Toning Down the Immigration Debate among Catholics

Deal W. Hudson
May 16, 2010

On the heels of the health-care debate comes a potentially more contentious furor over proposed immigration legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who helped secure abortion funding in the health-care bill, is now telling us the bishops came to her and said, “We want you to pass immigration reform.”

But Pelosi wants help from the bishops:

I want you to speak about it from the pulpit. I want you to instruct you’re, whatever the communication is – the people, some of them, oppose immigration reform are sitting in those pews and you have to tell them that this is a manifestation of our living the gospels.

Matt Smith, writing at Catholic Advocate, was quick to note that Pelosi stumbled over her words (“whatever the communication is”), and he remarked, “Well, we know she confuses feast days and the teachings of the church on the sanctity of life… so maybe she just doesn’t pay attention during Mass.”

Smith, who spent six years in the White House handling Catholic coalitions, also noted the irony of a “Catholic” politician who urges bishops and priests to use their pulpits to encourage political action on immigration but resisted every attempt of the Church to communicate its pro-life message to her during the health-care debate.

Pelosi’s occasional forays into Catholic instruction and apologetics earns her Smith’s just rebuke:

Let’s just drill down to the basics – I didn’t realize white smoke came from the south side of the Capitol when she was elected Speaker, so what makes Nancy Pelosi think she can give direction to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church?

The hierarchy, as it turns out, doesn’t need direction from Pelosi. Roger Cardinal Mahony, the outgoing archbishop of Los Angeles, already delivered a May Dayharangue comparing Arizona to “Nazi Germany” for its new immigration regulations. New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan also aimed a few barbs at Arizona’s governor and legislature:

Arizona is so scared, apparently, and so convinced that the #1 threat to society today is the immigrant, that it has passed a mean-spirited bill of doubtful constitutionality that has as its intention the expulsion of the immigrant.

If the bishops are to succeed at converting unconvinced Catholics, as Speaker Pelosi has demanded, they will need to turn down the temperature of their rhetoric. In 2005, the immigration issue caused a cultural and political explosion, and we don’t need another replay of those passions – on either side.

Bishop Robert Vasa has published just the kind of argument on immigration I would offer to Catholics who remain unconvinced of the bishops’ position. I would not direct them to the USCCB’s Web site – “Justice for Immigrants” – where the underlying rationale for its immigration policy is deeply flawed.

Bishop Vasa begins his argument with a masterful distillation of the vexing question of how the legitimate human rights of the undocumented immigrant are related to “the right and duty [of a nation] to properly police its borders or protect its citizens.”

If you read his column, he acknowledges the fears and concerns that many Catholics have about upholding our nation’s laws and protecting our borders. As he explains, Catholics are not being asked to forget legal issues, but also to keep in mind the fact of human solidarity.

Bishop Vasa’s explanation is laudable for its nuance and recognition of the objections that abound among Catholics in the pews:

As Catholics we must try to look upon every Catholic in the world, indeed every person, as “our brother,” and this is a different relationship than a legal/citizenship relationship. Just because something is “legal” does not mean that it is morally correct. There are any number of examples from our own history and the histories of other nations where something “legal” was grossly immoral and needed to be resisted.

Most importantly, Bishop Vasa makes sure that the natural law argument being employed by the bishops does not completely erase the standing civil law:

I am not suggesting that the American “immigration policy” is immoral, but there seem to be some elements of injustice that permeate it, and it is this injustice, whether legally sanctioned or not, the Church opposes.

In short, Bishop Vasa acknowledges the problem of the injustice of illegal immigration while warning against “too harsh a solution.” If Catholics are to be convinced, the crime of crossing the border illegally has to be acknowledged. It doesn’t help when the document being circulated among parishes by the “Justice for Immigrants” program actually portrayed a Mexican family sneaking across the border as if they were heroic.

In his conclusion, Bishop Vasa articulated the immigration dilemma in a way that many Catholics will identify with, as I do:

Very few of the slogans, pro or con, resonate with me. I do find, however, that thinking about real, identifiable people, concrete human persons and human families, makes it much easier to see that those who cross our borders or remain here illegally are not necessarily evil or wicked men or women but simply people with human aspirations and longings and dignity. Crossing a border illegally does not eliminate that person’s right to be treated as a brother or sister. Remaining in this country illegally does not eliminate that person’s human dignity.

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