Immigration: What Does the Church Teach?

In a Register special report, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin weighs in on immigration reform.

The epitome of the Church’s teaching on immigration is found in No. 2241 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states: “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.”

With the highest gross domestic product in the world, the United States qualifies as a prosperous nation, so on humanitarian grounds, it should welcome immigrants in search of work and security “to the extent [it is] able.”

How much it is able, particularly in a time of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, is ripe for debate. Some might argue that illegal aliens have become such a part of the American economy that they are now essential to it. Others might argue that illegal aliens are hurting the American job market by undercutting labor costs and taking jobs away from Americans.

Per the Catechism, U.S. authorities also have a responsibility to protect immigrants — presumably from threats like exploitation, human trafficking and anti-immigrant violence.

The Catechism goes on to state: “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.”

The Catechism envisions an orderly process of immigration, subject to legal requirements — not the chaotic, dangerous, uncontrolled situation we have now.

What weight does the Catechism’s teaching on immigration hold? In his 1994 book, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained that “the individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess” (p. 27). In other words, the Catechism restated existing Catholic teaching with whatever level of authority it already possessed. It did not take doctrines and elevate them to infallible teaching, for example.

The Church’s doctrine on immigration, as expressed in the Catechism, thus would fall short of the infallibility that is attached to teachings like the Real Presence or, in the moral realm, the intrinsic evil of abortion. Still, the principles articulated by the Catechism represent the teaching of the magisterium and are to be accepted with religious assent, according to the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium (No. 25).

The Catechism summarizes the Church’s universal teaching, but what have the American bishops taught? Many bishops’ documents have touched on immigration, but none appear to constitute authoritative teaching.

John Paul II’s 1998 document Apostolos Suos sets sharp limits on which bishops’ documents are to be considered authoritative teaching. Speaking of “doctrinal declarations,” the document stipulates that “a majority alone of the bishops of a conference cannot issue a declaration as authentic teaching of the conference to which all the faithful of the territory would have to adhere” (No. 22). To constitute authentic magisterium (authoritative teaching), the conference must either approve the statement unanimously or pass it by a two-thirds majority and obtain the approval of the Holy See (Article 1).

None of the immigration statements by the American bishops meet these requirements.

Thus, the bishops’ 2007 document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” states: “The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings. Nevertheless, the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching” (No. 33).

Statements of the conference on immigration have supported the approach known as “comprehensive immigration reform,” which means passing a law that would deal with all problematic aspects of immigration policy at once.

The most prominent alternative involves securing America’s border first and dealing with other issues afterward, as needed, when the issue can be looked at calmly.

Supporters of comprehensive reform generally are concerned that, if problems are tackled one at a time, not all of their preferred reforms will be enacted.

According to “Forming Consciences,” comprehensive reform “should include a temporary work program with worker protections and a path to permanent residency; family reunification policies; a broad and fair legalization program; access to legal protections, including due process and essential public programs; refuge for those fleeing persecution and exploitation; and policies to address the root causes of migration. The right and responsibility of nations to control their borders and to maintain the rule of law should be recognized” (No. 83).

The last element mentioned — the right and responsibility of the U.S. to control its borders — is a significant element that is often lost in this debate. The favorable attitude toward immigration that bishops have taken is often confused in the media with an open-border policy.

Bishop Wester clarified this in an interview published in Our Sunday Visitor. He stated: “Despite assertions to the contrary, the U.S. bishops do not support ‘open borders,’ but support generous, but reasonable, immigration policies that serve the common good.”

He went on to state that the bishops’ vision for illegal aliens would be to “register them with the government, require them to pay a fine and any taxes owed, and require them to learn English and work as they wait in the back of the line for a chance for citizenship.”

In addition, he has repeatedly stressed, most recently at the June 2-4 regional consultation on migration that, in the mind of the bishops, “the lasting and humane solution to the challenge of illegal immigration” will come through addressing economic root causes of migration, eliminating “push factors” like poverty and violence which compel people to migrate.

Bishop Wester’s interview is one of a large number of statements by individual bishops which trend in the same direction of the 2003 pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer,” issued jointly by the bishops of Mexico and the United States.

Bishops also enjoy teaching authority in their own dioceses, though it is often unclear the extent to which they intend to bind the members of their flocks to particular immigration solutions, rather than giving pastoral exhortations to aid the faithful as they form their consciences.

A new development may force the bishops to oppose a potential immigration bill that they generally like (as with the health-care bill). Some in Congress are proposing to extend marriage-like benefits to immigrants in homosexual relationships (e.g., giving a homosexual partner the right to immigrate like a wife).

In a press release from the Committee on Migration, Bishop Wester stated that this particular proposal “threatens to undermine the opportunity to bring together the Congress and the American people around a common solution to the important challenge of immigration reform.”

Regarding immigration as a whole, he went on to “call for a robust but civil debate.” Given the liberty of opinion that exists on this issue, even among Catholics, a robust debate is certain. Given the strong feelings involved, we’ll have to see how civil it is.

Jimmy Akin is a senior apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.” He blogs at