Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Catholic social teaching and immigration

Catherine Wilson


by Catherine E. Wilson
June 18, 2010

With the April 2010 passage of SB 1070—an Arizona immigration enforcement initiative—the national battle lines on immigration policy in the United States have been redrawn. Indeed, the entire nation is focused intently on what is transpiring in the Grand Canyon state, as drafts of similar legislation await an up-or-down vote in close to a dozen state legislatures throughout the country. While immigration policy is, at heart, a political issue, American Catholic bishops have reminded their flock that it is also a deeply moral and ethical one. At a prayer vigil on May 1, 2010 in Camden, New Jersey, Bishop Joseph Galante spoke out against the Arizona law, arguing that it is both a “denial of the Gospel message and of our own country’s founding principles.”

Galante enjoined on those assembled at the vigil not only to “see everyone as a neighbor,” but also to “see everyone as Jesus.”

That every person is a neighbor—regardless of birthplace—is a Biblical mandate as well as a central tenet of Catholic social teaching. From the divine command voiced to the Israelites to “treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34), to Christ’s pronouncement that his followers will be judged by how well they welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35), to St. Paul’s claim that “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), the call for solidarity with the “stranger” is present in abundance throughout Scripture.

Borrowing St. Paul’s rhetoric in his letter to the Ephesians, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document entitled Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope (2003), which reflected on the manifold challenges of immigration—both pastoral and political—in light of Catholic social teaching.

Moreover, in the Justice for Immigrants Campaign—unveiled in 2004—the USCCB mobilized a national network of Catholic institutions to educate the public about the Church’s teaching on immigration and provided a template for immigration reform in the United States, which included: (1) addressing the root causes of migration; (2) establishing humane enforcement policies in Mexico and the United States; (3) securing a family-based immigration system; (4) enacting a temporary visa program for laborers; (5) restoring due process rights for illegal immigrants; and (6) creating a pathway to legalization for the undocumented.

This template was inspired by the five guiding principles of Catholic social teaching on immigration: (1) all persons have the right not to migrate from their homeland and to find opportunities for human flourishing there; (2) all persons have the right to migrate when they cannot find employment in their native land; (3) while all sovereign nations have the right to control their borders, wealthier nations should assist with migration flows; (4) refugees and asylum seekers should be offered political protection by the global community; and (5) all immigrants possess inherent human dignity, which should be respected in all cases.

At present, American public sentiment concerning immigration policy is politically divided. In an April 2010 statement, Bishop John C. Wester, Chairman of USCCB Committee on Migration, has called for “robust but civil debate.” Guided by Catholic social teaching, the USCCB has agreed that comprehensive immigration reform that respects both the rule of law and basic human rights and is legislatively crafted in a bipartisan manner is the only moral solution to this most controversial of issues.

—Catherine E. Wilson, Assistant Professor of Political Science
    Villanova University   

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”