What the Bishops, the Catechism and St. Thomas Aquinas Say About Immigration

“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.” (CCC 2241)

Uroš Predić, “Refugees from Herzegovina”, 1889
Uroš Predić, “Refugees from Herzegovina”, 1889 (photo: Public Domain)

On January 27, President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Order which was intended to protect the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States. The Order imposed a temporary ban on entry to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim nations, including Iraq and Syria. A just-released Rasmussen Poll showed that 57% of likely voters supported the idea of a temporary ban on immigration from the political hot spots, while only 33% are opposed.

But not so, the U.S. Bishops. As faithful shepherds who carry the message of the gospel to Catholics and to the people of America, many of the bishops have released statements emphasizing the need for mercy and compassion. With their commitment to “welcoming the stranger,” they have opposed President Trump's temporary ban, concerned that refugees will be in danger and will not find security on American soil.

The USCCB released a statement expressing their solidarity with Muslims and voicing their deep concern over religious liberty issues. The statement – which is co-signed by Bishop Mitchell Rozanski (Chair, USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs), Bishop William Lori (Chair, Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty), and Bishop Oscar Cantú (Chair, Committee on International Justice and Peace) – expresses regret that Friday evening's Executive Order should have generated fear and anxiety among refugees, immigrants and others, and says:

“...we join with other faith leaders to stand in solidarity again with those affected by this order, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers. We also express our firm resolution that the Order's stated preference for "religious minorities" should be applied to protect not only Christians where they are a minority, but all religious minorities who suffer persecution, which includes Yazidis, Shia Muslims in majority Sunni areas, and vice versa.

While we also recognize that the United States government has a duty to protect the security of its people, we must nevertheless employ means that respect both religious liberty for all, and the urgency of protecting the lives of those who desperately flee violence and persecution. It is our conviction as followers of the Lord Jesus that welcoming the stranger and protecting the vulnerable lie at the core of the Christian life. And so, to our Muslim brothers and sisters and all people of faith, we stand with you and welcome you.”

Individual bishops also felt called to address the issue. 

Over on Twitter, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago called the imposition of a temporary travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries “a dark moment in U.S. history.”

Speaking at a Mass at Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, Cardinal Cupich told students that they must “...care for all people, whether they are the unborn, the homeless or the convicted,” and the cardinal added to that list “the refugee who now is being kept out of our country because of an executive order.”

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., Archbishop of Newark, also objected – calling the United States “an open and welcoming nation.” President Trump's action, the cardinal believed, demonstrated irrational fear, prejudice and persecution. In a statement on the archdiocesan website, Cardinal Tobin wrote,

“Closing borders and building walls are not rational acts. Mass detentions and wholesale deportation benefit no one; such inhuman policies destroy families and communities.

In fact, threatening the so-called 'sanctuary cities' with the withdrawal of federal funding for vital services such as healthcare, education and transportation will not reduce immigration. It only will harm all good people in those communities.”

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, expressed concern that humanitarian concerns must still be addressed, even as the government seeks to protect American citizens. Cardinal Wuerl said:

“As the federal government pursues any legitimate national security concerns, we hope that it will do so not at the expense of innocent people who are in need, and that it will take all necessary actions to ensure that their safety is protected and that it will expedite all processes to address the need for humanitarian relief....

Through our immigrant and refugee outreach programs, we must continue to serve as a visible sign of God's mercy and our solidarity with our brothers and sisters no matter how far they may have traveled.”

Aquinas and the Catechism: A Different Perspective

But St. Thomas Aquinas would seem to approach the issue of immigration from a different perspective. In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas was careful to divide relationships with foreigners into two categories: peaceful, and hostile. Among peaceful relationships, he identified three types of encounter which the Jews might have with foreigners who entered their lands:

  1. Sometimes, foreigners simply passed through their land as travelers;
  2. Foreigners came to dwell in their land as newcomers. In Exodus 22:21 and again in Exodus 22:9, the Law protected the rights of newcomers, warning “Thou shalt not molest a stranger”; and
  3. When any foreigner wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship and mode of worship. In this instance, the newcomer was not to be automatically admitted to citizenship. Immigrants from some countries were not to be admitted to citizenship for two or three generations.

“The reason for this,” Aquinas wrote,

“...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.”

Aquinas taught that total integration of immigrants into the life, language, customs and culture was necessary for full citizenship.

While the Law prescribed means by which residents of certain nations (the Egyptians, the Idumeans, the children of Esau, Jacob's brother) should be admitted to fellowship after the third generation, others (such as the Ammonites and Moabites) were never to be admitted to citizenship, because people of those lands had been hostile toward the Jews. The Amalekites, who had been even more hostile and had no fellowship of kindred with the Jewish community, were never to be admitted, and were to be held as foes in perpetuity.

And relevant to our situation today: Because of the urgent need to protect the Jewish community, there was no differentiation made in Scripture between warlike members of the Amalekite community, and others who may be peaceful.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks even more clearly about the responsibility of government to protect its citizens, even while welcoming the stranger. It's sometimes reported that the Catholic Church teaching requires an open-border policy under which immigrants can enter the country without restraint. Actually, though, there are important qualifiers which must be considered.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2241 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.

So a nation is not required to accept an unlimited number of immigrants, which would impose a burden on its own citizens – but we should be generous in accepting immigrants to the extent that we are able. And the decision regarding how many immigrants a nation can support should fall, not to the Church and the clergy – who are warm-hearted and who seek to bring Christ's love to all, but who may lack understanding of political realities – but to laypersons who are familiar with the community's limitations and who can most effectively integrate Church teaching into societal practice.

The Catechism continues:

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.

It is not wrong, according to the Catechism, to impose restrictions – such as President Trump's 60- to 90-day moratorium on immigration from certain areas – while plans can be enacted to ensure the safety and well-being of the American people.

Finally, the Catechism acknowledges that immigrants are only to be welcomed if they are willing to obey our laws.

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.

The President's Executive Order

President Trump, in issuing his Executive Order on “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”, echoes the need for protections which is delineated in the Catechism:

Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program. Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States. The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.

In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including "honor" killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.

President Trump's Executive Order will not only impose a travel ban on nationals from countries which are known to export terrorists. Additionally, the EO suspends the refugee admission program for 120 days and prioritizes refugee claims of religious persecution, giving higher priority to Christian refugees who may be attempting to flee a brutal regime. It also restricts entry to no more than 50,000 refugees during fiscal year 2017.

Once America is assured that controls are in place and that refugees seeking entry to the United States can be properly vetted, we will once again be able to open our arms, to “welcome the stranger” while at the same time protecting our citizenry.

The Alabama State House, located in Montgomery, Alabama.

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