Presented to the Board of Directors
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services
October 28, 2004
To consider the theology of migration, I drew from two sources: Scripture and teachings of the Catholic Church. So, what I thought I’d try to do today is describe some of the theological underpinnings of the Catholic Church’s ministry to migrants and point to a couple of challenges both of our Churches and organizations face because of our calling as followers of Christ.
Scriptural References to Migration
Throughout the Old and New Testament, we are commanded time and again to be welcoming of and serve the needs of the stranger. There is no question about God’s expectations of us. In the earliest Hebrew books of the Old Testament, we hear the prophets teaching the Israelites that the test of their society would be how well the widows, the orphans, and the aliens fared among them. This theme carries on throughout the Scriptures all the way through to Luke’s Gospel story of the Good Samaritan and Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus tells us that in the final judgment, we will be asked if we welcomed Him, in the form of the stranger.
In Genesis, we learn that Abraham and Sarah provided hospitality to three strangers from another land and that this response became a paradigm for the treatment of strangers by Abraham’s descendents. We see the children of Jacob become forced migrants, with Joseph being sold into slavery.
The enslavement of the Chosen People by the Egyptians and then the liberation by God led directly to the commandments regarding strangers. “You shall treat the stranger no differently than the natives born among you, have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Lv19:33-34)
Think of these passages when you consider today’s slaves. Hundreds of thousands of mostly women and young girls trafficked and enslaved in the sex industry. We’re told that some 20,000 are trafficked into the U.S. each year. What are we doing as individuals and as Church to liberate these poor people of God?
For the Israelites, not only were they commanded to care for the stranger, but they structured the welcome and care of aliens into their gleaning and tithing laws. (Lv 19:9-10; Dt 14:28-29)
How have we formalized and structured our response as followers of God’s Word toward freeing the modern day slaves and welcoming today’s strangers?
A rather fundamental fact about human relations is that the encounter of one person to another often falls into two categories: the way we relate to family, friends, and community, on the one hand, and the way we relate to the stranger, on the other. Those who we consider members of our community are those we have bonds with, who we live, play and work with, who have interests, values and commitments in common with us. Our instinctive reactions to these people are positive and open.
Reaction to the stranger, whether the actual stranger or the thought of a stranger, is another matter altogether. Our instinct often manifests in suspicion, uncertainty, questions, hesitation, and sometimes even alarm. Just think about the how we Americans now perceive immigrants in this post-9/11 world. The very term “stranger” is a rather ominous one and the word “alien” tends to create resistance and hostility. The stranger or the alien is the outsider; someone who doesn’t have the same claims upon us as do our family, friends and community.
What is clear from the Scriptures, however, is that the stranger, no less than our sisters and brothers or our neighbors, is a moral category, demanding of us certain responses based on Gospel attitudes.
I believe it is especially important to note that the biblical tradition puts the migrant and exile at the very center of concern. Therefore, we, as believers and followers of Jesus, can do no less.
For me there is no more poignant migration theme in the Scriptures than that of the Holy Family in flight as refugees from Herod’s tyranny. Not only did the Son of God become man, but just as the Israelites of old, He became a refugee in the land of Egypt.
Visit with Rwandan Refugees
One time I was traveling with a bishop to visit refugees in Africa. At one point we met with a group of Rwandan refugees who had been barely surviving for five years in some of the most deplorable conditions I have ever seen – the camp was in the middle of a remote jungle and had open sewage; the refugees’ food was limited to what they could yield from the harsh terrain and the water source was not only limited but erratic. Because these refugees, most of whom were women and children, were of the Hutu tribe and suspected of having participated in the genocide in Rwanda years earlier, they were truly outcasts and not welcomed home and only barely accepted where they were at the time.
Living in those conditions and having no hope for a future beyond the confines of the inhospitable camp, I had an image of a leper colony. I had no idea what to say or what to do for the refugees who came up to us and asked for our help.
Then, the bishop I was with sat down with some the refugees and after hearing their pleas, he asked them to join him in prayer. After praying together, the bishop said to the refugees that God hears their prayers and that through His son, Jesus, he understands their plight. Then the bishop said what I thought was the most comforting thing possible under the circumstances. He said, “Remember, Jesus was a refugee.”
Catholic Social Teaching
We have a wonderful gift in the Catholic tradition; it is referred to as Catholic Social Teaching. This body of teachings, which spans centuries, is an attempt by Church leaders to interpret God’s Word in contemporary society. Pope John XXIII in the 1960’s put it this way, “The Church has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel.” (Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World, 4)
CST tries to answer the question, “how does one live a Christian life in today’s world?” CST provides principles upon which to inform our responses to the challenges of modern society.
To illustrate the design of these teachings, I’ll briefly review one of them, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), issued by Pope John XXIII in 1963. It starts with the dignity of the human person; it tells us that the person is the clearest reflection of the presence of God among us. It reminds us that the person is embodied before us as the abiding presence of God. He goes on to say that as Church, we build institutions because we are under the obligation of faith to protect and promote the dignity of the human person.
Next, in Peace on Earth, Pope John argues that each person’s dignity is the source of both rights and responsibilities. The rights are moral claims to goods that people need to protect and promote their human dignity, claims that bear upon the spiritual nature of the person; for instance, the right to worship and the right to freedom of conscience. Also claims that relate to their material needs; to housing and employment, to nutrition and healthcare.
The third part of this teaching tells us that the basic moral unit for understanding the world is the human community. Although we live in a world comprised of independent sovereign states, and these are important, they are not where we begin our understanding of the human situation. We begin with the dignity of each person and the social nature of the person, which extends out to multiple communities in which the person needs to grow and develop as a person – the community of family; the community of civil society; but finally, and ultimately, the human community.
In other words, the vision is that every person belongs to a single human community and civil society, in its politics, economics, its laws and its international organization, is judged by how well it responds to the needs of the whole human community.
So, the basic design of CST starts with the sacredness of every person. Then, it points to the rights and responsibilities of individuals. Then, it calls for structures to protect these rights and fulfill these responsibilities, based on the values of truth, justice, freedom, and love.
CST and Migration
Within this body of CST, particularly in relatively recent times, there is much written on the question of migration. In fact, the current Pope, John Paul II, has been prolific in his communications concerning migrants and the phenomenon of migration.
I’ll mention a few of these teachings so you get a flavor.
In 1952, Pope Pius XII issued a document called, Exsul Familia (Families in Exile), which is referred to as the “Magna Charta for Migrants.” In it Pope Pius says, “The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and for all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien, and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”
In Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), a document issued by Pope John XXIII in 1963, the Pope says “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 of it, he must be permitted to emigrate 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 in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the worldwide fellowship of man.”
In 1965, at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII, said in Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), “The joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the women and men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way oppressed, these are the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples) in which he said, “We cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception. It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity…”
Pope John Paul II, in his statement, Laborem Exersens (On Human Work), said “Emigration in search of work should in no way become an opportunity for financial or social exploitation. As regards to the work relationship, the same criteria should be applied to immigrant workers as to all other workers in the society.”
And on the more controversial topic of undocumented migration, Pope John Paul II has said that the ultimate antidote to illegal immigration is the elimination of global underdevelopment and that in the meantime, the human rights of migrants, even in the cases of non-legal immigration, must be respected.
CST Principles Relating to Migration
If you look at the totality of CST up to the present time, there are at least five principles that emerge that have particular relevancy for migration and migrants.
- Persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In other words, people have a right not to migrate.
- The goods of the earth belong to all people and, therefore, people have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families if they cannot do so in their own country. Sovereign nations have the responsibility to accommodate this right within the limits of their resources.
- Sovereign nations have the right to control their territories and provide for the common good of their residents, as long as this control is not exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring more wealth. In other words, more economically powerful nations have a larger obligation to accommodate migration than do poorer nations.
- Refugees and asylum seekers fleeing wars and persecution have a particular claim and right to protection.
- Regardless of their legal status in a country, migrants, like all of God’s children, possess inherent human dignity that must at all times be respected.
I’ll now turn to a document issued in November 2000 by the Catholic bishops in the United States. It’s called Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.
Having witnessed the unprecedented levels and diversity of immigration over the previous two decades, the bishops were painfully aware of how inadequately the Church had truly been a welcoming presence in the lives of the newest Americans. So, in this document they attempt to set out a vision of welcome, calling on all Catholics and others of good will to open themselves up to see the face of Christ in the newcomers.
The bishops acknowledged that the presence of so many people of so many different cultures and religions in so many parts of the country has challenged the Church to welcome these new immigrants and help them join our communities in ways that are respectful of their cultures and in ways that mutually enrich the immigrants and their new communities.
So, to pursue this vision of welcome, the bishops call for a three-step process that involves: Conversion, Communion, and Solidarity.
The Conversion called for is one that acknowledges our past failures of understanding and our sinful patterns of chauvinism, prejudice, and discrimination toward newcomers, and to undergo a profound conversion of the spirit. It calls for concrete measures to overcome the misunderstanding, ignorance, competition, and fear that stand in the way of genuinely welcoming the stranger in our midst. It also calls for changes in the structures of the Church so that as an institution, the Church will be fully embracing of the cultural pluralism that is our society.
By calling for Communion, the bishops recognize that we need to strengthen our understanding of different cultures and to promote intercultural communications. In other words, we Christians, in order to be truly welcoming, must achieve empathy for the newcomers. We must learn to meet them on their terms.
In the call to Solidarity, the bishops envision putting the fruits of our conversion and communion into practice. By being in solidarity with newcomers we find ways to act on their behalf. This can take many forms. We can participate in public policy advocacy, pushing for laws and policies that are respectful of the human rights and dignity of the immigrants. We can be involved in services to newcomers; respectfully assisting them learn how to navigate their new community.
The bishops felt so strongly about these issues that they have mounted a comprehensive effort to implement the vision contained in Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.
Soon after the publication of this document, Church leaders from across the country were convened in regional meetings. After some study of the document and some reflection, these leaders took a critical look at the current condition of welcome in their own dioceses. Based on this assessment, the bishops and their staffs began a planning process designed to incorporate the ministry of welcome into the life of the local Church, changing and adapting structures at the diocesan and parish levels.
At the national level, we provided the local churches small grants to serve as seed money to start things like multicultural programs and other initiatives designed to sustain a more welcoming presence.
Today, we are working on a program that infuses multicultural ministry into the curricula of seminaries and formation programs for priests and religious, so that tomorrow’s leaders of the Church will be better grounded in this important facet of ministry.
Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope
The last document I’ll mention is a pastoral letter issued jointly by the bishops of Mexico and the United States in January 2003, called Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. In this document the bishops strive to discern Scripture and CST in the face of the unprecedented levels of migration occurring in this hemisphere and the consequences of current policies toward migrants, including the loss of life along the U.S.-Mexico border. They call for immigration laws and policies that protect the human rights and dignity of migrants and provide for legal and safe means of entry for prospective immigrants and asylum seekers.
The bishops acknowledge that while “globalization” has led to greater and freer flows of goods, technology, capital, and information, the migration of people has become more restrictive, even as the new world economy requires a more mobile labor pool.
In this pastoral letter, the bishops set out a series of public policy proposals designed to achieve their vision. They call on governments to invest in their people and economies so that the economic reasons that compel desperate people to seek a life and livelihood elsewhere may be overcome.
They call for expanded opportunities for legal immigration into the U.S. in order to reunify with families and to obtain jobs. They also call for a broad legalization program for the undocumented in this country who have built up equities and otherwise contributed to our society. And, they call for reforms in our immigration laws and practices that serve to restore some of the due process rights of immigrants and make our border enforcement strategies more humane.
Immigration Reform Campaign
Again, the bishops don’t want to have written a nice document that says a lot of pleasant sounding things without any action. So, we are currently in the process of organizing a national campaign for immigration reform, beginning within the Church, then working in coalition with others.
We envision this campaign being a multi-year effort and having several components:
- educating the public, especially Catholics and Catholic public officials, about Church teaching on migration;
- creating a political will for positive immigration reforms;
- enacting legislative and administrative reforms based on the bishops’ principles; and
- organizing Catholic networks to assist qualified immigrants obtain the benefits of the reforms.
In closing. Let me leave you with this thought…
The migration phenomenon in our world today is greater than ever before. In these times of a global economy, ease of international transportation, and communications technology that virtually connects every corner of the globe, greater numbers of people are migrating across international borders. There are today nearly 200 million people who live in a country other than where they were born. This is double the number from just 25 years ago.
This, then, should underscore the challenges we face as people of God and followers of Christ.
I believe the central question for we Christians in today’s migration world is this: Do we have a “Gospel attitude” toward migrants? Do we see Jesus in the face of the newcomer or in the face of the refugee languishing away in a camp in some forsaken corner of the globe?
Then we must ask, “What are we doing about it?”