There has been a lot of discussion about the President’s recent executive order banning refugees from entering the United States. I hope to wade into this discussion as a student of Catholic Social Teaching and as someone trying to be obedient to the Church. I wish to concisely, yet comprehensively, lay out the relevant principles of Catholic Social Teaching and apply them to this particular situation. In other words, I wish to personally answer the question recently posed by Msgr. Charles Pope and invite you to to do the same: How Catholic is my stance on immigration?
(As an aside, whenever I make the claim “the Church teaches X,” I will provide links to the relevant document. If a particular passage strikes you, please go and read into it further.)
Before I dive in, if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to read the actual executive order. In addition to that, here’s an excellent summary and analysis of the executive order. While this order does several things, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m concerned with three things in particular: the suspension of entry into the US for 90 days of all persons from seven Muslim majority countries (countries first named by the Obama administration as harboring terrorists), the 120 day suspension of refugee processing for nationals from any country, and the indefinite suspension of all refugees coming from Syria.
The Divine command to welcome the foreigner goes back all the way to Moses, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the resident alien, the orphan or the widow of justice!” (Dt 27:19). Jesus not only reaffirmed this command, but he also raised the bar and made it clear that even our eternal destiny is hinged on how we treat the stranger. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ says:
Following Scripture, the Church definitively teaches that people have the right to emigrate. Pope Saint John XXIII articulated this teaching in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, in which he said, “When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there” (paragraph 25). Later in that encyclical, specifically referring to refugees this time, the saint said, “among man’s personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents.” He continues, “It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and—so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits—to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society” (paragraph 106).
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he…will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome…Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 25:31-46).
The catechism takes up this teaching and articulates the right to emigrate this way:
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.
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 (paragraph 2241).
However, while it’s clear that there is a right to emigrate, this right, like any right, is not absolute. Rights, even intrinsic rights, are tempered by duties. The teachings quoted above detail three things that limit the right of a person to emigrate: 1) the reasons why a person is emigrating; 2) the duties the immigrant owes their adoptive country; and 3) the state’s obligation to the common good of its citizens. I’m going to address each of these in turn and apply them to the recent refugee ban.
First, as Saint John XXIII stated, “When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.” Do refugees coming from the countries listed in the executive order have “just reasons” for emigrating? Pope Saint John Paul II gives a short, non-exhaustive, list of reasons why someone may be forced to emigrate, “civil conflicts, wars, the system of government, unjust distribution of economic resources, inconsistent agricultural policies, irrational industrialization and rampant corruption” (paragraph 2). It is obvious that refugees seeking asylum in the US, particularly those coming from Syria, face at least one, if not several, of these hardships.
The next duty that tempers the right to emigrate is the obligation the migrant has to their adoptive country. As the catechism said, “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 major concern, the one named in the title of the executive order, regarding refugees respecting our laws is obviously terrorism. However, this concern is largely without merit. The Cato Institute found that:
From 1975 to the end of 2015, 20 refugees have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all in the 1970s. Zero Americans have been killed by Syrian refugees in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The annual chance of an American dying in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is one in 3.6 billion.
Finally, the third restriction on the right to emigrate is the state’s obligation to protect its own citizens. The catechism says, “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.” Again, the major concern here is the risk of allowing a terrorist to enter our country. However, this concern is largely overblown. Refugees are vetted more rigorously than anyone else entering the United States, and, as I said above, this process is clearly working because the chance of an American being killed by a refugee terrorist is 1 in 3.6 billion.
However, that does not mean that there is no risk or concern. In October 2015, FBI Director Comey, before the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “We can only query against that which we have collected…If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home but we are not going to — there will be nothing show up because we have no record on that person.” However, a potential risk is very different from an imminent threat, and this is an important distinction to make when human lives hang in the balance. As Archbishop Gomez put it, “Halting admissions of refugees for 90 or 120 days may not seem like a long time. But for a family fleeing a war-torn nation, or the violence of drug cartels, or warlords who force even children into armies — this could mean the difference between life and death.” We can pose the question this way, is it more likely for an American to be killed by a refugee terrorist, or is it dramatically more likely for an innocent refugee to die because the US refused to let them enter our country?
So where do we go from here? What is the Catholic stance on this executive order? Catholic Social Teaching seeks to balance the right of persons to emigrate with the duty of a nation to protect itself. Does this executive order maintain that balance or is it a grave injustice toward refugees?
I think that the most reasonable position for a Catholic to take on this issue is to see the refugee ban as a moral tragedy. Because those fleeing war and poverty have the right to be here, and because there is no evidence that our refugee vetting process puts American lives in imminent danger, we must side with those seeking asylum. And I am not alone in coming to this conclusion; numerous American bishops have spoken out in support of refugees and many of them oppose this executive order. I’ve listed several of those statements below.
These statements from our bishops truly deserve to be seriously considered and given their due weight by any Catholic seeking to form their conscience on this issue. I encourage you to read them and take them to heart as they are our “authentic teachers and instructors of the faith” (Code of Canon Law, 753).
I urge you again to ask the question posed at the beginning of the article: How Catholic is my stance on immigration?
Cardinal DiNardo (President of the USCCB) and Archbishop Gomez (Vice President of the USCCB)
Bishop Vasquez, (USCCB Chair On Migration) has two statements here and here
Archbishop Lori, Bishop Rozanski, and Bishop Cantú
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.