The response of the Florida Catholic community was not limited to these two priests. Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine wrote an August 28 letter to the editor of The Gainesville Sun, in which he said burning the Qur'an "presents a counter-witness to the Gospel message by engendering fear and hatred rather than the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. The proliferation of negative stereotypes in the media, distorted information, and caricatures of Muslims and other faith traditions must be addressed at every level of society."
On September 7, the story leaped to the national stage, first when General David Petraeus said such an act could endanger U.S. troops overseas and then when dozens of religious leaders issued a statement condemning not only Qur'an burning, but the "anti-Muslim frenzy" in U.S. culture. Speakers at the event included Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, who was quoted in a Catholic News Service story as saying, "I fear the story of this animosity will be taken to be the story of the real America. It's not. America was not built on hatred, but love. ... This is not the real America. When you attack one religion, you attack them all."
A day later, the Vatican itself entered the fray with a statement from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue saying that the acts of 9-11 "cannot be counteracted by an outrageous and grave gesture against a book considered sacred by a religious community. Each religion, with its respective sacred books, places of worship and symbols, has the right to respect and protection."
A day after that, the U.S. bishops affirmed both the words of the Vatican and the U.S. interreligious leaders with a statement of their own.
That the Catholic Church would join the chorus of voices roundly condemning anti-Muslim actions is no surprise. Nor is it news and different. The Church's position on Islam -- and non-Christian religions in general -- has been firmly in place since the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate in 1965. Section 3 of this document describes at length the esteem the Church has for Muslims:
They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
The words of the Council fathers are particularly striking against the current cultural backdrop, what the statement from U.S. religious leaders called an "anti-Muslim frenzy." They cite the example of the controversy surrounding efforts to build an Islamic community center near ground zero in New York. The Church weighed in on that issue too, not by taking sides, but with New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio offering to serve as a peaceful mediators in the dispute.
But both "Koran Burning Day" and the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy suggest a creeping cultural acceptance of prejudice and hostility toward Muslims. This would be alarming in its own right, but it's also distressing since, in the days following 9-11, Americans seemed to get it right -- that the attackers were violent extremists, not faithful representatives of Islam. President George W. Bush said in 2002: "Millions of our fellow Americans practice the Muslim faith. They lead lives of honesty and justice and compassion. ... Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation's ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace."
It seems perceptions have deteriorated a great deal in eight years.
Whatever the cause of what the U.S. bishops call the "derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America's Muslim community," it's clear that U.S. Catholics are in a position to make a positive difference. As always, Catholics are called to embrace the Church's teaching, even when -- or perhaps especially when -- those teachings (on abortion, immigration, social justice, etc.) are countercultural.
The letter from Bishop Galeone suggests that the teaching to embrace here is unconditional love of neighbor. The statement from the U.S. bishops says religious intolerance has no place in a country built on religious freedom. And the Vatican puts it into perhaps the sharpest perspective by saying anti-Muslim bigotry is no way to honor the memories of those who lost their lives on 9-11. Whether responding to acts of terrorism or acts of intolerance by fellow Americans, the Christian challenge will always be to respond to hate with love.