Denver residents were shocked to see the defacement of an iconic landmark. But the real shock is this: Archdiocese records show that at least 25 other Catholic parishes and ministry centers in and around Denver have been vandalized, looted, targeted by arson or desecrated in the past 21 months alone.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared the graffiti at the cathedral to be the 100th incidence of vandalism, arson and destruction of Catholic property nationwide since May of 2020. Yet that number doesn’t include many of the attacks that have been identified in Denver, along with countless similar incidents in other cities and states not reported in the media. You would likely have to go back to the early 20th or late 19th centuries, when an influx of Catholic immigrants challenged a mostly Protestant culture, to find so much public antagonism toward the Catholic Church.
Today, Catholics are far from the only people of faith being attacked. The Mormon Church has reported its own dramatic spike in violence and vandalism of their temples. Numerous African American churches suffered property damage over the past year and a half following protests over racial justice. Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques have been targeted too, while Jewish communities are facing historic levels of antisemitism, including attacks on synagogues and cemeteries. Hate crimes, which include religiously motivated attacks, will likely set a 20-year record in 2021.
As Catholics, we recognize that this is a spiritual crisis. We pray for the end to such horrifying attacks and for God’s love to drive out the hate in the perpetrators, regardless of who they have targeted. Yet as Americans, we also clearly see a cultural crisis. People of goodwill, whether religious or not, must condemn and confront the societal trends that encourage attacks on houses of worship — trends that extend far beyond religion.
America has long been a place where different people with different views could coexist in peaceful communities. Those differences were often significant, but the ability to hold them without fear of punishment was a wonderful source of national unity. Now, however, those differences are increasingly seen as something to be reined in or driven out, contributing to a mounting state of national division.
The signs surround us. Respectful conversation has given way to spiteful confrontation, and the long-standing attitude of live and let live is being replaced by live as I want you to live. Where once people strove for change through the force of intellectual, moral and well-considered arguments, the go-to approach for many is now brute force. It often takes the form of violence or vandalism.
The graffiti at the Denver cathedral is a case in point. Police have identified a suspect who appears to have been motivated by the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. No doubt, this issue evokes strong passions, especially with state governments passing and the Supreme Court mulling new protections for unborn children. Yet the proper places to engage in the abortion debate are the public square and the political process — not brashly defacing a house of worship in broad daylight.
There is never a valid justification for such actions, just as there is no sound reason to vandalize a business or invade the home of someone you dislike. Simply holding different beliefs, however strongly, is not an invitation to aggression. If that becomes a widely accepted reaction, which now appears to be a real possibility, society will rapidly spiral downward. We’ll reach a place where Americans turn on each other at the slightest provocation. Democracy cannot survive when difference is a source of strife.
Everyone has a role in lifting America out of this crisis. Regardless of our individual beliefs, we must regain respect for the dignity of the human person. As Thanksgiving and the holiday season approach, let’s remember that all of us have a right to our own beliefs and a duty to accept that others have the same right. If we renew that understanding, our society will emerge from this age of division. If we do not, things will get far worse than seeing “Satan lives here” spray-painted on a cathedral door.