A modern pope wanted to make a point about immigration to the people of our country. He said that he had been worried—preoccupied—with “those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands.”
“Devotion to humanity,” the pope said, “urges that ways of migration be opened to these people.”
The pope was Pius XII, the Bishop of Rome from 1939 to 1958. He wrote those words to America’s Catholic bishops nearly seventy years ago, in 1948.
Like Pope Pius XII, Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has continued to call the Church to solidarity with immigrants and their families. Last week, in the border city of Juarez, Mexico, Pope Francis called the world to work for justice, mercy, and freedom for immigrants. The pope asked that each of us know the “names, stories, and families” that have suffered in the “human tragedy that is forced migration” around the globe.
In Juarez, Pope Francis spoke beautifully of Christ’s solidarity with those who must leave their homelands behind.
Of course, on his return from Mexico, the Holy Father was asked about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall across the United States’ border with Mexico. Pope Francis did not address a particular policy proposal. Instead, he simply said that building walls without building bridges is not a Christian approach to immigration. The Holy Father was speaking off the cuff, and he did not speak in the formal and precise way he might have done in a teaching document. For that he has been criticized, called naïve and disingenuous.
Pope Francis is not naïve. He understands the complexity of immigration policy, and its consequences for just societies. But when Pope Francis talks about immigration, he does so as a pastor of souls, and from the richness of Catholic social teaching. We can only understand Pope Francis, and hear his prophetic voice, if we do so in light of Church’s teaching.
And the Holy Father is right: we can only hope to build a just immigration policy in our nation if we understand and respect the guiding voice of the Gospel.
The Church teaches that all people, and all families, have the right to migrate in order to sustain their lives, and the well-being of their families. Poverty, corruption, persecution, and the uneven distribution of resources across the globe often force families to leave their homelands and cultures, to seek security and opportunity. All people have the right to opportunity, all people have the right to seek safety, and all people have the right to seek some portion of the world’s resources for their security. And while holding private property is a good and obvious right, all Christians have the obligation to manage their resources in light of the common good.
If we ignore the fundamental right of families to migrate, or dismiss it callously, we ignore the wisdom of the Church, and the mandate of the Gospel.
At the same time, the Church teaches that nations have a right to security: to secure, and defined, national borders. Governments have the right to establish ordered and well-defined immigration policies. The United States has the right to ensure that those who enter our country do so according to the just laws we enact, without threats to our safety, or to their own. Every country has the right to ensure that its common economic welfare is not decimated by an influx of people it simply cannot support. The right to migrate is not an unconditioned right, because every country has the right to establish reasonable and just policies assuring safety and common economic welfare.
But the Church also teaches that we must approach immigration policy from the perspective of solidarity with those who suffer, and mercy toward those in need of charity. In the United States, where we are blessed with abundant natural resources, we must be thoughtful about how to utilize our resources to welcome as many people into our nation as is sustainable. And we must be creative about finding ways to enhance our ability to support immigrants in need.
Moreover, in the United States, we must recognize that those who seek to enter our nation often do so because of the poverty and corruption of their own nations. Christian solidarity, and the principle of subsidiarity, requires that we find ways to help other nations develop robust and just economies. We must form partnerships, which include real accountability, to serve the common good across the globe. Unreflective nationalism is not a Christian virtue.
Pope Francis is not naïve about the complexities of immigration policy. Nor should we be naïve. But we should remember this: Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus Christ spent time as immigrants or refugees. They fled injustice, and sought opportunities for their families, and in the case of the Holy Family, they fled their homeland for the sake of their lives. And for most of us, our ancestors in this land were also immigrants—our ancestor immigrants built the great schools, and churches and institutions of our country.
The faces, and names, and stories of immigration are the faces of our families, and the stories of our faith.
Our “devotion to humanity”—and our devotion to Jesus Christ—requires that we be just, charitable, and merciful to those who seek our help. As Catholics we must form and support policies for social justice around the world, and we must form just policies—building bridges—to welcome those who seek to experience America’s greatness, and who seek to help make America great for generations to come.