How Catholic is Your Stance on Immigration?

“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.” (CCC 2241)

Charles Frederic Ulrich, “In the Land of Promise”, 1884
Charles Frederic Ulrich, “In the Land of Promise”, 1884 (photo: Public Domain)

I have lamented in the past that the politicization of moral issues has caused distortions in the reflections of many Catholics. No Catholic should have any doubt about the Church’s teaching on abortion, contraception, and euthanasia, nor should he or she dissent from it. But enter the fact that political parties take different stands on the issues and suddenly many Catholics either set aside the teachings of faith, embrace flawed moral reasoning, or engage in outright dissent. Sadly, many are more influenced by their political leanings than their faith or the very Word of God.

There are other moral issues (such as war and capital punishment) that are understandably intertwined with political thinking, as they involve the government and decisions largely consigned to the prudential decisions of secular leaders. Nevertheless, Catholics should still consider these to be primarily moral issues and draw their views first and foremost from Scripture and the principles taught by the Church.

I would argue that this is also true in the case of immigration. This is an admittedly complex issue, but it has a strong moral element because God consistently warns in Scripture that the way we treat the stranger, the sojourner, and the refugee is a matter of justice and something for which He will hold us accountable. Hence it is a moral issue with which we must wrestle.

But as is too often the case with politicized moral discussions, the positions taken are often deformed by excesses and/or defects. On the one side, there is the opinion that we should severely limit immigration if not close our borders entirely. On the other side, there is an almost reckless demand to allow the admission of huge numbers of people from anywhere accompanied by a willingness to simply ignore widespread violations of the law. Those on the first side strongly emphasize that we are a nation of laws while speaking less to the obligations and traditions of our country in accepting immigrants. Those on the other side are suspicious of almost any law related to immigration, declaring all such laws unjust; they seem little concerned with security or the difficulties associated large numbers of immigrants entering the country in unregulated or illegal ways.

A short article like this one cannot possibly address all of the complexities of immigration. Further, it is inappropriate for me as a priest to comment publicly on specific policy initiatives (e.g., wall, no wall) since they involve prudential decisions of government leaders. But permit me to offer some principles from Scripture, the Catechism, and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, that we should use to guide our reflections and to form our views. more than our opinions or political leanings.

Consider, first, some of the following Scripture passages (you can find more examples here). God speaks quite a bit about immigration in the Scriptures!

  • When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).
  • You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Ex 22:21).
  • Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. And all the people shall say, “Amen” (Dt 27:19).
  • You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel (Ez 47:22).
  • And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God (Lev 23:22).
  • Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place (Jer 22:3).
  • Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you” (Mat 2:13).
  • There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you (Ex 12:49).

Those who are immigrants or sojourners in a land not their own also have obligations:

  • But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer 29:7).
  • Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience (Rom 13:1-4).
  • Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11).
  • Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work (Titus 3:1).
  • Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God (1 Peter 2:13-16).
  • Do not move the ancient landmark that the fathers have set (Prov 22:28).

And thus the Scriptures weigh heavily toward the generous and just treatment of refugees, sojourners, and foreigners in our midst, while reminding them to be productive and prayerful for the nation that hosts them. In the current public discourse, however, these two propositions are often separated.

The teaching of the Church, as expressed in the Catechism, enshrines both principles, speaking to the duties of nations as well as those of immigrants.

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 (CCC 2241).

Although these principles are meant to balance each other, one or the other is often discarded by those on the extremes. We are called to accept immigrants generously, especially those escaping political or economic oppression. But the rule of law, which is meant to preserve order and benefit the common good, is also important. The Catechism, without providing a specific prescription, calls for balance. A generous, orderly immigration is recommended, one which respects individual natural rights while also advancing the common good.

Seldom is this balance to be seen in current discourse. There are, of course, prudential judgments to be made. In particular cases, one principle may be favored over the other, but both should always be considered and any judgment should not wholly violate either.

Another helpful reflection on immigration policy is found in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae:

Man’s relations with foreigners are twofold: peaceful, and hostile: and in directing both kinds of relation, the Law contained suitable precepts: … First, when foreigners passed through [the Jew’s] land as travelers. Second, when they came to dwell in their land as newcomers. And in both these respects the Law made kind provision in its precepts: for it is written (Exodus 22:21): “Thou shalt not molest a stranger”; and again (Exodus 22:9): “Thou shalt not molest a sojourner.” Third, when any foreigners wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship and mode of worship.

With regard to these, a certain order was observed. For they were not at once admitted to citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 1). The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people. Hence it was that the Law prescribed in respect of certain nations that had close relations with the Jews (viz., the Egyptians among whom they were born and educated, and the Idumeans, the children of Esau, Jacob’s brother), that they should be admitted to the fellowship of the people after the third generation; whereas others (with whom their relations had been hostile, such as the Ammonites and Moabites) were never to be admitted to citizenship; while the Amalekites, who were yet more hostile to them, and had no fellowship of kindred with them, were to be held as foes in perpetuity: for it is written (Exodus 17:16): “The war of the Lord shall be against Amalec from generation to generation” (Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 105, Art. 3).

And thus we can see that it is permissible, according to Scripture and reason, for a nation to exhibit a more lenient policy toward one nation than toward another. Such a position does not necessarily offend against justice provided that the basis for it is demonstrably serious and true, and the principles of generosity and the advancement of the common good are not entirely set aside.

Above, then, are some principles from Catholic teaching and Scripture. While immigration is a complex issue involving prudential decisions by lawful authority, the hope is that principles such as these (generosity framed by legitimate concern for the common good) are applied.

For us who are Catholic, the questions are these:

How Catholic is my stance on immigration?

Is my view based in the faith or merely in my preferences or political leanings?

Do I agree that, as a prosperous nation, we should be generous in accepting and welcoming refugees and immigrants?

Do I understand that proper laws governing the immigration process are legitimate but should be in service of the common good and should assist in welcoming the stranger in a humane and orderly way?

Many people today strongly emphasize one principle at the expense of the other. In so doing, Catholic balance is lost. How Catholic is your understanding of immigration? I hope that this modest summary helps you to think about immigration as a Catholic.