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Welcoming the Stranger

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By Chris Sparks (Mar 4, 2019)
Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration

Catholic social teaching is one of the great treasures of the Church, and yet all too often, it's neglected or overlooked entirely. For the next seven issues of Marian Helper, we'll explore what the Church's social teaching has to say about some of the major issues we confront today.

Fair warning: The Church's social teaching isn't liberal. Nor is it conservative.

It's Catholic.


The essentials
The Magisterium's teaching on immigration is presented succinctly and powerfully in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2241):

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. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, 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 with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. 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.

Let's break that down:

•People who are in danger or who simply seek to pursue a better life for themselves and their loved ones have a right to emigrate (leave their home country) and a right to immigrate (move to another country).
•Governments of prosperous nations have a responsibility to people from poorer nations who seek a better life — to offer them a realistic path to legally and safely enter their country. Moreover, those governments have a responsibility to welcome with generosity those who flee their homelands in fear of their lives.
•The governments of nations also have a responsibility to secure their borders and to protect the common good of their individual nations by imposing the "juridical conditions" on immigration that prudence and careful discernment may indicate are necessary. The common good of the nation must be taken into account, as well as the international common good.
•Immigrants have a responsibility to serve the common good of the country that welcomes them. That includes obeying the laws, paying their taxes, respecting the culture, and properly becoming a part of the community they've entered.

The Catholic balancing act
So the Church, drawing on the natural law tradition of inherent human rights endowed by God, says both sides of the equation bear heavy responsibilities.

On one hand, political authorities bear a responsibility to the common good. To that end, what factors might they consider when setting immigration policy? Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, says those factors could include chronic high unemployment in the host country; large numbers of undocumented immigrants already present in the host country overburdening the system; the inability of the host country to properly vet large numbers of mostly undocumented immigrants for connections to organized crime or terrorism; the effect the size of future waves of immigration could have if the door is opened relatively wide in the present; and the right of a country to preserve its cultural heritage without being swamped by those who do not share it and will not embrace it.

All of these, says Dr. Stackpole, are simply common sense, national security, or common good considerations that may or may not apply in any particular case.

On the other hand, he adds, it is wrong for a wealthy host to turn away migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees from their borders just because it doesn't wish to deal with them.

Church teaching instructs us to be generous, compassionate, and open-handed — that we feed the beggar at the gate, that we provide shelter to those on our doorstep who are in need.

In his 1999 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), St. John Paul II wrote, "[T]he Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration" (65).

That is a crucial point: The Church says illegal immigrants have fundamental, inviolable human rights that are not forfeited by their act of entering another nation illegally. Saint John Paul II expanded on this point earlier in his pontificate, in his 1996 message for World Migration Day, writing:

His irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored.

Illegal immigration should be prevented, but it is also essential to combat vigorously the criminal activities which exploit illegal immigrants (2).

Illegal immigration isn't good. It doesn't serve the rule of law, nor does it truly protect the rights and dignity of immigrants. But the right of a nation to regulate its borders is not absolute.

The primordial human rights of individuals (see Catechism, 1930, 1935, 2254, 2402-2403, 2408) and families (see the Holy See's 1983 Charter of the Rights of the Family) are based on divine and natural law, which are deeper sources than the laws of earthly communities — indeed, divine and natural law are the basis for just, earthly laws. And so prosperous nations must take seriously the rights of immigrants and refugees to pursue a better life for themselves and their families.

Model immigrants
In his 1952 apostolic constitution Exsul Familia, Pope Pius XII wrote, "The family of Nazareth in exile, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, emigrants and taking refuge in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are the model, the example and the support of all emigrants and pilgrims of every age and every country, of all refugees of any condition who, compelled by persecution and need, are forced to abandon their homeland, their beloved relatives, their neighbors, their dear friends, and move to a foreign land."

When we are confronted with the stranger, we are confronted with Christ.

See the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats for more (Mt 25).

Now, it's certainly true that sometimes, authentically, there's no room at the inn. Sometimes, there's no more food to be shared. Sometimes, there's only enough for the family, or for the citizenry, or for those already being sheltered in a country. But often, with prayer, trust, and generosity, everything can stretch a little bit farther. An unknown innkeeper whose inn was full still extended the hospitality of his property, offering the Holy Family shelter in the stable with the animals. He did what he could with what he had, and one of the great miracles, a great mystery, the Birth of Jesus, took place.

It changes the way you hear some of the parables of Jesus when you realize that, as He was growing up, He would probably have heard the family stories about the flight into Egypt, and may well have had childhood memories of living there, far from family, from the Jerusalem Temple, from the land governed by the laws of His Father in Heaven. He would have known that His earthly father and His mother had faced the prospect of welcoming Him into the world without shelter, that in the city of David, the greatest of all the sons of David was born in a stable, cradled in a manger, and recognized only by pagan philosophers and shepherds.

When Jesus talked about the poor man, Lazarus, lying at the rich man's door (see Lk 16:19-31), He may well have been remembering His earthly parents. When Jesus said, "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me" (Mt 25:35), He had life experience of being a stranger and sojourner on this earth and in Egypt, far from home. He, Mary Immaculate, and saintly Joseph were all migrants, all refugees, all displaced persons in need of shelter, far from home.

So the Church calls us to a balancing act. On the one hand: Nations must have a due regard for the common good of their citizenry, national security, and the rule of law. On the other hand: Prosperous nations should offer mercy, hospitality, and openness to the people trying to enter their country in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

To come
In future issues of Marian Helper, our Catholic social teaching series will discuss the life issues, environmentalism, just war theory, poverty, religious liberty, marriage and the family, and more.

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Joy S. - Mar 5, 2019

What we face in the USA is not immigration but invasion by hundreds of thousands of people who are breaking our laws and bringing with them crime, disease and drugs. This is being encouraged by both political parties for their own interests. By the Democrat party that requires a totally dependent underclass to continuously vote for them and by the Republican Party for the cheap labor their donors demand. We want legal, controlled immigration that will benefit the immigrants as well as the Country. This nation is the last,best hope for the world and it is systematically being destroyed. Immigration must be controlled and orderly or our country will cease to exist as founded.

Todd Hurd - Mar 4, 2019

I would like to see Trump make this teaching a central platform of his administration. He should post this article on a large screen and have everyone read along as he reads it aloud.
This teaching that resonates because it is already written on the hearts of us all.