Hamtramck — As a leader of a religious community that at one time experienced “terrible discrimination” in the United States, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said Catholics would be wise to reject sensationalistic calls by political candidates that seem to limit the religious freedom of others.
The archbishop spoke Jan. 14 during an interview with PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, a national TV broadcast exploring contemporary faith issues, about his own recent comments regarding Islam and religious liberty, as well as Hamtramck’s new status as the first U.S. city with a majority Muslim city council.
In the interview, which will air Feb. 6-12, the archbishop was asked about his earlier comments in light of proposals to limit Muslim immigration into the United States, register Muslims in a national database or close or monitor mosques.
“I think it’s a terrible mistake for the citizenry to take that attitude toward Islam,” Archbishop Vigneron told Lucky Severson, a correspondent for the program, during the interview at St. Ladislaus Church in Hamtramck.
The archbishop made national headlines in December for a letter he wrote to priests of the Archdiocese of Detroit rebuking the idea of restricting Muslim immigration, which he said “threatens the foundation of religious liberty that makes it possible for us to freely practice our faith.”
The archbishop told Severson he received “a little pushback” for his comments, but that the majority of the feedback was positive.
“As a Christian pastor, it’s my responsibility to call people to be their best selves, and to remind them of these basic principles, and to participate in the political process in such a way that they can find practical ways to work through this,” he said.
Archbishop Vigneron pointed out that during the 19th century, public opinion made it difficult for Catholics to openly practice their faith.
“One of the things I always point out as an example is that the windows of the cathedral in Philadelphia had to be up on the second story to keep people from throwing stones through them,” he said.
Discriminatory policies targeting any religious group threatens religious liberty in general, the archbishop said, but the best reason to stand up against such proposals isn’t out of fear that “we’ll be next.”
“That’s a self-interested argument, which I don’t think is always the best argument,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “The best argument is that this is what we stand for. We want to be people of principle, and this is one of the great foundation stones of American life, religious liberty. We speak for it and we stand for it for one another.”
Severson also asked the archbishop whether the national stories about Hamtramck’s majority-Muslim city council were “a tempest in a teapot.”
Hamtramck, which in 1970 was as much as 90 percent Polish-Catholic, has seen its Polish population dwindle to just around 10 percent today, with Muslims now comprising the largest share.
However, far from being a detriment to Hamtramck, Muslims who have moved into the city have “provided for a revitalization of the city as far as I can see,” Archbishop Vigneron said.
The archbishop noted that since its heyday, Polish and other Catholic immigrant families have been steadily moving out of Hamtramck in search of work, to the point where the influx of new residents has served to buoy those who chose to stay there.
Archbishop Vigneron noted that Polish immigrants weren’t the only ones who came to the United States in search of religious liberty.
“There’s a great responsibility for clergy, whether it’s Christian pastors or rabbis or imams, for all of us to hold up the dignity of the person,” he said. “We all cherish religious liberty. It’s hard to think of a religious group in the United States that didn’t come here to find some sort of religious freedom.”
Archbishop Vigneron said it “doesn’t strike me as accurate” that he was among the only U.S. Catholic bishops to speak out on the issue, but acknowledged his comments did receive widespread attention.
“I’m a pretty traditional Catholic priest,” he said. “My job is not to invent what I say. My job is to pass on what I have learned. I didn’t make up anything I said in my letter. I just was a spokesman for the Church.”
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