The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church is at the forefront in the immigration debate and falls heavily on the side of social justice and equity for migrants. Catholics have a long history on which its contemporary apostolic position is based.

In a very helpful website article published in May 2006 titled “Immigration Reform and the Catholic Church,” Donald Kerwin of The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. lays out the historical context and religious tenets involved in the Church’s migration policy. Here are some authoritative excerpts explaining key Catholic positions:

Why does the Catholic Church care so much about U.S. immigration reform? The explanation lies in the church's view of itself as a pilgrim people in a pilgrim church. It sees the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt as the archetypal refugee family. Migrations evoke their own history, including the biblical exodus and exile, the itinerant ministry of Jesus, and its 2,000-year missionary tradition. The stranger is welcomed as a Gospel imperative.

The article goes on to flesh out several operational principles on which a campaign called “Justice for Immigrants (JFI), Journey of Hope,” was initiated by U.S. Bishops in May of 2005. They are as follows:

The campaign supports increasing development in immigrant-sending countries; allowing necessary, unauthorized workers to earn the right to remain (permanently) through their labor, good moral character, and payment of a fine (a proportional punishment); and expanding avenues for employment- and family-based immigration.

…The JFI campaign has been explicitly linked to the Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty, which through overseas development programs and advocacy on foreign aid, trade, and debt relief seeks to alleviate the conditions that force many people to migrate.

…In Strangers No Longer, [a prior pastoral statement] the church states that people have the right not to migrate; that is, they should be able to live freely in their countries of birth. However, when this is impossible, whether due to extreme poverty or persecution, the church says they have a right to migrate, and nations have a duty to receive them [emphasis added].

Since all people are “brothers and sisters” and that immigration status does not change that it offers its Catholic Charities programs, legal offices, community organizing grants, and refugee resettlement services to all vulnerable migrants and newcomers, regardless of their religious beliefs….[1]

As to its view on migration in general, Mr. Kerwin’s article makes this statement: “The Catholic Church in the United States does not support open borders, illegal immigration, or an amnesty that would grant legal status to all unauthorized immigrants. It believes nations have a legitimate responsibility to promote the common good by denying admission to certain migrants and by regulating the flow of all those who are seeking to enter.”

Unfortunately, this statement flies in the face of other commands and belies the behavior of some very visible cardinals, priests, and parishioners, thereby giving sanction to strong public protests that have swept the nation, most visibly in Los Angles. Mr. Kerwin acknowledges the contradictions when he writes “Since then, the Catholic Church has played a central role in the immigrant-led protests that have swept the country. The church has encouraged parishioners to participate in the protests, offered bishops and priests as speakers, and served as an interlocutor for its newcomer members before Congress and in other public forums. Cardinal Roger Mahoney went so far as to instruct archdiocesan and lay Catholics to ignore provisions in a House-passed enforcement-only bill (H.R. 4437) that would make it a crime to assist unauthorized immigrants.” (The bill did not pass.)

Mindful of public scorn in some quarters, Mr. Kerwin notes, “As a result of its pro-immigrant stand on immigration reform, the church has been accused of betraying the United States, violating its tax-exempt status, and prospecting for new (immigrant) members. Above all, it has been criticized for inserting itself in a political issue in which some say it has little expertise and can make no particular contribution.”

It’s clear that the church is conflicted by what it sees as harsh rhetoric and unfair treatment of the undocumented migrant, yet wants to be on the side of law and order in keeping them from entering the country illegally and being rewarded for bad behavior with amnesty. Once “illegals” are here, however, the church seems bent on harboring and aiding them, while championing some form of legal status, a right to work, protesting federal raids on employers, keeping families together, and providing assistance with food and housing, plus health care.

In short, the Church’s hierarchy wants it both ways, that is, the church publicly acknowledges the nation’s right to keep out those wanting to trespass on U.S. sovereignty, yet in the name of compassion and social justice, parishioners are told it is acceptable to give sanctuary and support once immigrants successfully get across the borders or into port. In other words, once you jump the fence, we’re here to help.

While affirming an abiding eternal truth that all humans are the same (whether a native or illegal alien) in the eyes of God, the Catholic Church’s dictum becomes riddled with inconsistencies, creating a perplexing incoherent truth for the laity.

To the American public these mixed messages fare no better and when the rhetoric is stripped away, here’s the church’s position: Any country has a right to keep the undocumented out, yet nations have a duty to receive them; while affirming law and order, it’s ok to aid and abet migrant lawbreakers; because of scriptural imperatives, the Church is above secular law and can pick and choose those laws it wishes to obey (as demonstrated by Cardinal Mahoney).

Needless to say, the Catholic Church is often at odds with U.S. immigration laws and practices, and makes clear it will not shrink from representing the interests of migrants regardless of legal status and is quite willing to go against public opinion. But the Catholic stance is no exception as other congregations, notably The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and The Southern Baptist Convention, are of similar mind.

Continue to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Southern Baptist Convention or return to Immigration: A Noble Notion Gone Bad.

Kerwin, D. Immigration Reform and the Catholic Church, Migration Information Source, May 2006.