Yes, the Church has Immigration Doctrine

A response to Steve Bannon’s recent comments

Steve Bannon either does not know what doctrine is, or he’s struggling with the Catholic Church’s doctrine on immigration.

In an excerpt from an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, President Trump’s former White House Chief Strategist, Mr. Bannon, made at least two concerning assertions about the Catholic Church’s positions as it relates to immigration and migration. Unfortunately these claims are not uncommon, and they seem to stem from a conflation of one’s political positions and the truths of our Christian faith. I hope to provide clarity regarding the doctrine of the Church with regard to human dignity and how this lives out in our position on immigration policy and confront Mr. Bannon’s narrative directly.

First, Mr. Bannon stated: “I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine. This [immigration] is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.”

Doctrine is teaching. The Church’s teaching on immigration is very clear and is rooted first and foremost in the dignity of the human person. While it does not directly correlate to every public policy decision, it does clearly rule as out-of-bounds any kind of language that seeks to segment and separate God’s people. Sadly, the language of exclusion has dominated much of our debate around this issue.

What is that teaching? Well, as with all doctrine it begins with God. The story of God is the ultimate migration story, a migrant people following a migrant God. As our Jewish sisters and brothers remind us, welcoming the stranger is the most repeated theme in Scripture. God reminds the people: “You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the native born among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt“ (Leviticus 19:34). For Christians, in the ultimate migration God became man and dwelt among us. Jesus the Son is born to a family that shortly thereafter flees to Egypt under threat of King Herod. Even upon return to their homeland, they lived under occupation of a foreign power. Jesus taught welcome of the stranger as a criterion for the final judgment. Jesus, the Good News tells us, lived, died, and rose from the dead that we might have life. The Son returns to the Father, journeying back to Heaven that he might eventually bring us – his migrant people – and the whole world with him.

The Church’s teaching on immigrants begins and ends with the human person and human dignity. In order to be just, whatever systems or institutions or orders or rules are adopted by nations at the very least must respect the human persons involved. The many tenets of the Catholic Church’s teaching on immigration are well known. They include the right to migrate to sustain life and the life of families; the right of a country to regulate borders and control immigration for the common good; and that such regulation must be characterized by justice and mercy. There are pages upon pages of Catholic doctrine on immigration that the reader can easily access and read. Pope Francis continues in the footsteps of his predecessors and powerfully accompanies migrants. In fact, along with Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA (as stateside partners), he is launching a special campaign (October 7-13) encouraging us to “Share the Journey” with migrant sisters and brothers. (You may find teaching, as well as ways to pray and act here:

My own ancestors and forbears in central Illinois were farming families who came as immigrants from Wexford and Waterford in Ireland.  And many of them and others arrived “without status” of any kind.

Having recently travelled to Poland, the words of St. John Paul II come to mind:

“Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own state. When there are just reasons in favor for it, he must be permitted to migrate to other countries and to take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership to the human family, nor of citizenship in the universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.” –John Paul II, Address to the New World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Immigrants, October 17,1985

All these are doctrines and not merely the claims of “another guy with an opinion.” Nor are these teachings merely matters of prudential judgment, as is so often asserted. Certainly the ways in which particular doctrines on immigration apply directly to matters of legislation and public policy are matters of prudential judgment, as is the case with other issues of Catholic social teaching. Yet basic claims about the dignity of immigrants, their right to migrate, to remain together as a family, to be protected, to be treated with justice and mercy–these are doctrines without which no public policy on immigration can be prudentially judged.

Relatedly, Bannon’s second erroneous claim is more ignoble. When correctly reminded by his interviewer that being a Catholic involves certain claims upon his own life and his positions, he explained that the bishops are “terrible” on immigration “because unable to really…come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches…They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”

Set aside the obvious contradiction implicit in the claim that somehow undocumented immigrants could be an economic boon for the Church but not for the nation. Bannon insists on blasting the offensive phrase “illegal aliens” even though no human being is illegal. He knows that this will signal to others that he is not “politically correct.” But I’m more concerned about theological correctness. His claim about economics and immigrants in the Church is not unique to him. From time to time we receive letters at the Diocese of Orange making similar claims and I humbly share that the Church is not a business seeking “customers,” but carrying on the merciful mission of Christ in our world and we seek to follow in the footsteps of Christ to the best of our ability.

We do have an interest in immigrants, but it is not – for the Church – economic. Ours is a human interest. We care deeply about immigrants because as a group they are among the most vulnerable and exploited people on the planet. We care because each individual immigrant sister and brother is made in the image and likeness of God and is precious in his sight and in ours. Here in the Diocese of Orange we are blessed by immigrants from all over the world who come to Orange County and, in many ways, are the building blocks of society and community here, as we see and experience each and every day! As Christians we have always been a migrant people and as Catholics in the United States we have always been immigrants and descendants of immigrants, as well as forced migrants, and native peoples.

Dorothy Day once said, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” When we struggle to love our immigrant neighbors, we are struggling to love and be loved by God. That ought not to be taken as moralism or guilt inducing, but rather as a personal challenge to each of us to consider the places in our hearts where we struggle to love. These are also places where we will find it more difficult to be truthful.

The Good News is that love and truthfulness are not alternatives, but rather necessary to one another. I pray for that discovery to penetrate the rhetoric and the hearts of all our elected leaders, Democrats and Republicans, as well as their present and former staff, including Mr. Bannon, and all the rest of us.

+Bishop Kevin Vann