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How Catholics Should Think about Immigration

CC Jens Schott Knudsen
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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… 

And:


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).

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