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How Catholics Should Think about Immigration

How Catholics Should Think about immigration

CC Jens Schott Knudsen

John Zmirak - published on 07/02/13

It’s time to stop the name-calling and argue rationally about the common good

There has been a concerted attempt by a number of Catholic leaders to corral public opinion among Catholic voters behind support for America’s longtime policy of permitting large-scale, unskilled immigration into the U.S. – even as our nation’s manufacturing base crumbles or is outsourced, as wages for the working class stay flat or shrink, and budget deficits threaten to crush our grandchildren under a mountain of debt to pay for a social safety net that has morphed into a hammock.

A number of prominent Catholics have tried hard to create the impression that there is a Catholic “position” or even a teaching on the right number of immigrants the United States ought to admit, and what kind of public benefits such immigrants should be offered.  In the U.S. context, this imaginary Catholic doctrine is invariably presented as coinciding with the policies favored by the left wing of the Democratic party – just as throughout the 1980s, the U.S. bishops produced one policy statement after another endorsing larger government, higher welfare payments, more regulation of business, and the decrease of U.S. defense spending. None of the bishops’ quixotic policies were implemented, but their statements did accomplish something: they gave political cover to putatively Catholic politicians like Mario Cuomo, Edward Kennedy, Geraldine Ferraro, and (later) Nancy Pelosi. How many hundreds of times have pro-lifers who criticized someone like Pelosi heard the claim, “Well, I may differ with the Church on just one narrow issue – women’s reproductive health care choice. But you Republicans dissent from the Church on poverty, peace, health care, and social justice. We’re truer Catholics than you.”

Another side effect of bishops’ venture into legislative politics was to damage and divide the coalition of pro-family voters. Well-meaning Protestants who supported the Church in trying to halt the gross crime of abortion were simply flummoxed by the time and money that churchmen spent helping liberal Democrats on every other issue. Just so, the most vocal pro-life Protestants in the current Congress (and many of the Catholics) oppose the proposed amnesty bill for illegal immigrants, wondering why the Church has thrown its weight behind a bill so eagerly favored by the vote-hungry Left.

The political impact of the U.S. bishops conference was so worrying to the Vatican that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made public statements – for instance, in The Ratzinger Report – clarifying the level of theological authority held by national bishops conferences: they have none. Zip. Zero. A bishop can teach with authority in his diocese if he faithfully reflects what is taught by Rome, but no intermediate doctrinal body exists. That isn’t how the Catholic Church works, or ever has.

There is a Catholic teaching on immigration, and it is grounded in natural law, not divine Revelation. The Church does not aspire to rule as a theocracy which imposes beliefs that only those gifted with the supernatural virtue of Faith can understand. We may not, without sin, use our neighbors’ tax money and employ the guns and the jails of the State to enforce laws based solely on verses from the bible or quotes from Our Lady at Fatima. 

Nor do we have the right to favor immigration because many of the immigrants are Catholics and we feel a spiritual kinship with them. That is blatantly unfair to our non-Catholic fellow citizens, whose ancestors admitted our Catholic forefathers on the understanding that they would be loyal citizens, not secret agents working for their fellow Catholics around the world regardless of the best interest of Americans. We cannot flush the natural virtue of patriotism down the toilet of religious (or racial) tribalism (unless we want to prove that the Know-Nothings were right when they tried to keep Catholics out). 

Happily, the anti-Catholics are wrong. The Church does not teach fideism or theocracy, and it does not urge us to tribalism. Instead, it draws on natural law to offer a brief and sane criterion for principled policy, which it codifies in the Catechism:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin… 


Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens (2241).

Within the bounds of these two statements, Catholic laymen are free – indeed, we’re obliged – to argue about the proper application of this teaching in our own country and context. In the same way, we apply “just war” teaching to particular conflicts our nation faces. While we listen to the advice of popes and bishops, we know that they can be wrong, as some medieval popes were wrong to call crusades against Christian heretics or to wage war on neighboring cities. 

Those of us who, after serious reflection, come up with our own answer about the optimum number of migrants for our country to admit while remaining consistent with the common good ought not to be falsely branded as “dissenters” or “apostates,” or charged with any of a long list of other made-up hate crimes that are routinely adduced by leftist activists and well-meaning but addled Catholics who have internalized leftist arguments.

Let us parse the points made by the Catechism, and see how the implications of Church teaching can be discussed in a civil manner. What are the points over which we might disagree?

“to the extent they are able”

This statement is written broadly enough that we could argue over it indefinitely. Theoretically, the entire population of the world could fit in the state of Texas, with several feet of wiggle room to spare. Does that mean that the U.S. is “able” to accept the entire world? Clearly not, because there are countless economic, environmental, cultural, fiscal, and other factors that determine what we are actually “able” to do. All those points are things we must determine by rational argument, setting our national priorities by democratic vote. There is no secret “Catholic answer” to these questions, though natural law principles can and should be invoked in our discussions of the matter. Such arguments are prudential, and the Church does not pretend to have the competence to answer them; if it did, we should simply ask Pope Francis to use his infallible authority to draw up the U.S. budget every year. 

We must discuss this question using a cost/benefit analysis, looking both at the common good and (in light of the Church’s correct emphasis on a ‘preferential option for the poor’) on how a given policy affects the poorest American citizens. Not the poorest people on earth, but the poorest Americans.

Why do I say that? Isn’t it “xenophobic” and “discriminatory” to privilege poor Americans over poor Iraqis or Somalis? Aren’t those “foreigners” equally made in the image and likeness of God?  

Of course they are. But just as we owe family members more than we owe strangers, we owe more to fellow citizens – whose ancestors paid taxes to build our roads and fought in our country’s wars, who may even have been American slaves – than we do to foreign residents. In some ways, a country is like a club where members pay dues and take on certain duties in return for certain privileges. To flood such a club with non-members and offer them every privilege members have earned is simply unjust to the other members. It is up to the members to vote on whom they will admit and how many. And one of our key criteria must be, as Catholics, “How does this influx affect the American poor?” Given the U.S. birth dearth and the collapse of public schools (in part under the weight of mandatory bilingualism), we must also ask: “How does it affect working families who are striving to educate their children?”

“Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them”

We could argue for years about what this means. But surely fulfilling this obligation of immigrants includes a certain degree of assimilation: namely, learning the English language and switching their loyalty from their nation of origin to the U.S. When tens of thousands of recent immigrants, both legal and illegal, march through the streets chanting foreign slogans and waving foreign flags, that raises legitimate fears among Americans that not all immigrants are willing to keep up their side of the bargain. It doesn’t help when immigrants go to their former nations’ consulates to vote in their elections, or when they vote as ethnic blocs in our elections for larger government programs to tax the wealth of native-born citizens to fund programs from which the immigrants disproportionately benefit. 

“to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”

Right there, we see that those who have not obeyed U.S. immigration laws have forfeited any strict claim in justice to remain on American soil. Simply the fact that a law is poorly enforced does not mean that we are free to violate it, demand that the state later give us amnesty, and sign up for social programs we barely paid taxes to support. By saying this, do I mean that I favor the mass deportation of illegal immigrants? No, because it’s imprudent. When we search for a prudent policy for dealing with the ill-effects of poor law enforcement – the presence of more than 10 million illegal residents – we must make sure that such poor enforcement does not happen again. That is all that opponents of the current immigrant amnesty are arguing; in return for this mass act of mercy toward those who have broken our laws, all we ask is a real and solid guarantee that this will never happen again. The multiculturalist Left and cheap-labor Right are fighting, tooth and nail, every truly effective policy for securing our country’s borders, demanding amnesty first and enforcement later.  Forgive us for not believing empty promises; Our Lord did tell us to be “wise as serpents.” 

These are the issues at stake in the immigration debate. It is useless – and frankly uncharitable – for either side to assume the lowest, foulest motives of its opponents. So let’s make a deal: You don’t call me an apostate and I won’t call you a traitor. Instead, “let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) about what policies ensure the common good and help our poorest fellow citizens.

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