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News Analysis: For Church Teaching, Brawl Over Immigration Order is a Side Skirmish

Obama address on immigration

The White House

Mark Stricherz - published on 11/21/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Church teaching on immigration pays more attention to ends rather than means.

WASHINGTON — For the Catholic Church, the political tug-of-war in Washington over President Obama’s announcement Thursday night that he will issue an executive order on immigration is like a side skirmish in a larger battle.  Church teaching on immigration and the rights of immigrants pays more attention to ends rather than means and provides guidelines rather than rules.

Instead of giving an interested party in the immigration debate an absolute right, the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives conditional rights to each party and imposes duties on nations, governments, and immigrants. Its key section is 2241, which falls under the heading of the Fourth Commandment to honor your mother and father.

On one hand, section 2241 tweaks conservatives who consider national sovereignty an absolute right. Affluent nations don’t have an unconditional right over their borders, the Catechism says; immigrants’ safety and well-being is more important. Church teaching imposes a duty on affluent nations to give immigrants the right to live and work in their new land. “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin,” the catechism says.

On the other hand, the Catechism tweaks liberals who consider the rights of immigrants to be absolute. National and local governments have the right to oversee their borders, according to section 2241. “Political authority, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially in regards to immigrants’ duty toward their country of adoption,” the catechism states, before imposing a duty on immigrants. “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.”

In his speech tonight, President Obama’s statement that “We were strangers once, too” alluded to the Jewish Torah that “we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, too, referred to the Bible in its statement of support for the President’s plan.  

"There is an urgent pastoral need for a more humane view of immigrants and a legal process that respects each person’s dignity, protects human rights, and upholds the rule of law,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, USCCB President, said. “As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, said so eloquently, ‘Every human being is a child of God! He or she bears the image of Christ! We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected, and loved.’”

The USCCB’s statement did not address directly the main bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans: the constitutionality of the nation’s chief executive pardoning as many as four to five million immigrants who overstayed their visa or crossed the border illegally. Although the Senate passed a sweeping immigration overhaul bill last June, the House of Representatives has not voted on the legislation. Republicans compared Obama to a monarch, Democrats to a can-do president willing to overcome Washington gridlock.

In a video statement, House Speaker John Boehner criticized Obama for governing unilaterally. "The president had said before that he’s not king and he’s not an emperor. But he’s sure acting like one,” Boehner said.

House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi defended Obama 

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