Does U.S. Border Policy Violate Catholic Teaching?

Does U.S. Border Policy Violate Catholic Teaching?

I recently read an article in the Jesuit magazine America titled “Biden, Benedict and Immigration: How U.S. Border Policy Violates Catholic Teaching.” Knowing that (1) the Jesuits have long been considered to be among intellectual leaders of the Catholic church, (2) the article cited Popes John Paul and Benedict in support of its thesis, and (3) the author was once the “policy director” of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I was tempted to think “Wow! That’s a triple whammy, which means the message is the next best thing to gospel.”

Then a cautionary thought rushed in: “We’re all human here, and that includes the President, the author of the essay, the Bishops he once worked for, and the Jesuits. And being human, after all, means being capable of error. So before embracing the article’s thesis, I should look more closely and determine whether the Popes are quoted accurately without significant omissions or errors (inadvertent or otherwise), and whether the author supports his argument fairly and persuasively. So that is what I did:

Here is what I found about the accuracy of the author’s quotations:

The author said, “Pope Benedict was far from silent on the issue [of migration]. In 2013, he reaffirmed the right of the human person to migrate: ‘The right of persons to migrate—as the Council’s Constitution Gaudium et Spes, no. 65, recalled—is numbered among the fundamental human rights, allowing persons to settle wherever they consider best for the realization of their abilities, aspirations, and plans.’ ”  Note well that this is presented as a quote. However, when I examined Gaudium et Spes, I found no such quote in #65, or anywhere else in the document! #65 does mention “citizens” rights and duties, and #66 discusses “workers from another country,” but both of these concern other issues than immigration. In fact, the words “immigrant” and “immigration” do not appear in Gaudium, though “migrants” does once, in #6: “men are being induced to migrate on various counts, and are thereby changing their manner of life.”

Given these findings, it is more than reasonable to ask where the passage among the fundamental human rights, allowing persons to settle wherever they consider best for the realization of their abilities, aspirations, and plans” came from and who composed it? Did the author make a mistake recording its source? Was it, instead, a false recollection on the part of the author, driven perhaps by wishful thinking? Until this issue is settled, we cannot count Benedict as supporting Biden’s position on immigration.

Here is what I found concerning the author’s avoidance of omissions:

The author made this statement: “In his 2010 statement on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Benedict stated that countries should welcome refugees, who should be able to live in “peace and safety.” The author is right. Pope Benedict did say that. But he also said something else, which the author did not mention:  “The Church recognizes this right [to emigrate] in every human person, in its dual aspect of the possibility to leave one’s country and the possibility to enter another country to look for better conditions of life. At the same time, States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national identity. The challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life.” [Emphasis added] The author’s statement suggests that Benedict’s position was unqualified. The part that the author did not mention shows clearly that the late Pontiff’s position was heavily qualified, as we might well expect from a brilliant scholar discussing a highly complex issue. The author’s omission did both Benedict and the issue a disservice.

Here is what I found about the author’s fairness:

The author stated that Republicans “played a central part in the erosion of asylum rights . . . and have for years used U.S. border policy as a political tool, calling for the construction of a wall and doubling down on Title 42 and other restrictive policies. They have used the border as an excuse to block immigration reform, arguing that it must be “secure” first—a relative term that only they can define.” To classify the building of the border wall and “other restrictive policies” as “political tools” and “an excuse to block reform” is unfair. The fair-minded (and considerably less nasty) way to criticize Republicans would have been to say, “The Republican approach to immigration reform may be well-intentioned but I believe it does more harm than good,” and then to explain exactly why he views their policies as harmful. His adding that “secure” is “a relative term that only they can define” may have been meant as amusing, but no one aware of the danger and harm caused by the increasing border chaos is likely to find it so.

The article has more flaws than those I have documented. For example, it asserts that denying “asylum protection to the persecuted” is a violation of human rights, a valid point, but makes no mention of the fact that most of the illegal migrants are not escaping persecution but simply seeking a better life, which is understandable but cannot be accorded the same accommodation without causing chaos and thus cannot be considered a moral imperative. The author himself clearly hints at this when he says “to be clear, under Catholic teaching, a sovereign nation has a right to regulate its borders,” but then he slides back into oversimplification, ending with the rather pointless claim that “Catholic teaching on migration . . . emphasizes the right of a person to migrate.” 

The appropriate response to this claim is “Well of course it does, as do the great majority of people and religions.” The dispute only arises when we ask hard questions about the details: Migrate to any country? With or without permission of its residents? Under what circumstances? With what, if any, stipulations? Ignoring these questions is not the mark of superior intelligence or greater respect for the dignity of our brothers and sisters. It is simply and sadly the sign of careless thinking.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero