Falling Awake

Just Darts Since 2009

The Church’s views on illegal immigrants

Father Richard John Neuhaus talks about Cardinal Mahony of the diocese of Los Angeles here.  The cardinal made news last year by vowing to ignore, and to direct members of his diocese to ignore, laws requiring the reporting of illegal immigrants to the authorities.

Father Neuhaus continues:

More recently, Cardinal Mahony offered a comprehensive account of the Church’s position on comprehensive immigration reform at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He very specifically and repeatedly asserted that he was setting forth “the underpinnings of the position of the Catholic Church on immigration reform legislation.” His lecture is sprinkled with expressions such as “the church leadership argues that . . .”; “the Church maintains that . . .”; and “the Church’s position is . . .” We are clearly given to understand that he is not merely expressing his own views or speaking in his capacity as the archbishop of Los Angeles but is speaking for the Catholic Church.

Immigration, the cardinal says, has to do with much more than what we ordinarily mean by the economy. He notes that economy comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means the arrangement of a household. The concern, he says, is “the full flourishing of everyone who is part of God’s economy, household, or community. The question is, Who belongs in the household? Is God’s good household roomy enough for all? Or who precisely is the we in we the people?” [Me: I’ve always been puzzled by the argument from etymology.  Words change their meanings constantly, and old definitions have no relevance outside of a dictionary.]  At points in his presentation, it seems that God’s household is the Church; at other points, it is the people of Israel. In the latter connection he cites Deuteronomy 10, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and Exodus 22, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” At yet at other points, God’s household seems to be the entire human race.

“As a Christian,” says the cardinal, “there are no prior commitments that can overrule or trump this biblical tradition of compassion for the stranger, the alien and the worker.” “These scriptural and theological foundations can be applied to the current debate on immigration in our country.” Current policies are “unjust” and “immoral.” They do not provide that every worker “reaps the fruit of their labor in dignity and with full rights in this society.” “Thus, to restore order to God’s household, we must ensure that all are welcome to the table.” And thus “the question becomes whether those who reside outside the law have the same claim to a seat at the table as those who are not outside.” To that question, “church leaders say yes.” If I understand him correctly, the distinction between the outlaw and the law-abiding is, at least with respect to immigration policy, morally irrelevant.

Cardinal Mahony’s concern for the well-being of illegal immigrants is laudable—and unavoidable in view of the population mix of Los Angeles and southern California. It is a concern we all must share. The difficulties many of these people encounter are severe but not, in their own judgment, as severe as the difficulties they encounter south of the border, or else presumably they would not be here. It is a pity that the cardinal’s comprehensive address on these questions does not touch on ways to encourage the economic and social development of Mexico. Such ways are persuasively suggested in, for instance, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which is the teaching of the Catholic Church.

A greater difficulty with the cardinal’s lecture, however, is the facile move from Bible quoting to public-policy prescription. That move is less characteristic of Catholic social thought than of the habits of biblical fundamentalists. The cardinal’s position is devoid of respect for what Pope Benedict repeatedly stresses as the role of reason in rightly ordering the sphere of the “authentically secular.”

But most striking and, I believe, unfortunate is the cardinal’s conceptually confused but unmistakable attack on the nation-state, both in its domestic responsibilities and in the international order. Such an attack has no warrant in Catholic social doctrine. The cardinal correctly says that the question is “who precisely is the we in we the people?” To which, as the current immigration debate has underscored, most Americans respond, in accord with the preamble to the Constitution, We the people of the United States. Cardinal Mahony says that he speaks for the Church. Fortunately, and while he is undoubtedly an important voice in the Church, that is not true.

There’s much more there, just click the link.


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