The recent controversy over the construction of an Islamic community center in the area around Ground Zero in New York City has elicited a good deal of anti-Islamic expressions and unfortunate prejudice toward both Islam as a religion and to Muslims as a people. I suspect that some Catholics have given in to such unfounded fears.
As Catholics, we should be accepting and respectful of other faiths especially since we know or should know of the virulent anti-Catholic movements in the history of the United States such as in the 1850s by groups such as the Know-Nothings against Irish Catholics. Despite the gains and integration that many especially Euro-Catholics have made in the country, I suspect that there is still in some circles a residue of anti-Catholicism.
The Second Vatican Council II (1962-65) called on Catholics to be not only ecumenical toward other Christian religions, but also to practice inter-faith cooperation with non-Christian faiths such as Islam. In my 2005 book Padre: The Spiritual Journey of Father Virgil Cordano, the importance of both ecumenism and interfaith dialogue was particularly impressed upon me by Fr. Virgil, a long-time Franciscan at the Santa Barbara Mission in California and who was widely admired for his work in both the Catholic and non-Catholic community. My book is an oral history of Fr. Virgil and it is his life-story told in his words through me. In the chapter on the effects of Vatican Council II on him and on the Franciscan community in Santa Barbara, Fr. Virgil expressed his strong support for both ecumenism and inter-faith cooperation. I want to quote from some of his views. He said:
"After all, Christianity is only 2,000 years old. Before that God loved all those Assyrians, Babylonians, Jews, etc. They didn’t have the sacraments of baptism or anything like that. Abraham wasn’t baptized and neither was St. Joseph. At every moment in everyone’s life — irrespective of religion or no religion — God is present in each person offering sufficient grace for salvation.
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"Ecumenism, which comes from the Greek word meaning worldwide, encourages interfaith dialogue. This dialogue doesn’t mean that you give up your particular faith. If fact, you can still believe that your faith is the best way for you to achieve salvation. But it does not mean that you restrict God’s saving grace to your own religion.
"What Vatican II said was that what saves you is being a member of God’s kingdom that speaks of being right with God which is the purpose of religious truth. The church is ordered to and serves the kingdom. A number of people may be in the Catholic church but not necessarily in the kingdom. Others may not be in the church or any formal religious group and yet may be in the kingdom. A Buddhist, for example, may be closer to God than some Catholic or Christian. … What is important to stress in ecumenical dialogue is that everyone can be saved. The issue is spirituality, personal growth, and interior personal transformation. This is what saves you, aided by religious practices.”
Fr. Virgil died in 2008. In our book, he had more to say about ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, but the above quotes capture the essence of his thoughts. He believed that for him Catholicism was the best way for his salvation, but he did not deny salvation for those of others faiths including Islam.
I very much hope and pray that Fr. Virgil’s wise words will represent the response of American Catholics to the rising anti-Islamic movement in this country.