Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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BY CARL A. ANDERSON
The fierce battle
over immigration legislation that has roiled Washington since the House of
Representatives passed a controversial bill last December generally reflects a
deep division among Americans.
It is an issue that divides
Democrats, Republicans and, frankly, Catholics. How should the faithful
Catholic think about the subject?
If any group within American
society ought to be able to weigh the issue with charity and understanding, it
is the Catholic community. Although nearly every American can trace his lineage
to immigrants who came here from somewhere else, Catholics bore the brunt of
some especially virulent nativist resistance to their
arrival, which began early in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th. The Knights of
Columbus was founded by immigrants and the sons of immigrants, and we struggled
long and hard to demonstrate to those who feared and hated us that we were just
as fervent about being patriotic Americans as they were.
Moreover, Catholic Americans bring
a unique perspective to our country’s relationship with Latin
America, since it is populated largely by fellow Catholics, our
brothers and sisters in Christ.
Nearly a decade ago, the bishops
of the Western hemisphere met at the Synod of Bishops for America, and
articulated a view that invited us all to adopt a revolutionary rethinking of
the way in which we view one another:
“We believe that we are one
community; and, although America
comprises many nations, cultures and languages, there is so much that links us
together and so many ways in which each of us affects the lives of our
There can be little doubt that
ours is a Christian hemisphere, indeed, largely a Catholic Christian
hemisphere. Our goal should be to create a vibrant (North, Central and South)
American Catholic community in which our shared faith and values become a light
to the entire world. But we can hardly do so if we view immigrants from
elsewhere in the hemisphere with suspicion and hostility.
In his first encyclical, on the
subject of love, Pope Benedict XVI cautions that “to say that we love God
becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbor or hate him altogether.” He stresses
that charity, which is the product of Christian love, is central to the pursuit
This is not to say that the United States
must accept uncontrolled immigration. For many, there is both a sense of being
overwhelmed by migration that is effectively uncontrolled, and a fear of the
crime that has too often accompanied it. It is entirely appropriate for
Congress to take steps to ensure more effective control over traffic across the
border, and in the process deal effectively with drug traffickers and other
But legislation that takes
undocumented immigrants who have come here simply out of a desire to escape
poverty and provide for their families and turns them into felons, or which
criminalizes those who provide them with humanitarian assistance, is
mean-spirited, unjust and wrong.
The bishops of the Synod for America
conveyed a genuinely Catholic message to “immigrants who find yourselves
unwelcome in the lands where you have moved. … The Church has walked alongside
generations of migrants in the march for a better life, and she will not cease
to stand by you with every kind of service.”
Immigrants do not give up their
innate human dignity at the moment when they cross a border seeking a better
bishops, in their 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer,” made clear that
“the Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their
territories,” but added that “policies that respect the basic human rights of
the undocumented are necessary.”
Those of us who now live in great
comfort in the United States
sometimes too easily forget the abject poverty and desperate circumstances that
drove our ancestors to come to America.
Who among us, facing desperate,
grinding poverty in a foreign land today, would not try to find their way to America?
Obviously, we cannot admit unlimited numbers of such immigrants. The governments of the countries from which they come bear a heavy
responsibility for the conditions that are driving today’s mass migration.
But that does not mean that we can turn our backs on them.
“Love of neighbor,” Pope Benedict
writes in Deus Caritas Est, “consists in the very fact that, in God and with
God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know.”
As Catholics, we are well advised
to ponder carefully Pope John Paul II’s words: “In
Jesus, God came seeking human hospitality. This is why he makes the willingness
to welcome others in love a characteristic virtue of believers. He chose to be
born into a family that found no lodging in Bethlehem
and experienced exile in Egypt.
Jesus, who ‘had nowhere to lay his head,’ asked those he met for hospitality.
To Zacchaeus he said: ‘I must stay at your house
today.’ He even compared himself to a foreigner in need of shelter: ‘I was a
stranger and you welcomed me.’ In sending his disciples out on mission, Jesus
makes the hospitality they will enjoy an act that concerns him personally: ‘He
who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent
As Catholic Christians, and as
Americans who are ourselves descended from immigrants, we must allow the light
of Christian love to guide our efforts to develop a humane and rational
Carl Anderson is supreme knight
of the Knights of Columbus.
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