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.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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