By David Simcox
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 5, Number 3 (Spring 1995)
Issue theme: "Religious lobbies and the immigration debate"
The Catholic Church has developed an elaborate theology of immigration since World War II, and along with this an abundance of moral-political prescriptions it promotes to secular governments for dealing with immigration. These norms have been enunciated by the Vatican, and even more energetically by The Catholic Bishops' Conference (NCCB) here in the United States.
The Church has virtually sacralized immigration, proclaiming it as a 'sacrament of unity,' a process through which the Holy Spirit moves the world toward greater brotherhood. Migration, the Church preaches, witnesses to God's goodness, promotes the unity of the human family, and offers Christians a ministry of love and service to the stranger among us.
Human dignity, as the Church defines it, becomes a critical litmus test of the moral legitimacy of national responses to immigration pressures, just as it has been in Church judgments of other population and reproductive policies. The innate dignity of human beings entitles them to seek work in other lands and to be joined by their families there. This prerogative has in recent decades come to take precedence in Church teaching over the rights of nation-states to protect their borders.
The Church's concept of migrants' rights has moved closer to the absolute since Vatican II. Papal statements in the 1950s at least recognized the need to reconcile the right to migrate with national concern for the common good, as expressed in the regulation of immigration. That prudent approach is heard less now, Since Vatican II, and particularly in the thinking of John Paul II and the U.S. Bishops, any conditions on the right of migrants to cross national borders in search of work or to join family members have all but vanished. In the words of Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahony Catholic social teaching takes what many view to be a counter-cultural position on this matter and insists that the right to immigrate is more fundamental than that of nations to control their borders.
Oddly, a statement of the Catholic Bishops in late 1994 claimed that 'the Catholic Church has long recognized the right and obligation of nations to control their borders and create systems regulating immigration.' The statement, particularly in asserting states' 'obligation' to control borders, suggest a departure from existing doctrine. But the statement cited no authority for this uncharacteristic position, nor has the concept figured in more recent angry Church discourse on proposition 187 or legal immigration reform.
The Church's cosmic image of migration as a celestially sanctioned human right, not surprisingly, crimps the debate on immigration regulation for many policy makers, conservationists, advocates of a sound environment and high labor standards, and among millions of ordinary Catholics of good faith. Disputing the Holy Spirit and the Magisterium of a 2000-year old institution is, for many, an intimidating venture.
Moral Imperatives and Institutional Interests
The Church's stress on immigration as a moral imperative has practical as well as mystical roots. Organizational politics, institutional self-interest, and the desire to maximize utility are hard at work. Migration is central to the Church's history of recovery and growth following its losses from the Reformation and the secession of the Church of England. The Catholization by Spain, France and Portugal of much of the Western Hemisphere in the 16th and 17th centuries was essentially a work of colonization and migration.
The current immigration mentality of the Church has been deeply influenced by its experiences in the 19th century. In that epoch of mass migration, Catholic-sending nations such as Ireland, Italy and Central Europe populated regions in the Western Hemisphere that were either sparsely populated or heavily Protestant. The most important country of settlement, the United States, was neither heavily Catholic nor culturally congenial to Catholicism.
Catholic immigrants of that era were thus religious pioneers who, though beleaguered and isolated in the host nations, were creating bridgeheads for the spread of the faith in the New World. The Church views itself as having accompanied its sons and daughters in their wanderings. The growth of large Catholic communities in nations where the Church's presence had been weak or non-existent has, for the Church, imbued immigration with a providential character, seemingly a manifestation of God's plan working itself out in the world.
Spiritual and institutional interests have prospered together. Through immigration and high fertility, the Church acquired an important new treasure a community of nearly 60 million souls and contributors in the United States, the World's richest nation. Such temporal power and financial strength counts for a great deal, even in a belief system valuing humility and self-abnegation.
'Since the late 1950s ... the 'common good' of receiving states has been increasingly soft pedaled and in some instances rejected outright.'
But during the 19th century the papacy's outlook on world immigration policy differed from what it is today. The Church's priority mission was to serve spiritually the Catholic immigrants in their new homelands, protect them to the extent possible from discrimination and anti-Catholic hostility, and - in the U.S. - ensure their cultural survival in an overwhelmingly Protestant milieu.3 The U.S. parochial school system is a response to early Catholic feelings that the public schools were expressions of Protestant culture.
Absent then were papal policies asserting the human right of free immigration for all the moral obligation of states to acquiesce in the individual immigration choices of millions. The open immigration policies of the United States and some other major host nations in the 19th century made such special claims unnecessary.
In the 1910s and 1920s Catholic groups, such as the Knights of Columbus and ethnic brotherhoods, fought the mounting restrictionist sentiment. But there is no record of papal opposition to the Johnson-Reed act of 1921 or other major restrictive actions, nor any high-level intimations that such immigration policies contravened God's will.
Radicalization Since World War II
Circumstances in Europe after World War II had much to do with the radicalization of the Catholic Church's teaching on the primacy of immigrants' rights. Major migrations were taking place from the heavily Catholic, labor-surplus countries (Spain, Italy, Portugal and Yugoslavia) to nations such as Germany, Switzerland, France, and the Scandinavian countries, which perceived themselves as labor deficient. Europe was still awash with displaced persons scattered by the war.
It is in this setting that Pius XII issued 'Exsul Familia.' This 1952 document explicitly identified emigration, immigration and family reunification as basic human rights. Worth noting is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in that same period also enshrined the freedom to travel and the right of emigration as fundamental.4 But a series of diplomatic objections by the U.S. and other Western countries in the negotiations had blocked the treaty from asserting a comparable right to immigrate.
Since the late 1950s, in subsequent teaching documents of the Vatican and other magisterial bodies within the Church, the 'common good' of receiving states has been increasingly soft-pedaled and in some instances rejected outright. The depreciation of the sovereignty of nation-states in migration matters has several different roots, some old, some recent.
First, the Church, in the very catholicity of its name and in its outlook and mission is universalist. It has never been philosophically comfortable with the modern nation-state with its connotation of exclusion and its claims to be the ultimate community. For the Church, a main reason for the existence of states is to promote the human rights of individuals. Borders are often incompatible with human needs. Suffering this outlook is the biblical and early historical view of the Church as a cosmopolitan, multi-class, multi-cultural community for all. In the words of Paul 'there is no Greek or Jew here, circumcised or uncircumcised, foreigner, Scythian, slave or freeman. Rather, Christ is everything in all of you.' (Colossians 3 11).
'In current discourse [the church] draws on writers like Julian Simon to argue that nations must welcome immigration in their own best interest...'
Another transforming factor has been demographics. In the United States and some other Western nations, falling fertility in the 1960s among long-established Catholic populations dimmed the prospects for further Church growth. Predominantly Catholic immigration from Latin America and Vietnam provided both a new ministry and a new opportunity for expansion of the flock. Immigrants, in the words of Reverend Richard Ryscavage of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, are the 'growing edge' of the Church, as they were in the 19th century, and the 'assurance of the Church's health in the 21st century.'
A final tenet in the Church's open border vision is its faith in cornucopian economics as a response to issues of population growth and resource depletion. In current discourse it draws on writers like Julian Simon to argue that nations must welcome immigra-tion in their own best interest, as it enriches economically as well as culturally and spiritually. Church doctrine in the past has recognized that population in excess of resources can justify emigration. But it overlooks the corollary that excessive immigration can bring a similar imbalance to the receiving countries. Cornucopian economics, it seems, really applies only in Western industrial nations.
Changing priorities in Catholic social doctrine have also reinforced the view of immigration as a supra-national prerogative. The Church's heightened interest in social action to promote human rights to combat dehumanizing structures was both articulated in, and intensified by, the Vatican Councils of the 1960s. The U.S. Church's close exposure to Latin America conditioned its commitment to the 'preferential option for the poor' proclaimed in the literature of liberation theology. Pope John Paul II has made the rights of migrants a major theme of his papacy.
This outlook readily fused with the Church's vision of its area of future growth as the Third World and its increasing identification with the anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist liberation movements in those nations. Also present is an unfolding sense of mission to address the unequal distribution of the world's wealth highlighted in the U.N.'s North-South dialogue. Open immigration into major industrial nations becomes a way of sharing wealth and balancing out past exploitation.
For the U.S. 'Sanctuary' movement in the 1980s, acceptance of heavy flows of immigrants and asylum seekers was a form of national atonement for real or imagined U.S. foreign policy misdeeds and economic exploitation in Latin America.