A Christian Speaks Calmly on Immigration

By John Zmirak Published on September 14, 2017

It’s rare to find calm, thoughtful Christian commentary on immigration these days. The problem starts at the top. Too many religious leaders replace moral guidance with moralism. That’s the stance where you solve all the problems entailed in a complex question by choosing the answer in advance. You present it as an unconditional demand. Say that it comes from God. Then it’s easy to tar people who object to your plan. When people point out the practical problems you’ve ignored, you’ve got an answer: Claim that they are being coldly “utilitarian” by daring to think through the likely outcome. Never mind that considering the justice of likely consequences is key to the moral virtue of prudence.

Logic Weak Here: Use Buzzwords

Let’s say your plan has catastrophic consequences. Like Angela Merkel’s open door to Muslim colonists. Then you can bring out the big guns. Start accusing people of being “consequentialists.” If your opponents point to economic costs, blame them for putting “profits over people.” If they cite any statistics, damn them as “reducing human beings to numbers.”

Bishop Daniel Flores compared deporting immigrants to aborting unborn children.

I could multiply examples of this kind of rhetoric. I’d start with Pope Francis’ claim that opposition to Muslim mass migration into Europe puts immigration hawks in the same moral bed as Cain and King Herod. Or how about Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, TX, who compared deporting immigrants to aborting unborn children? (Does he realize that he just equated the nation of Mexico to a medical waste dumpster?) There are plenty of Protestant examples as well, alas. You get the idea.

On the other side of the question, tempers can get hot too. I hear people talk about “treason,” of “selling out our country” in return for cheap labor, cheap votes, warm bodies in pews, or funding from George Soros. I’ve pounded the table that way a few times myself, you might recall. (When I wrote really calm and sober articles on the subject, nobody shared them.)

A Balanced Voice

There’s a time and a place for heat, but maybe we need more light. I was pleased to glimpse some in, of all places, the liberal Jesuit magazine America. The writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry just published a piece there that’s admirably balanced. Sane and calm. It breathes the same spirit as the passages in the Catholic Catechism on immigration. Since too few Catholics consult that, let me quote it here again:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

Raising the Right Questions

Gobry writes in the same spirit. He acknowledges, for instance, that the immigration debate is not just about the benefits sought and moral claims made by immigrants. There are other stakeholders too — namely citizens. As Gobry says:

I do not know what I believe because there are genuine questions of both prudence and principle that remain unresolved. How many immigrants can any given society safely absorb? What are the empirical costs and benefits of immigration? (I have looked at a lot of social science, and the answer is murky.) Are Christians not supposed to believe in the legitimacy of civil authority and non-totalitarian states, which cannot exist without borders? Are we not supposed to be skeptical of the desires of the rich and of big business, who in the West overwhelmingly support and benefit from expanded immigration? I am not sure how to settle these matters.

Gobry also raises crucial questions that most readers of America probably never see posed:

I grant the Gospel imperative to “welcome the stranger.” But here is the thing: The church’s doctrine also supports the right of sovereign countries to have borders. It is one of the most basic duties of states to enforce their borders. … At some point, according to church doctrine, it is a country’s right and even duty to say “No” to some perfectly nice people.

My question is: What is that point? I mean that seriously. I would be much more comfortable with emotion-laden appeals to “welcome the stranger” if they were accompanied with some logic or rationale for the point at which welcoming the stranger becomes imprudent. Or do you favor completely open borders? And if you do, why not simply make the case for that?

I can’t answer that question on behalf of pro-immigration activists. But I’d love to hear their answer.

What’s Distinctly Christian?

Gobry poses a likewise worthy question to people like me, who want to tighten our borders. He asks:

What is distinctly Christian about your approach? … [T]he doctrine is not silent. It does call on us to make a specific moral effort. Even if you are right empirically about the negative effects of increased immigration, it is still the case that the Gospel calls on us to show special, supererogatory concern for migrants and refugees. Put differently: What is it that would distinguish your ideal immigration regime from the ideal immigration regime of a completely secular person who happened to share your empirical analysis of the costs and benefits of immigration?

It’s an earnest inquiry, and worth an answer. Here’s mine.

Nothing. I base my stance on immigration policy or any other public policy on (I hope!) the wise, prudent application of natural law. That’s the moral code that God wrote on everyone’s heart. You don’t need supernatural faith to know it, though grace certainly helps you to obey it. Natural law, not the Gospel, is the proper basis for legislation in a pluralist society.

How fair is it to ask Jewish citizens (for instance) to bear the costs of a policy that’s driven not by reason and justice, but a specifically Christian notion of “generosity”? Not fair at all, I’d say.

How fair is it to ask Jewish citizens (for instance) to bear the costs of a policy that’s driven not by reason and justice, but a specifically Christian notion of “generosity”? Not fair at all, I’d say. On a long list of issues, from abortion to euthanasia, from aid to the poor to just war theory and even same-sex marriage, natural law provides clear, consistent, guidance. We should base our policy arguments in natural law, not (sectarian) doctrine.

Natural Law Is For Politics. The Gospel Should Guide Our Lives

Our Christian faith drives us, of course. It makes us see the importance of natural law, human dignity, and universal human rights. But all those things are knowable to non-believers, too. And that’s why they should the guides for our public policy. Would we really want specifically Christian doctrines dictating laws? If so, which Christian church would interpret them? The churches differ on many, many issues. Politicizing the Gospel is a sure way to set them at each others’ throats. That’s why our Founders wisely forbade a national church.

The place of Christians, specifically, in aiding immigrants isn’t rewriting policy to suit the pope or the Presbyterians. It’s to use our churches as places of welcome for those who come legally. Evangelize them. Teach them English. Help them gain job skills. Find them babysitters for their kids. Help them assimilate. And do it with church-raised money, not federal funds obtained by becoming government contractors. That’s what the churches should be doing, not grabbing for power to enforce the Gospel via the government.

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  • ncsugrant

    What seems to be overlooked in the discussion of immigration is that there is a legal process to immigrate to the US on the books, and many millions of people have followed those laws and protocols to become legal residents and citizens of this country.
    Since they do not present the same potential voting bloc, the poor souls who come from other regions of the world do not get the same consideration as the masses who have simply ignored our laws (with the tacit endorsement of many US politicians).
    It seems to me that we, as Christians, should demand fair and equal treatment under a sensible immigration law. Being compassionate to those who seek to join us does not mean we abandon the rule of law, nor does it mean we treat people differently depending upon where they came from.

  • After reading here what seems to be the fairly well-balanced excerpt from the Catechism on immigration, I turned back to Populorum Progressio, the 1967 encyclical by Paul VI which seems to be a foundational document of the peace and justice movement. There one finds statements such as:

    **Welcoming the Stranger
    67. We cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception. It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity, and it is incumbent upon families and educational institutions in the host nations.**

    Of course, there are two ways to take “we cannot insist too much” – as if it’s something we should not do because it is bad, or as something we must do because it is an unmitigated good. The ensuing context shows that the pope intended the latter.

    In the same encyclical, S 62, he also brands nationalism as an evil obstacle of the same rank as racism. Yes, in the details it *appears* he might be referring to “Haughty pride in one’s own nation”, and making a distinction from a more wholesome form of nationalism, but unless that distinction is buried elsewhere in the work, it is not present under the Nationalism topic, where it would belong.

    With backing like that, maybe it’s not so surprising to find “moralism” so often on the Left when it comes to immigration.

    • Zmirak

      Yes, that was a profoundly foolish document, which also demanded taxpayer-funded foreign aid to Third World governments. That proved disastrous too. This is why I keep insisting that papal statements on specific policies have ZERO supernatural authority. Zip. None.

      • Interesting, and thank you. Not being RC myself, I didn’t expect the refutation of an encyclical’s authority. If they carry so little weight, perhaps the one by the same pope in the following year, Humanae Vitae, could be subject to like criticism? I had thought it to be irrevocable.

        • Jay W. Richards

          The texts of encyclicals themselves are not treated as infallible. But they may contain dogmas and moral principles that are part of the original deposit of faith, and that have been taught from the very beginning. Those are unchangeable. The central teaching of Humanae Vitae, about the nature and implications of human sexuality, including contraception, reiterate those perennial teachings. Also, they are taken to be derivable from the natural law (though most people fail to see that, especially when culture points in the other direction). HV is also important because it reiterated the perennial teaching even though everyone expected Paul VI to capitulate to the spirit of the age. And it contains predictions about the sexual revolution that bear witness to its truth. In contrast, the Church has no perennial teaching about, say, government-to-government foreign aid, or the precise number of new immigrants a country must admit each year, or precisely how sensitive the atmosphere is to carbon dioxide. So such matters simply can’t be part of the perennial teaching of the Church.

          • Interesting. The authoritativeness of the doctrine does not lie in the encyclical itself, but somewhere else – in the fact they have been “taught from the beginning”. Yet many doctrines, I am told, are developed only over time, as they are challenged. I am not aware, for instance, of a doctrine against contraception until this papal statement. I could be wrong on that, though, quite easily, but the question is, at what point did the teaching against contraception become unchangeable?

          • Zmirak

            Precisely. Outside of conciliar or papal infallible statements, the authority derives from apostolic tradition, which means unanimous consensus of authoritative statements from the past. Think of them as lower court precedents. Think of infallible statements as SCOTUS decisions. Obviously, analogy is imperfect since SCOTUS can overturn SCOTUS precedents, but it’s the closest secular analog.

          • Chris C.

            Doctrinal teaching on the innate immortality of artificial contraception long predated Humanae Vitae. Such teaching was well accepted in the entire Christian world, Protestant included, until the 1930 Lambeth conference when the Anglican Church approved of contraception in under limited circumstances which soon thereafter became not so limited, and today of course are not limited at all, abortion as the one possible exception.

  • Caterina

    Christians do not live under the Roman Empire of New Testament times, but are free to influence their government. More than that, they have a responsibility to be hands-on stewards of the liberties and culture of their nation. Christians should be involved, in a proactive fashion, in being salt and light to the world. This includes their own local, state and federal governments. This involves working to actively influence policies to help bring common sense and right-thinking to a world in darkness.

  • I saw Pascal’s article this morning. It is excellent, and I think puts out questions many Catholics have. The Catholic position (and I’m devoutly Catholic) argues for almost unlimited immigration. I just can’t accept that. Nowhere in the Bible do large mases of migrants go across borders. Yes, you can point to a family or two but the only large scale migration that I can think of was Moses leading the Israelites out of the desert and Joshua’s subsequent conquest of the Canaanites land, and that doesn’t strike me as what the Bishops had in mind. As far as i can tell there is no large scale rationale for immigration from Biblical texts. Even the story of Joseph taking Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt doesn’t hold up. That was within the Roman Empire, not really across borders.

    Sure I’m willing to help people and families that are undergoing oppression in their homelands, but that’s different than regular immigration.

  • tz1

    The very first thing those who are arguing any point is to revise their lives and things under their control to be consistent with the side they are arguing.

    Can we move the huge, high walls at the Vatican here where Trump wants them?

    Also can we simply call things by their correct names? Discussion is difficult otherwise. Tax cheats don’t merely have “undocumented income”. And even the above mentions LEGAL immigrants.

    Excepting the most blatant, prima facie unjust laws, abridging the Rule of Law destroys everything including any argument for Natural Law. If Natural Law is merely another set of rules to be honored in the breech or observance depending on what is found convenient or fashionable, there is NO law.

    (H/T an old Paul Harvey broadcast) When Mordred discovered Guinevere’s adultery with Lancelot, Arthur’s choice was kill the Queen or kill the Law. That is why hard cases make for bad law, but we MUST come down first in favor of the law, and find provisions for mercy (e.g. executive pardon).

    The Bishops seem to wish to kill the law, but you’ve seen what happens in Berkeley, Charlottesville and Boston. Law reduces the use of violence to a small and narrow applicaiton either in extremis or after judicial finding. When it is dead, anarchy reigns.

    Worse, the USCCB isn’t using their cash, their facilities, etc. to give succor to the illegals. They want taxpayers to do so. Taxation is robbery and the opposite of charity. They love separation of church and state when the state does the hard and expensive stuff.

    Beyond that, if we can’t do even civil disobedience on the Aboriton Holocaust, 60 million innocents DEAD, there is no moral force to the politically correct pragmatism on immigration. Tell the USCCB to call me when the bishops are all in prison for using civil disobedience (FACE act) to close down Abortion clinics in their diosceses.

  • TomaATL_AlKilo

    There is a third dimension. It’s not just about immigration into a sovereign country. Its also about emigration out of a sovereign country.
    Religious institutions that cross borders such as the Catholic Church impact both.
    It is important to ask why there is such mass emigration out of mostly/largely Catholic Central American? How have our church leaders contributed or help prevent this exodus? What are systemic conditions that cause this?
    I posted previously my (low) opinion of people like Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga or Roberto Rivera in this regard.
    A similar issue is happening with Islam and the exodus out of the Levant, and parts of Africa.

    • Irene Neuner

      Yikes, a continent forfeited to Islam is a horrible and sad thought. Islam is very denigrating to women.

  • Irene Neuner

    Great distinction why natural law not the gospel should guide politics. Obvious to rational, thinking people.

  • Albion

    St Ignatius of Loyola said that charity and justice not wedded to truth are not kindness and truth, but deception and vanity.
    This principle is applicable to Western Europe’s immigration policy, especially when it concerns the migration of Muslims.
    Do the political and cultural elites not see the link between terrorist attack and a growing Muslim presence in their midst? Where are the New Atheists who love to give Christianity a good kicking, but choose to keep silent about Islam colonizing the public space? Where are the shrill feminists when Muslim men sexually assault indigenous women and treat their own women as little more than chattels? The secular liberal movers and shakers go out of their way to deny the obvious truth about the large presence of unassimilated Muslims in their midst.

    • TomaATL_AlKilo

      There are less then a dozen Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia registered at the UNHCR, a country less then 200 miles away by desert road. Similar ridiculously low numbers are reported in all GCC countries. This is compared to millions of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Heck the Vatican has a similar number of Muslim refugees as entire GCC countries.
      The question is why our media is totally silent about this.
      Perhaps its because Saudi hired lobbyists like Podesta/Edelman to, as their contract states, to influence “editorial content”.
      Political manipulation of Islam is just as much the product of western crony interests that profit from this polarization. It’s been that way since WW2.

  • One of the Five Pillars of Islam (or its equivalent among non-Sunnis) is zakat or alms-giving … the practice of charitable giving based on accumulated wealth. A number of Muslim countries in the Middle East have accumulated tremendous wealth from petroleum exports. Would it not be better for them to use some of that wealth take care of their own co-religionists in that region, instead of financing extremist Islamism in other countries?

    Why should Western countries be relieving wealthy Muslim countries of their own religious obligations to their fellow Muslims? As the old saying goes, “charity begins at home.”

    • TomaATL_AlKilo

      There are less then a dozen Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia registered at the UNHCR, a country less then 200 miles away by desert road. Similar ridiculously low numbers are reported in all GCC countries. This is compared to millions of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Heck the Vatican has a similar number of Muslim refugees as entire GCC countries.
      The question is why our media is totally silent about this.
      Perhaps its because Saudi hired lobbyists like Podesta/Edelman to, as their contract states, influence “editorial content”.
      Political manipulation of Islam is just as much the product of western crony interests that profit from this politization. It’s been that way since WW2.

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