Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

How The Church Arrived At Its Immigration Positions

Published January 11, 2007

Archbishop Gregory gave a presentation on the Catholic Church’s perspective on immigration at an immigration symposium held at The Temple in Atlanta on Dec. 4, 2006. The symposium was entitled “Immigration: The Facts, the Challenges and the Moral Response: A community conference convened by The American Jewish Committee, Atlanta Chapter, the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Leadership Atlanta.” The text of the talk is reprinted here on the occasion of National Migration Week.

The role of the Catholic Church in the current immigration debate in the United States has surprised and perhaps upset many people, including even some Catholics. But the Church’s position on migration has remained consistent for decades.

Drawing on some classic principles of Catholic social thought, the bishops of the Church have expressed our opposition to the breaking of laws and unlawful entry into the country. The Church has long acknowledged the right of a nation-state to control its territorial borders and to regulate entry. The State has a very serious responsibility to protect its citizens and this may entail strong immigration controls. At the same time however, the Church says that human beings have a right to migrate—particularly in search of work in order to improve their human condition and to provide for the needs of their families.We bishops have called for just immigration laws that will allow generous channels of entry, good working conditions, families being able to stay together and the protection of the migrant’s dignity and human rights.

Let me trace for you how the Catholic Church and in most cases other religious communities have arrived at these public policy positions on immigration. It would be misleading to view the Church as just another pro-immigration special interests lobby. While the starting point of analysis for the government as well as for most advocacy groups is the law or economics, the Church sees the issue of migration through a much richer prism of global history, Judeo-Christian spirituality, social reflection, theology and extensive pastoral experience. Legal and economic categories for classifying migrants—such as “economic migrants,” “asylum seekers,” “illegal immigrants”—while recognized by the Catholic Church, are not the primary ways that the Church relates to migrants. She does not ask first whether a person is legal or illegal, but rather looks at the migrant as a human person within the human family. Legal status is simply one of the many dimensions that the Church sees in the person of the migrant.

A good number of the undocumented people entering the United States both now and during earlier periods of intense migration during the past two centuries do happen to have been and are Catholics. Yet Americans of all religious, cultural, and racial heritages can usually find some legacy of exodus within our own personal histories, whether we arrived on these shores as Jewish merchants and craftsmen settling in the New York region, or as Lutheran farmers inhabiting the Minnesota territory, or as Chinese railroad workers moving across the American expanse from West to East, or as clandestine passengers riding on what was called the Underground Railroad.

The Catholic Church is a global religion. The Church in the United States is organically part of the same Catholic Church in, for example, Mexico. So the Church sees migration from both sides of the border. Its transnational identity as a faith community demands that its pastoral care transcend political boundaries. Its pastoral mission can never be fully restricted to a single sovereign state. The Church has always had this global pastoral mission and that mission is what gives the Catholic Church its particular perspective on migration.

Migration As Spiritual Reality

Nevertheless the main reason why the Church’s political reflection on migration might seem exceptional lies in our spiritual roots. The three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—all share one extraordinary commonality: not just the commonality that all three trace their lineage back to the figure of Abraham but also to the fact that God called on Abraham to migrate and abandon his homeland. This migrating call—this impulse to journey—runs through the entire history of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The sacred writings of each of these monotheistic faiths demands respect for the aliens in their midst as well as highlighting the opportunities to be found in seeking God whether in the desert, or by climbing the Lord’s mountain, or through the sacred pilgrimage of the Hajji.

Judaism was the first religion to define its relationship to God through migration—through the physical movement of the Jewish people. From the initial wanderings of Abraham, through the Exodus, the years in the desert with Moses and the Babylonian exile—migration became the context for the Jewish experience of God. And this experience of being strangers in a strange land was to dictate the social treatment of aliens within Jewish life.

Christianity rooted itself squarely in that same tradition. The moment that Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew identifies himself with the alien, with the stranger—if you welcome the stranger, you welcome me—the followers of Christ are charged with adjusting their normal perspective. If Christ himself is the stranger, the Church of Christ must have a special concern for migrants who are always the strangers in our midst.

The Gospels are full of migration stories. Think of the birth of Christ, consider the family as refugees in Egypt, the journeys to Jerusalem, Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher, rejected by his hometown, with—as he says—“no place to rest his head.” It was Jesus who created the missionary impulse in his followers, the globalizing tendency of Christianity, that St. Paul’s travels epitomized. It is not surprising that one of the earliest names for Christianity was the “Way” or the “Road.”

In light of the Gospel, it was not much of a leap for the early Church Fathers to interpret the following of Christ—Christian spirituality—as a journey, a migration of the human spirit.

The Church Is A Pilgrim

By the time of Augustine of Hippo the identification of Christians with migrants was well established. For Augustine the world is, not unlike our own contemporary world, a dangerous and chaotic place. Christians, he said, are simply passing though this life as “resident aliens.” This world is not our true homeland. Our real citizenship is in the City of God. So from the Augustinian perspective, Christians would have a natural, almost ontological empathy for the migrant stranger. In fact migration is a symbol of the way the Church should view itself. This idea of the “Pilgrim Church” re-surfaced at the Vatican II Council.

Even the Greek word from which we derive our word “parish” (paroikos) meant a body of migrants or sojourners living in a specific territory. Originally the word parish was applied to colonies of Jews in the Diaspora and was adopted by early Christians to designate territorial communities of the Christ’s followers.

This intimate connection between migration and Christianity was not lost in the Middle Ages. For example, migration itself became a spiritual exercise—a devotional form of prayer—with the popular rise of pilgrimages across Europe.

Even intellectually, Thomas Aquinas gave to his great master work of theology, “The Summa, “the form and plan of a journey because he said that our life on earth is a journey to God, a journey of intellectual discovery. The sacraments of the Church become marks of that passage through life—from birth to death.

So the Church has a long history of looking at the phenomenon of human migration and reflecting on it in the spiritual light of the Gospel.

Some of this reflection came to be codified in the late 19th and 20th centuries through official papal documents that have come to be called Catholic social teaching. The Holy See recently published a Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine which brings together many of these papal insights around the core concepts of the common good, subsidiarity, solidarity and promotion of the dignity of the human person. Each of these complex concepts has applications in the area of migration, but the dignity of the human person seems to have particular relevance to the treatment of migrants.

Pope John Paul II was fond of pointing out that just labor—work—was essential to human dignity. The Church believes that all human beings have a right to work and to a just wage. As a corollary to this, Pope Pius XII said that people have a right to migrate in search of work. Human dignity, jobs, human rights and migration are linked in the mind of the Church. As the German thinker Karl Lowith wrote: “Any one having a human face has human dignity and a human destiny.” For the Church, there is no neutrality on this question. It impregnates and illuminates all Christian understanding of social life. Protecting that human value stands at the heart of the Church’s role in society.

Faith Perspective Can Balance Public Debate

The Church has always understood that the experience of migration can result in a new relationship to God and a deeper understanding of our human nature. Migrants and refugees bear many gifts of the spirit. But especially today, migration can be a time of human diminishment—not only through the horrors of sex trafficking, modern enslavement, and forced labor but in the smaller, less noticed, ways that migrants are demeaned—by being reduced to a statistic, a work force, or a legal category. Christians are called by Christ to humanize those statistics, that work force and those legal categories. In many ways the Church’s perspective really balances the perspective of governments which have to make the difficult decisions about who is allowed to enter the country. It is unfortunate that the current public debate on immigration in the United States has become so coarse and polarizing. I could envision another kind of public dialogue where the centuries-old experience of Christianity can help balance the hard exigencies of law, where we can realistically protect the common good of our citizens while reclaiming our heritage as a society that welcomes the stranger. This value echoes through the religious thought of three great families of Faith.