A Practicing Catholic Considers Why "The Church" Is Wrong About Immigration
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[See also by Chilton Williamson: A Christmas Meditation: St. Augustine on the National Question]


Pope Benedict XVI is back in Rome after his first papal visit to the United States. Before leaving, he had a private meeting with his American bishops in which—according to Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles who was there—he expressed the thought that "newcomers" to the U.S. are "people of faith and we [Americans] are here to welcome them." [Pope Speaks Up For Immigrants, Touching A Nerve, By Daniel J. Wakin And Julia Preston, New York Times, April 20, 2008]

Previously, aboard Shepherd One  en route to the United States, Pope Benedict had announced to the media his intention to raise the issue of immigration with President Bush. His Holiness claimed special concern for the "grave problem of separation of families", which he described as "really dangerous to the fabric—social, moral, human—of these [sending] countries".

Wherever and whenever possible, Benedict added, family reunification should be effected—by the receiving countries.

These and other remarks by the Pope prompted Rep. Tom Tancredo (a former Catholic who worships today at an evangelical Christian church) to accuse the Pope of "faith-based marketing" and to suggest that the Pope’s support for immigrants "may have less to do with spreading the Gospel than they do about recruiting new members of the church"[VDare.com note: This caused Kathryn Jean Lopez [Email her]of NRO to have a fit, writing "Deport Such Talk."]

Of course, Catholic immigrants, on their arrival in the U.S., do not become "new"members of the Roman Church, but are simply old members moved to a new place. Moreover, Benedict, on his visit here, scrupulously avoided comment on specific issues relating to the American immigration debate, but confined his remarks to broader issues relevant to international migration on a global scale.

Like every Catholic who argues for patriotic immigration reform, I am frequently subjected to digs from my secularist allies, reproaching me for my affiliation with a universal Church—and also to insults from my co-religionists, right and left, who accuse me of infidelity to the universal humanitarian teachings of the Founder and the See of St. Peter.

I, and others like me, have no choice except to protest to those outside the Roman Catholic Church that the option for open borders is not, and never has been, a logical extension of Catholic doctrine—while insisting to our fellow Catholics that they are very much mistaken in their understanding of Church teaching if they think that it is.

Hence this essay.

For the Catholic educated in the tradition of his Faith, widespread ignorance on the part of non-Catholics of the teachings and practice of the Church is cause for distress. But similar ignorance on the part of his co-religionists is simply scandalous.

I planned originally to title my article "Why the Catholic Church Is Wrong About Immigration." That was before I reflected that it is not the Church that is in error on the subject but all too many of her members in public life, a largely self-selected and self-willed group I think of as "The Church". On the formal question of immigration, as on most others, the Roman Church is in truth a model of logic and sensibility—so far, anyway, as she has expressed herself on the matter at all.

Immigration, whether one is for or against it, is not what the Church calls a matter of faith and morals. It is not an issue—unlike, say, abortion, birth control, or homosexual marriage—on which a communicating Catholic must believe the relevant Catholic teaching, if only on faith alone.

The Roman Church has no defined teaching in respect of immigration. It stands as a subject open to more or less enlightened opinion and debate among the Catholic hierarchy and the laity. No one can claim—so far, no one has dared to claim—that the Church has adopted a definitive position on the issue, one way or another. Hence, with regard to immigration, Catholics are free to believe, and to argue, any way they like.

On the other hand, two papal encyclicals, one released at the end of the 19th century, the other at the middle of the 20th century, do indeed directly address the issues of migration, emigration, and immigration.

The first of these, Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is the Church’sfamous attempt formally to define the rights of the working classes in a capitalist industrial society. Embedded deep in the text, a slightly errant passage insists upon what Leo calls the right of families to migrate from densely populated countries to more thinly settled ones in search of living space, as a means to achieve a more favorable distribution of agricultural workers over the surface of the earth.

The theme was reiterated in June 1951, on Rerum Novarum’s 60th anniversary, when Pope Pius XII in a radio address adverted to a right to migrate from one country or region to another.

The second encyclical, Exsul Familia Nazarethanareleased by Pius on August 1, 1952, is the closest the Vatican has come to offering a definitive treatment from the Catholic perspective of the complex moral issues posed by emigration and immigration in the modern world.

This document, inspired by the many millions of persons displaced by World War II, commences by recognizing in the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt the archetype of all refugee families before and since.

Exsul Familia Nazarethana’s main concern is the Church’s appropriate role in aiding refugees and exiles, and the bureaucratic-ecclesiastical measures it has taken to fulfill that role. Nevertheless, the Pope reminds the Faithful that he has "repeatedly addressed the Rulers of States, the heads of agencies, and all upright and cooperative men, urging upon them the need to consider and resolve the very serious problems of refugees and of migrants….We asked them also to consider,"he adds, "how beneficial for humanity it would be if cooperative and joint efforts would relieve…the urgent needs of the suffering, by harmonizing the requirements of justice with needs of charity".

Finally, Pius quotes from a letter he had addressed four years earlier to the American Bishops, where he noted approvingly "Informed of our intentions, you recently strove for legislation to allow many refugees to enter your land. Through your persistence, a provident law was enacted, a law that we hope will be followed by others of broader scope." (Alas, in 1965, it  was.)

Popes in the past few centuries have used encyclicals to establish matters of faith and morals, as Pius IX did in 1854 in Ineffabilis Deus, proclaiming as Church doctrine theImmaculate Conception of Mary. But the vast majority of encyclicals have not been issued ex cathedra, meaning that they do not lie within the realm of papal infallibility, which is highly circumscribed.

Moreover, the world has changed in the past half-century, as the Church—as well, or better than, anybody—knows very well. For one thing, an understanding of the right to migrate as founded in the very nature of land makes little sense today, when many migrants are leaving sparsely populated countries for densely populated ones, such as those of Western Europe. And the word "migration," as used to identify the movement of peoples in the first half of the 20th century, is clearly an inaccurate description of the mass transfers of the 21st, to which the term "invasion" better applies.

That is why it is unfortunate that Pope John Paul II, in attempting to update Church teaching and practice in the final decades of the last century, showed no understanding that what he insisted on calling the problem of "migration" had become totally disproportionate to the one with which his predecessors concerned themselves. Where they emphasized a right to emigration, John Paul asked, "What [is] the right to emigrate…worth without the corresponding right to immigrate[?]". He missed no opportunity throughout his pontificate to lecture the Western world on its moral duty to accept as many immigrants from anywhere as wished to come.

"The Church," he said in his annual Message for World Migration Day, 1996,

"considers the problem of illegal migrants from the standpoint of Christ, who died to gather together the dispersed children of God …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 common justice".  

Thus John Paul II, in his public pronouncements in respect of immigration, was far less circumspect than earlier pontiffs, including even John XXIII, who had gone so far as toassert that "The fact that one is a citizen of a particular State should not prevent anybody from being a member of the human family as a whole, nor from having citizenship in the world community". 

And Pius XII, in his letter to the American Bishops in 1948, had significantly qualified the migratory right of access to foreign soil—"provided of course", he added, "that the public wealth [of the receiving country], considered very carefully, does not forbid this".

Pope Pius thought this caveat worth quoting in Exsul Familia four years later. And, a few paragraphs earlier in that encyclical, Pius strongly qualified also his appeal that the requirements of justice be reconciled with the needs of charity.

"In the first place," he wrote, "there must be justice, which should prevail and be put into practice."

Quite clearly, by "justice," Pius had in mind the need to balance the rights of migrants against the interests and consent of the receiving countries.

Guido Vignelli and Alberto Carosa, Italian Catholics who together wrote L’invasione silenziosa (The Silent Invasion) published in 2002, have done much to develop this point. In "False Rights, Real Duties, Prudent Rules: A Christian View of Immigration" (Immigration and the American FutureThe Rockford Institute, 2007), Vignelli charges that progressives have elevated the right of immigration to the status of an absolute right, indeed an idol. Yet "The right to emigrate is licit and feasible only if it is ‘relativized’ and set in the context of moral reality".

As it stands, the liberal formula holds that immigrants have only rights, host countries only duties. More fundamentally, the need is no longer to balance opposing rights, but rather to recognize the right of nations and civilizations to resist destruction at the hands of alien peoples and cultures.

In short, as an Italian bishop, Msgr. Alessandro Maggiolini, has expressed it, the Church recognizes "no right to invade, neither a duty to let oneself be invaded." [Il Giornale,Milan, November 29, 1998]

This is no more than traditional Catholic doctrine, which has always recognized the right of nations to self-defense, including the regulation of their borders. St. Thomas Aquinas, discussing charity in the Summa Theologica, wrote that real charity is a) natural, b) divine, and c) directed at those closest to God. Further, according to Thomistic philosophy, our obligations are to those connected to us by nature, to friends rather than to strangers, and to one’s country rather than to the world.

Pius XII himself spoke for this tradition when he observed that

"There exists an order established by God, which requires a more intense love and a preferential good done to those people that are joined to us by special ties. Even our Lord has given the example of this preference towards the country, when He cries on the destruction of Jerusalem".

Contrary positions adopted by left-wing and liberal clergy are in flagrant opposition to correct Catholic teaching. "If the question is between the right of a nation to control its borders and the right of a person to emigrate in order to seek safe haven fromhunger or violence…we believe that the first right must give way to the second"according to Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles.

Similarly, a Jesuit priest who worked as an organizer for the Sanctuary Movement has reflected that

"The great question of who has a right to come to this country and who has a right to decide that right is very interesting."

And an aptly named Father Marx is on record from the 1980s as having confided to his congregation: I tell the Mexicans when I am down in Mexico to keep on having children, and then to take back what we took from them: California, Texas, Arizona, and then to take the rest of the country as well.".

Such are the sentiments of the Church’s left-wing cadre today. They have produced an unfortunate and disproportionate echo among moderate Catholics who also happen to be politicians, and who (as Randall Burns has written recently on VDARE.COM) provide"the muscle behind immigration expansion in the U.S."

researcher at Claremont McKenna College has recently concluded that Latino American immigrants are revitalizing the Church in America, which in turn is eager to remind American Latinos of their national identity. Yet a Gallup Poll taken in 1992 found that Christians were more likely than secularized Americans to want immigration levels reduced; that two-thirds of American Christians opposed liberal immigration policies; and that there was no statistical difference in this respect between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

"As other societal institutions get on the anti-immigrant bandwagon," the National Catholic Register boasted in 1994, "the Church comes out squarely on the immigrants’ side." But the truth of that statement depends upon what the NCR means by "the Church."

Significantly, John Paul II himself insisted upon the importance of national identitiesand identifiable cultures when he wrote, in an Apostolic letter, that,

"We have to do all we can to assume [our Western] spiritual heritage, to confirm, maintain, and develop it. This is an important task for all societies, but perhaps more in particular for those which must defend their own existence and essential identity of their nation from the risks of a destruction generated from outside or of a decomposition from inside."

Guido Vignelli thinks that the "preferential option for the nation", assumed by Aquinas and Pius XII among many other Catholic writers, established the principle that at stake in the immigration debate, beyond the needs of the importunate migrants themselves, is the defense of the common good—in particular, the common spiritual good—of the receiving nations.

In resisting immigration on a mass scale, the nations of the West are defending their peace, security, order, and stability, as well as their separate and unique identities.

Ultimately, they are defending the spiritual identity and religious belief that created their civilization and upon which Western civilization depends.

Preserving that religious identity is more than a human responsibility—it amounts, literally, to a sacred trust.

This trust Benedict XVI appears to understand better than did his immediate predecessors, if only because he has a better understanding of the menace the West faces from beyond its borders.

As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he argued against the inclusion of Turkey in the European Union, on the ground that that country belongs to a cultural sphere wholly incompatible with the nations of Europe. In 1996, he voiced reservations about the ability of Islam to adapt to modernity.

And it is quite impossible to imagine John Paul II quoting, as Benedict did in Germany in 2006, the assertion by a medieval writer that Mohammed introduced into the world"only things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".

The French Revolution taught us to think grandly, inclusively, and therefore abstractly of the Rights of Man. Today, we speak more broadly of Human Rights. These generic terms tend to obscure the fact that, when we moderns think about rights, we nearly always mean rights pertaining to individuals—except in those instances when we are concerned with our other obsession, the rights of minority groups.

We do so because it is the modern democratic habit, and we of the West have become idolaters of democracy, as Norman Podhoretz once boasted of being. And so it comes naturally to us to consider the moral issues involved with immigration in the same terms. Since the immigrants, no matter how numerous, are still only a small percentage of the peoples who are expected to welcome them, they are much more readily understood as a group of individuals, however numerous, than is the host population, which is always seen as an unindividuated mass.

But this is wrong, or at least incomplete, thinking even in individualist terms. A nation is, at one level, an association of million individuals each of whom stands to be affected in a personal way by such a cataclysmic phenomenon as immigration has become.

We might describe such considerations as appertaining to the ethics of micro-morality. Yet considerations of macro-morality have a claim on our conscience as well, and perhaps it is the larger claim—especially as macro-moral issues, viewed inversely, are readly convertible into micro-moral ones.                  

Church and state alike have a responsibility for the welfare of societies, as well as for individuals, and very often the respective claims of each are irreconcilable.

So it is with the contemporary worldwide immigration crisis, which presents an even greater dilemma for the churches than it does for states.

"I don't believe," the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote, that "Christ left us to chaos." But chaos is precisely what uncontrolled immigration to the West promises. The opening of their borders by the Western nations in the interest of alleviating Third World misery and chaos would only guarantee the spread of chaos and misery globally. believe

Wise Catholics with a knowledge of history and a proper grounding in their Faith understand this. "The demise of Europe," the Catholic political philosopher Augusto Del Noce has written"would not thus be the beginning of a new universality, but would perhaps encompass the definitely denied hope of any future universality whatever; the downfall of European mediation would imply the mere unresolvedcontraposition between Occidentalism and Orientalism."

The Western nations, degenerate as they have become, continue to represent systems of relative order in a world that succumbs a little more each day to radical disorder. Can the salvation of man arise from chaos? Does the Roman Catholic Church really teach and believe that it does?

The answer, despite the arguments of "The Church"—ignoramuses, fools, scoundrels, heretics, and simply confused or misguided souls within the Church—is unconditionally:“No”.

The Catholic Church, in its historical as distinct from its transcendent aspect, is a part of history, to whose failures and disasters it is hardly less immune than any other human institution. And these times of ours, being low and dishonest ones, have left their mark on her.

One cannot deny that an activist cohort within the Roman Church, working assiduously on behalf of immigration and of the immigrants themselves, has done a great deal of harm to Western societies—harm that is likely to be irreparable—and that it indeed intends further harm.

Yet the destructive work upon which it is engaged is hardly justified by the teachings of the Faith, much less sanctified by it.

Moreover, the phenomenon is surely not unique to Roman Catholicism. Its contribution to what Peter Brimelow calls "immigration enthusiasm" does not exceed that made by the Protestant churches taken together. The Sanctuary movement, though aided and supported by many Catholics over the decades, was founded by a Presbyterian minister in Tucson"As Christians," the Presbyterian Church announced some ten or a dozen years ago, "we recognize that the boundaries of God’s kingdom are not the same as the boundaries of nations….In God’s kingdom, national borders have no ultimacy."

As this statement suggests, the immigration crisis is a serious temptation to Christianity as a whole to confuse the worldly with the otherworldly, what is owing to Caesar—and to Rome—with what is owing to God.

Apparently it is no easy thing for a universalist religion like Christianity to lay claim to the Kingdom of God while quitclaiming the Kingdom of Man. So far as it fails to do so, it only invites the chaos it is charged with holding at bay.

This is why the logic of Catholic theology points away from—not toward—the misbegotten but much-less-than-official position the Vatican has taken on the immigration issue for over a full century now.


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