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Called to see Christ in the stranger
A Catholic perspective on illegal immigration with a focus on law, policy and pastoral practice.
FRS. DONALD J. PLANTY and STEPHEN F. McGRAW
David Maung | CNS
Mario Chavez embraces his wife Lizeth Chavez through the border fence on the beach outside Tijuana, Mexico, during a visit last February. Mario Chavez, a U.S. citizen, cannot leave the U.S. because of parole restrictions and his wife, a Mexican citizen, does not have a visa to go to the United States.

Due to a web coding error, point 3) was omitted in the original posting. The error has been fixed and the complete text is below.

In what follows we attempt to give a Catholic perspective on the need for immigration reform — not to take sides on policy questions such as how or even whether to make a path to citizenship for the undocumented, but rather to give some guiding moral principles that should inform our consciences as Catholics.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “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” (No. 2241). Note that this does not require “open borders,” but it does demand that we welcome our needy immigrant neighbors “to the extent that we are able,” consistent with the common good.

Some may say that illegal immigration is a “crime.” But this goes against centuries of Anglo-American legal tradition, which labeled as “crimes” only actions that are malum in se, i.e., intrinsically wrong, like stealing. Immigrating illegally is by its nature a “civil offense,” not a crime, and so in accord with natural law, the penalties must be proportionate to a civil offense, not to a crime.

Justice vs. legal positivism

Some will say, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” In fact, this question contains within it the seed of a modern error that we Catholics must guard against — the error of legal positivism. This ideology divorces law from questions of inherent justice or morality, saying what matters is that a statute or rule has been posited or set forth as the “law of the land.” The legal positivist looks only to the human law and refuses to make distinctions or moral judgments based on the nature and inherent seriousness of an offense. While Catholic thought, with its emphasis on natural law, is opposed to legal positivism, Protestant thought has tended to emphasize (divine) positive law rather than natural law, the written word alone rather than unwritten tradition, looking only to the will of the (divine) Lawgiver and the mere fact that He has decreed something, rather than the nature of things and transcendental realities such as justice. Whereas Catholic thought classifies sins as mortal or venial, based on reason and the nature of the offense, Protestant thought says, “Sin is sin.” Given our country’s Protestant heritage, it is not surprising that legal positivism (“illegal is illegal”) would influence our thinking on legal matters in the United States, including consideration of our country’s immigration laws.

Whereas legal positivism refuses to ask, “Is the law just?” Catholic thought says that an unjust human law is not a law at all. (Note: Unlike unjust abortion laws, which must always be opposed by conscientious objection, even immigration laws that are unjust do not enshrine an intrinsic evil and might sometimes need to be obeyed for the common good.) At the same time, even if the immigration laws themselves were not unjust, a person entering or remaining in the country illegally might still be justified in doing so by weighty circumstances affecting himself or his family. In any event, the penalties for violation of the law must be proportionate to the offense. The penalty of deporting the offender from the country is simply disproportionate, as a general matter, to the offense of illegally entering or remaining in the country, particularly for the large number who have done so for reasons that are truly just and grave in nature, and especially for those who have not recently entered but have established themselves and are residing in our country. True, the catechism teaches that the right to immigrate may be subjected to “juridical conditions,” but these conditions should be especially concerned “with the duties of immigrants toward their country of adoption” (No. 2241), not with barring immigrants from being here at all.

The practical social and political solutions our country seeks should flow from clear fundamental moral principles — not from emotional, financial, partisan or simplistic considerations. The consequences of not proceeding from such first principles include the potential for grave injustice (e.g., regarding the issue of abortion, the terms of debate center on secondary issues and do not go to the moral “heart” of the matter — the fundamental right to life). The foundational principle is found in paragraph 1931 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that ‘everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as “another self,” above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.’ No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness, which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a ‘neighbor,’ a brother.” Furthermore, we are told in paragraph 1932 that “the duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

As for the practical application of the church’s social teaching, there are a couple of preliminary points to be kept in mind: The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “the church makes a moral judgment about economic and social matters, ‘when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it’” (No. 2420). “The church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action” (No. 2423). That is, the church teaches fundamental truths of social justice, but she leaves it to government and civil society to develop corresponding public policy, to find practical solutions, to offer concrete applications.

Principles grounded in love of neighbor

Building on this foundational principle, we can distill five principles from the social teachings of the popes and the bishops.

1) Would-be immigrants have the right to find opportunities in their own homeland. Governments and civil societies have the corresponding duty to provide such opportunities, as well as personal security and economic security. This is a responsibility of local and national governments toward their own people. At the same time, other nations, especially richer nations, must not evade their own grave responsibility to assist poorer nations in this regard. It will be recalled that retired Pope Benedict XVI stressed this point during his 2008 visit to the United States, effectively summoning us to solidarity with the countries from which our immigrants originate and the provision of effective assistance to them in facilitating economic opportunities in those countries and otherwise alleviating the root causes of migration. International organizations also will have an important role to play in providing this assistance in facilitating economic opportunity in the countries from which immigrants originate. (See the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 440-443.)

2) People have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families. “The 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” (Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in America,” No. 65, 1999). It is to be noted that we are speaking here of a “natural right” and that even sovereign nations must find a way to accommodate this right.

3) Nations have the right to control their borders. This right is necessary for the common good of a nation’s own people — for security and the protection of human dignity — but it is not absolute. Moreover, this right may not be exercised invidiously: for selfish motives such as materialism or for ideological motives such as racism.

4) Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection. In the United States now, the grounds for asylum are very narrowly defined and applied. Yet, as regards immigrants from Latin America, from which most of our immigrant population is coming, the need for recognizing cases of genuine need for asylum seems to be expanding. In Central America particularly, the security situation has greatly deteriorated in recent times, with a sharp increase in threats and large monetary demands from lawless elements, directed particularly at families of immigrants to the United States and at immigrants themselves if they return to their homeland. This is an acute phenomenon that has not received attention in the media but is being strongly felt on the ground by affected immigrants and their families.

5) The human dignity and human rights of illegal immigrants should at all times be respected. As Pope John Paul II stated: “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” (“Ecclesia in America,” No. 65).

From a pastoral perspective, the first and most fundamental pastoral response is that of conversion — we must challenge all, beginning with ourselves, to conversion — in particular, that conversion of heart by which we are enabled to see Christ in the stranger. In achieving this conversion, there is a need to confront attitudes of cultural superiority, indifference, hostility and racism, and the tendency to see immigrants as foreboding aliens, criminals or economic threats. This “negative” dimension of conversion opens the way to heed the positive summons to hospitality and communion. In all of the foregoing, there is a need to focus on what unites us in our common humanity, even our common faith, rather than on what distinguishes us from each other.

As always, the Catholic position is one of balance. To quote a 1999 statement by Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, now archbishop of Philadelphia: “Our church stands on the side of orderly immigration and is in favor of comprehensive immigration reform so our borders are protected and all people are respected. Both of those principles are very important for a Catholic understanding of migration, which is ultimately rooted in the Christian belief that we are all migrants in search of our heavenly homeland.” For a fuller explanation of these and other points, see our guest contribution to the diocese’s “Encourage and Teach” blog (encourageandteach.wordpress.com).

Fr. Planty, who holds a doctorate in canon law, is chaplain of Christendom College in Front Royal. Fr. McGraw, who has a doctorate in law, is parochial administrator of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.

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