American history is replete with examples of bigotry against Catholic immigrants. Whether it was the Know Nothing Party in the 1800s or the Ku Klux Klan in the 1900s, millions of Americans have seen Catholics as a threat to the American way of life.
There were many reasons for this animosity. Many of our ancestors were poor and illiterate. Often, they did not speak English. Their fealty to the Pope was seen as a threat to democracy.
Fortunately, that hatred lessened over the years as we became part of the fabric of America. Now, however, it is returning, but with a terrible twist. Today, much of that rancor against Catholic immigrants is shared by American Catholics themselves.
The worst example for me occurred one Sunday when I used the Gospel reading about the two great commandments (loving God and loving neighbor) to discuss immigration in my sermon.
After Mass, several people came up to berate me for my ignorance. They claimed, falsely, that the people at our southern border — the vast majority of whom are Catholic — are not desperate to escape poverty or persecution. No, they assured me, those people are all criminals. They said the people are the border are bringing drugs into our country, that they are trafficking children for illicit purposes, that they are, as in the past, threats to our nation.
Unfortunately, their views are shared by too many Catholics who care less about what the Church says and more about what politicians and certain commentators claim. These Catholics are being misled by people who care more about scoring political points or improving their ratings than with helping the needy.
As a result, our challenge is not just to share our bread with the hungry and shelter the oppressed. If we are not to turn our back on our own, we must also speak up against the misinformation and outright lies being spread by others who seek only their own advancement, regardless of the harm they cause. May we never shirk from that duty.
Deacon Walter Ayres is Director of Catholic Charities Commission on Peace and Justice in the Diocese of Albany, New York.