Immigration, Church teaching and political calculus


I am writing in this space a guest column, instead of on the editorial page (although I did write this week’s editorial, as you can tell from the ample use of quotes and tangential asides), so that I can specify that what I am writing here is my own opinion, although I hope that it is informed by my appreciation of the Church’s teachings.

Our country is being torn apart on the issue of immigration. For most of our nation’s history, strong opinions have been held about it. In the 19th century the “Know Nothing” Party (their real name was the American Party) fought against immigration from Catholic lands, such as Ireland and Germany. Then we had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888, which banned immigration from China until it was repealed in 1943. The Immigration Act of 1917 prohibited immigration from the Asiatic Barred Zone, which stretched from the Asian portion of Turkey all the way to Papua New Guinea. In the 1930s, using the Great Depression as a pretext, the federal government deported at least tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of Mexican nationals (and some U.S. citizens of Mexican origin) into Mexico. 

The Magna Carta of the Catholic Church’s teaching on immigration was Pope Pius XII’s 1952 encyclical, Exsul Familia, which began with these words: “The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”

The Catholic Church does acknowledge that countries do have a right to protect their borders. St. John Paul II, in the annual papal message for World Migration Day in 1996, wrote, “Illegal immigration has always existed. His irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored. Illegal immigration should be prevented, but it is also essential to combat vigorously the criminal activities which exploit illegal immigrants. The most appropriate choice, which will yield consistent and long-lasting results is that of international co-operation which aims to foster political stability and to eliminate underdevelopment. The present economic and social imbalance, which to a large extent encourages the migratory flow, should not be seen as something inevitable, but as a challenge to the human race’s sense of responsibility.”

These words from 22 years ago speak to the reality that the United States is living right now on its southern border. From Heaven the Polish pontiff reminds us of our need to address the current crisis of children and families on the border and the long-term need to work together to resolve the rampant gang problem in Central America (a problem which was inadvertently fostered by our policies towards those countries during and after their civil wars in the 1980s). 

St. John Paul continued, “The Church considers the problem of illegal migrants from the standpoint of Christ, Who died to gather together the dispersed children of God (cf. Jn 11:52), to rehabilitate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant, in order to integrate all within a communion that is not based on ethnic, cultural or social membership, but on the common desire to accept God’s Word and to seek justice. ‘God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him’ (Acts 10:34-35).” The last line is a quote from the first pope, St. Peter. It is also one of the selections which can be read at a funeral Mass. I often like to hear it proclaimed when the deceased was someone who showed an openness to God in people from any nation. At the funeral we are asking God to mercifully welcome this soul into a Kingdom where it doesn’t matter what one’s nationality is. The willingness to love one’s neighbor as oneself is a prerequisite for admission.

“The Church acts in continuity with Christ’s mission. In particular, she asks herself how to meet the needs, while respecting the law of those persons who are not allowed to remain in a national territory. She also asks what the right to emigrate [to leave one’s country] is worth without the corresponding right to immigrate [to move into a new country]. She tackles the problem of how to involve in this work of solidarity those Christian communities frequently infected by a public opinion that is often hostile to immigrants,” wrote St. John Paul. 

Catholics are torn about what to do about our brothers and sisters on the border. I have found people who often ignore defined Church teachings (such as those on abortion, Marriage, ordination) saying that we should be compassionate, while other people who “toe the line” saying that President Trump’s policy (whatever it may be at the moment) is what we should be doing. 

I must admit upfront that I never vote for a pro-abortion politician, when one of the candidates has declared him or herself “Pro-Life” and the others have said that they are “pro-choice.” In doing so I have been acting in accord with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, “Forming Consciences for Catholic Citizenship.” In it, the bishops wrote (in paragraph 22), “There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called ‘intrinsically evil’ actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, ‘abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others’ (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed.”

In the following paragraph (23) the bishops expand on the right to life. “Similarly, human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, and other acts that directly violate the sanctity and dignity of human life are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life, such as genocide, torture, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified. Nor can violations of human dignity, such as acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable, or redefining Marriage to deny its essential meaning, ever be justified.”

Here we begin to enter into the question as to whether the federal government’s treatment of the children and families at the border has violated what the bishops taught. The Trump Administration itself has somewhat admitted that, as it has tried to blame preexisting laws or the Democratic Party or the immigrants themselves for the psychological trauma which the children are experiencing. 

I have been told by Pro-Life Catholics that we should support President Trump no matter what because he is Pro-Life and the Supreme Court hangs in the balance — I have even been told that we can’t trust Vice President Mike Pence (should the president resign or be removed), since he caved into pressure while governor of Indiana on a religious freedom law. These Catholics have told me that it is a blessing that President Trump knows that he is hated, so he doesn’t have to worry about trying to get invited to dinner parties with Democrats; invitations to which more moderate Republicans such as Pence, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and John McCain supposedly crave.

However, I worry about the future of the Pro-Life movement. If people outside of it, especially young people, think that we will put up with any type of questionable behavior, as long as a politician promised to fight abortion, it will make it more difficult for us to win converts to our cause (and ultimately end this slaughter of innocents).

People on both the left and right have long ignored the sins or crimes of politicians on their “side” of the political battle. Democrats forgave President Clinton of his many allegations of predatory behavior because he supported legal abortion (Gloria Steinham famously defended him in the New York Times on March 22, 1998, saying that his defense of legal abortion was key. Asked about that column now, she says that she would not use the same words, but “I’m glad I wrote it in that decade”).

I myself looked beyond Senate President Billy Bulger’s and Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran’s ethical challenges because they were consistent Pro-Life Democrats, who used all the power of their offices to fight to defend the child in the womb (they also fought for a lot of other social justice issues). To paraphrase Archie Bunker, “mister we could use a man like Tom Finneran again.” Actually, there are still a few Pro-Life Democrats left, although they are often hounded out of their party (as New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch have both lamented).

Meanwhile in the Republican Party (in which I enrolled at age 18, back in 1986, and to whose state conventions I was a delegate twice) on the state level many of the elected members became “pro-choice” (following the lead of Governor Bill Weld, against whom I always voted — he was more radical in promoting sexuality agendas than the Democrats who opposed him) and on the national level never criticizing President Trump has become the litmus test. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote, “First, the president is incredibly thin-skinned and demands not only loyalty but flattery. Any criticism is seen as a betrayal. It’s of a piece with the fact that you can vote 100 percent in favor of the ‘Trump agenda,’ but if you criticize Trump, you’re a traitor. But if you vote against the Trump agenda but flatter the president, you’ll be fine.”

I did not want Hillary Clinton to win the presidency (nor any of the other anti-life candidates who ran against her for the Democratic nomination, nor Republican Governor John Kasich, whose support on cultural issues is weak), but my disgust with a lot of President Trump’s actions does not change that. As Goldberg wrote, “If you condemn an adulterous affair in 2018 will that somehow trigger a time machine that lets Hillary win?” (he was referring to the reluctance of social conservatives to criticize Trump’s supposed dalliance with Stormy Daniels — and his being married three times, being proud of his sexual activities, etc.).

Had Clinton won, the five to four Supreme Court decisions that Dwight Duncan correctly praises in this edition of The Anchor most likely would have gone the other way — and crisis pregnancy centers would be required to tell people where to obtain an abortion; the Colorado baker would have been forced out of his profession for not wanting to make a cake supporting gay marriage; the list can go on and on. It was for the Supreme Court that many, if not most, orthodox Catholics and Evangelicals voted for Trump. They rightly feared the type of judges Clinton would appoint and voted against her. This does not mean that Trump’s other actions need to be defended by people of faith.

Historically, we can look back to the early 2000s, when Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI criticized various policies of President George W. Bush, especially those having to do with war. They did so, not thinking, “Oh, maybe I had better be quiet, because he is Pro-Life and this might hurt his re-election.” Instead, they trusted in Christ and knew that fidelity to Him meant that they had to disagree with a politician with whom they had a lot in common. We have to trust in Christ, and not just in political calculations, and thus speak out as He would want us to do so, even when it means going against a politician who has helped us in some important ways. 

That trust in Christ calls upon us to look at these immigrants, and especially the children, as a presence of Christ and demands that we respect them as such.

Father Wilson is executive editor of The Anchor, and rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River.

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