Understanding Church Teaching on Immigration
Q: With everything going on right now in our country’s current political climate I am having a hard time making sense of the church’s teaching on immigration. As a Catholic in the Southwest, I have a large community of Hispanic parishioners, and am always searching for clarity on their fears and where the faith steps in in helping them work through this process. Can you help explain so I can be more confidently proactive?
A: The Catholic Church, particularly in the United States, is an immigrant church, with a long history of embracing newcomers to the country, and providing assistance and pastoral care to immigrants, migrants, refugees and people on the move. There is a rich and deep body of Church teaching on this issue, including Papal encyclicals, Bishops’ statements, pastoral letters and scholarly work. Not surprisingly, all of this has consistently reinforced that it is every Catholic’s moral obligation to treat the stranger – the immigrant – as we would treat Christ himself.
Is this a political issue that a Catholic can view from the perspective of his or her political party? Is the answer to our current U.S. immigration issues to be found on the political “right” or the “left?”The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no.” Catholic teaching on welcoming the immigrant comes directly from Jesus. It is deeply rooted in the Scriptures. Church leaders who are otherwise perceived to be “traditional,” those perceived to be “progressive” and those in-between are united on this issue. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, California wrote in his 2013 book, Immigration and the Next America, that as believers, Catholics “need to look at these issues, not from the self-interested perspectives of politics, but from God’s point of view – and with an eye toward what he requires of us. Archbishop Gomez called immigration “the human rights test of our generation.”
The Bible is full of migrants, starting with Adam and Eve’s departure from the Garden, and including Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all the Israelite people, Ruth and ultimately, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus. The Bible expressly and repeatedly states the moral imperative to welcome the migrant. Take a few minutes to review the following passages: Exodus 22:21 (“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”); Leviticus 19:33-34 (“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”); Deuteronomy 10:18-19 (For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”); Matthew 25:31-46 (“Then he will say to those on the left hand, ‘depart from me you cursed…for I was a stranger and you didn’t take me in…’”) and finally, Jesus’s statement of the two greatest commandments: “[a]nd you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12: 30-31; see also Matthew 22:39; Luke 10:27). It is from deep reflection on these Biblical directives that our Church leadership has consistently, repeatedly and with one clear voice, called upon Catholics to treat immigrants as we would Christ himself. And it is for this reason that the Church seeks to “awaken our peoples to the mysterious presence of the crucified and risen Lord in the person of the migrant and to renew in them the values of the Kingdom of God that he proclaimed.” (USCCB and Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicana, Strangers No Longer, Together on the Journey of Hope, January 22, 2003, para. 3).
The Church’s support for migrants also rests on its fundamental respect for the dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. Catholic principles thus lead us to seek justice and the common good, to defend the innocent and lift up the weak, and to promote the freedom and dignity of the human person. Catholics believe that God is the Creator of the world and everything in it, and that all human rights come from God. They include the right to life, and the right to do the things necessary to lead a life of God-given dignity. The right to immigrate comes is rooted in these beliefs – if a family is unable to secure life’s necessities in the home country due to political instability, economic distress, religious persecution or other reasons, they must be free to seek those things in another country. It is part of the nature of humans, that in the face of difficulties (natural disasters, diseases, wars, oppression) people move. It is one of our God-given abilities – to move as a means to adapt to difficulty. Catholic social teaching has thus long defended the right to migrate, while also stating plainly that the root causes of migration (poverty, injustice, religious intolerance, wars) must be addressed so that people can remain safe in their homelands.
The Church recognizes and respects the right of sovereign states to control their borders and to promote safety, but it has long said that this right “cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations. . .” (Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia (On the Spiritual Care to Migrants), Sept 30, 1952). The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. Therefor, when persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. The Church states that sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right. Put simply, the Church rejects border control that is exerted for the purpose of protecting domestic jobs or standards of living. The Church also has said that more powerful economic nations – like the United States – which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows. (USCCB and Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicana, Strangers No Longer, Together on the Journey of Hope, January 22, 2003, para. 36).
For more information on the Catholic position on immigration, please consult the Immigration page of the USCCB web site, at: usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/
and Archbishop Gomez’s book, Immigration and the Next America, Renewing the Soul of our Nation(Huntington Indiana: OSV Press, 2013).