On Trump’s Executive Order on Refugees, Look to Pope St. John XXIII


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The recent refugee executive order from the Trump administration sparked protests and impassioned statements of concern across the country. Many Catholic pastors and the heads of Catholic charitable institutions released statements. The sudden increase in public comment varied widely in tone, message and guidance, leaving many Catholics wondering what the demands of the Church’s teaching are in this situation.

To assess just that, let us use Pope St. John XXIII’s three steps for living the social teaching: “Look; judge; act” (Mater et Magistra, 236).



As we start to look, we see that the main thrust of Trump’s executive order is a temporary pause on a process. Specifically, it places a 120-day ban on all refugee admissions into the United States regardless of the nation of origin. The order also places a 90-day pause on entry into the United States for any immigrant from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya or Yemen. These nations were chosen as places of specific national-security concern during the Obama administration. The order pauses the admission of Syrian refugees specifically, but the language of the order indicates that it is not a permanent ban, and, in fact, such a pause had been considered in 2015 by ranking Democratic members of the Senate.

After the refugee pause is over, the cap on refugee admissions into the United States will be lowered from 110,000 to 50,000. It is important to note that the 110,000 cap is new. Last year, it was 70,000. The Trump administration’s figure represents the annual average of actual refugees admitted into the U.S. since 9/11.

Also, priority will be given to refugees whose status as a refugee is connected to their being the victims of religious persecution, one of the internationally accepted categories for refugee status. These temporary measures have certainly already caused pain and consternation for refugees and lawful immigrants. They might also result in further endangering the lives of refugees.  



As we switch from looking to judging in light of Catholic social teaching, Christian charity requires that we do so according to how the order was meant and not according to presumptions or accusations that best suit our political disposition. President Donald Trump states at the very beginning of his order that he intends it “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.”

According to Catholic social teaching, governments exist for the sole reason of attaining the common good, a central principle of the teaching. In doing so, the state must protect the rights and duties of individuals (Pope St. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 53-61).

Therefore, governments are required to protect the life and the property of citizens. Since we know that there has been a significant uptick in terrorist attacks in the U.S. since the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), based in Syria, the stated purpose of the president’s order does not necessarily violate the social teaching. Also, giving religious minorities like Shiite Muslims, Alawites, Baha’is, Christians and Yazidis priority in areas where they are the victims of genocidal violence would be perfectly in line with Catholic social teaching.

However, the implementation of the order even has frustrated supporters of the president. The order’s plain language was so broad that all sorts of already vetted U.S. visa holders as well as lawful permanent residents (green-card holders) were denied entry.

Gen. John Kelly, the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, was not fully consulted before the order was signed, forcing him to clarify matters 24 hours afterward. It was clear early on that, on a purely practical level of implementation, the executive order failed in prudence and justice.

Some have argued that the order does not make us safer, but endangers us further, and that we ought not abandon innocent refugees for our own safety.

The first objection is a prudential assessment about the common good and may be accurate, but it is impossible to tell at this moment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2309) confirms that when it comes to defense, evaluating the moral legitimacy of an action belongs to the prudential judgment of “those who are responsible for the common good.” This means the government, whose sole purpose is the common good.

Only the president and a select few of his cabinet and members of Congress have access to all the pertinent information required. There may have been significant threats to justify these actions. Though commentators can make educated guesses about the necessities of defense, they would still be guesses.

The second objection invites us to judge the executive order according to the principle of solidarity, which requires we recognize our moral responsibility for the good of others. As the great social philosopher and Catholic convert Jacques Maritain once wrote, the peace and protection of a nation “is the most proximate and most urgent objective of a Christian political prudence.” However, the natural virtue of patriotism “is super-elevated and purified by being subordinated to charity.” Christian charity demands that as our government seeks to meet the fundamental demands of safety for the citizenry, it also does the most it can to defend life, particularly those lives in danger because of our foreign-policy failures.

The Catechism (2241) teaches that “prosperous nations are obliged” to welcome those whose lives are in jeopardy. The rate at which we do so and by what means are up for prudential evaluation. Different administrations will handle it differently. Presuming there were legitimate threats, the Church does not teach that we must sacrifice the innocent lives of citizens in order to save the lives of refugees.

However, aiding refugees is not optional. We must, to the extent that we are able in generosity, admit them or work to find alternatives for them that respect their human dignity. Therefore, while the order may not necessarily violate the social teaching, if these temporary bans persist or the administration refuses to work with the international community to find adequate, alternative means to help refugees, then it violates the principle of solidarity.



So let us move to Pope St. John XXIII’s final step for living the social teaching: acting. Pro-life Catholics ought to contact their representatives to voice their concerns for refugees and migrants, encouraging them to be generous with those fleeing danger and to end these temporary bans as soon as possible.

Catholics ought also to be more generous in their financial support for refugees and immigrants. And Catholics should be encouraged to reach out to the local refugee centers in their own or nearby cities to inquire about how they might help with the basic skills refugees need to live in our society. This is why, in 2015, Pope Francis invited Catholic parishes to adopt a refugee family. This fulfills another principle of social teaching: the principle of subsidiarity, which encourages local participation as a group or individually.

In the end, what ought to govern our looking, judging and acting is an encounter with Jesus, who himself tells us in sacred Scripture that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, we do it to him.

An executive order cannot limit our charity any more than it can bar us from the love of Jesus, who is the source of that charity. Therefore, let us lean on Christ Jesus and be love in action in our communities.

Omar Gutiérrez is the manager of the Office of Missions & Justice

for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.