catholic church and set it on fire with parishioners inside. Thankfully, none were injured. Elsewhere in Florida, a statue of Christ was knocked down and beheaded. Statues of the Virgin Mary have likewise been defaced or even set ablaze.
In Connecticut, a church was defaced Satanic graffiti.
In another egregious incident, a statue of St. Junípero Serra — canonized by Pope Francis — was torn down in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
After the statue of the saint was toppled, San Franciscso Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone issued a statement saying that the “renewed national movement to heal memories and correct the injustices of racism and police brutality in our country has been hijacked by some into a movement of violence, looting and vandalism.”
Archbishop Cordileone added, “The memorialization of historic figures merits an honest and fair discussion as to how and to whom such honor should be given. But here, there was no such rational discussion; it was mob rule, a troubling phenomenon that seems to be repeating itself throughout the country.”
One of the missions St. Junípero founded near Los Angeles then burned down under mysterious circumstances and was being investigated as a possible case of arson.
Mob violence by its very nature has no place for rational discussion and quickly becomes untethered from reason. This is why even monuments to African Americans and abolitionists have been targeted by mobs.
To further demonstrate just how far these instances of vandalism have been divorced from reason, the statue of St. Junípero Serra was only one of several destroyed in Golden Gate Park — a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president and the general who led the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War, was also torn down. This destruction by the mob had not even the thinnest of rationales.
Leaving aside the obviously indefensible nature of attacks on churches and statues of Christ and his Mother, attacks on Catholic saints like Junípero Serra are also terribly misguided.
For those interested in rational discussion, it is worth noting that although some activists have sought to paint St. Junípero Serra negatively for his work with Native Americans, the Franciscan missionary was a well-known defender of the Native Americans, and his life was subject to incredibly rigorous scrutiny before he was canonized as a saint by Pope Francis during a Mass in Washington, D.C., in 2015 — the first canonization on U.S. soil.
At that canonization Mass, Pope Francis himself praised the saint as “the embodiment of a Church which goes forth, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”
Pope Francis dismissed claims against the saint, stating — on the basis of evidence — that he made those he worked with his “brothers and sisters.”
“Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the Native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” Pope Francis added.
The destruction of religious institutions and symbols that we are now seeing highlights a real and serious hatred of religion by some in our country.
This is all the more misguided because our faith is full of examples of men and women who have lived their lives in an effort to share the love of Christ, a love that can bring about the peace and healing our present moment requires.
Our religious art and statuary often portray these very figures. For us as Catholics, statues are more than just art; they are objects of veneration that remind us in a very real way of the holy men and women who have gone before us and who intercede for us. They serve as important expressions of our faith.
As people of faith, we must stand firm against racism and injustice, but we also must stand firm against violence, including mob tactics that veer into vandalism and destruction of churches and icons of our faith.
We also must stand firm in our right to practice our faith and to share in its beauty, and that means we must say enough: enough of these anti-Catholic attacks.
We also need to hold our elected officials accountable for protecting our religious-freedom rights — including the right to have our churches and religious monuments safe from attack.
The president, in his recent executive order, referenced existing laws that make it a federal crime to attack or vandalize a church or other house of worship.
That was an important step, as will be federal — and local — enforcement of laws that protect our churches from such violence.
Finally, let us take the time to pray for those engaged in this wave of vandalism, and let us recommit ourselves to the notion that faith and reason both have a place in the public square, a place that should not be supplanted by the whims of mobs more intent on destruction than discussion.
God bless you!