Immigration law and the role of the Bishops

Thanks to the efforts of Marco Rubio and the “gang of 8” in the United States Senate the issue of illegal immigration is back in the news. This issue has long interested the United States Bishops. The USCCB has generally taken the politically “liberal” position on illegal immigration, emphasizing amnesty in one form or another, and even has tended to avoid the phrase “illegal immigrant”, favoring the euphemism of “undocumented immigrant”.  This merits some discussion. My primary point is not the issue of illegal immigration per se. I think that immigration law becoming a focus of the Bishops in the particular manner we see,  points to a larger problem in the Church. To illustrate this we do need to discuss the current political controversy a bit.

As with issues of economic policy, formulating immigration law that serves the common good involves balancing the effect of potential legislation on multiple competing values. No solution will be perfect. Nations have a right to regulate immigration so that social services will not be overwhelmed, people of a different languages and culture can be reasonably assimilated and criminals, such as drug traffickers  or terrorists do not enter the country. Of course most immigrants are not criminals,  but with 11,000,000 here illegally, even if 95% are saints, and only 5% are criminals/ terrorists then you have 550,000 bad guys. This is the equivalent of a city larger than Miami or Atlanta being populated entirely by criminals. Clearly nations have a right and a duty to the common good to control the tide, and even the liberal Bishops acknowledge this.

Unfortunately some commentators in the rush to  demonstrate their political fealty to the USCCB  have moved even to the left of the Bishops, and claim that the very idea of controlling immigration is morally suspect. Jeff Mirus on his site “Catholic Culture” ( which overall we like by the way) is essentially making this argument. It can be viewed here

We think this position is clearly insane. Its so nuts even the Bishops don’t publicly take this stance. For example Archbishop Chaput has stated “The Catholic Church respects the law, including immigration law. We respect those men and women who have the difficult job of enforcing it. We do not encourage or help anyone to break the law. We believe Americans have a right to solvent public institutions, secure borders and orderly regulation of immigration.”

The second point we would make is that the Bishops are engaged in a bit of politically correct obfuscation when they call illegal immigrants, “undocumented immigrants”. Give me a break! This is the kind of B.S. double talk I would not tolerate from my 14 year old son.  People who enter the country bypassing our normal immigration pathways are in violation of immigration law, and therefore are here illegally. Since they are breaking the law, they are “illegal immigrants”.  In the United States we like immigrants, we are a nation of immigrants. My grandparents were immigrants. But we prefer our immigrants enter legally like my grandparents did. It is the difference between a guest in your home who knocks on the front door and asks to be invited in, versus someone who sneaks in through an open back door. Is this all that hard to understand? OK, maybe many people sneak in out of desperation and mean no harm, but “sneaking in”, is illegal, and for good reason.  It seems pretty clear that if you sneak in, well, you are an illegal immigrant, and you are breaking the immigration law that Archbishop Chaput claims to respect. You may be a real nice person, maybe because of your desperate circumstances we should be merciful to you, give you some sort of amnesty and not deport you, but you are still by definition an illegal immigrant. Euphemisms are frankly dishonest and manipulative.

As it happens,  I do think that we should be merciful to most illegal immigrants , that is the 95% that are fleeing poverty and seeking to work. The 5% here for some other reason, perhaps to do some drug deals, well that’s another matter. There is no question that some of the illegal immigrant group are bad guys because government data from ICE demonstrates that in many regions with large illegal immigrant populations, the illegal immigrants are getting booked for felonies at rates from 200% to 500%  of their share of the population.

Archbishop Chaput goes on to state “Catholics of good will can legitimately disagree on the best way to bring about immigration justice. In an age of terrorism and organized drug violence, public safety is a pressing and understandable concern.” Precisely! I do not think rounding up 11,000,000 people can be done without giving the government police powers that would be unsavory or even cruel, and doing something to normalize the situation of many of the 11 million probably makes sense, even including some form of amnesty.  We need to do this in a way that does not encourage a greater flood of illegals, nor reward folks unfairly for sneaking in, while others knocked before they came in the door. Would doing otherwise be just to those who obeyed by our laws? We also must not support a law that allows illegals engaged in felonies to stay in the United States and prey on the innocent,  or allows even more criminals entrance into the country. All this once again involves all kinds of complicated policy tradeoffs. How a specific law will in fact balance these claims is not obvious.

Which brings me to my central point. Given that this is a matter of policy tradeoffs between multiple valid competing goals, why then in God’s name are the Bishops delving into this?

Now I can understand that with significant numbers of illegal immigrants being Catholic the Bishops might have a particular pastoral concern for their well being. In any case a plea that any solution to this problem be humane and even generous is reasonable. But this is not what the Bishops are doing.  They are devoting a good deal of effort, making a number of public statements and in fact through the USCCB , actively lobbying for policies with specific provisions. In fact as a practical matter they have clearly taken the “liberal” side in the policy debate. They use the language of the left ( undocumented immigrant and so forth..), and they have gotten to the point where they are endorsing a specific bill favored by the political left, that is “the gang of 8”  bill, Senate bill 744.)  SB 744  is some 800 pages long. Good Lord!  Have the Bishops read the 800 pages? There are currently two slightly different versions of the bill, which one do you prefer? Would that be with the bill with or without amendments your Excellencies?

Now is this kind of thing really what the Bishops need to be doing? After all Archbishop Chaput concedes that “Catholics of good will can legitimately disagree on the best way to bring about immigration justice. In an age of terrorism and organized drug violence, public safety is a pressing and understandable concern” So I ask is it a sin not to support Senate bill 744? How about if you support it in general but favor Sen. Rand Paul’s amendment ( that amnesty be on condition of congressional certification of border security) ? Is it OK to favor Senator Ted Cruz’s amendment that you get amnesty but you can not vote ( the penalty for violating the law)?  Isn’t this kind of nitty gritty policy making outside the purview of Bishops as “Bishops” ? What business do they have endorsing any specific piece of legislation?

Bishops should be engaged in the activity of helping us get to heaven and avoid damnation. That is they should be helping us to become holier. That’s not to say they should not be engaged in politics. At times the Government gets so unmoored  from a moral foundation that it actively engages in grossly immoral behavior and even may infringe on our natural God given rights. Examples of this include things like legally enshrining slavery, confiscating private property as under communism, violating religious freedom or legally allowing and even funding the murder of unborn children as with America’s abortion regime.  In such cases, when the government is in violation of the natural law, and the common good is threatened, when in fact the law itself is intrinsically immoral, then protest, criticism and active opposition to politicians abusing the public trust and even civil disobedience is not only permissible, it is morally required. It then makes sense for the Bishops to get involved in a big way, and it in fact every Catholic must join them as best they can. This is part and parcel of the Bishops primary job of saving souls. On a slightly different level the Church has a right to optimize its environment to preach the gospel and seek the means to do this, for example by seeking reasonable accommodations for Catholic schools  (such as educational vouchers)  and other Catholic institutions. It is reasonable and just for the Bishops to seek these things and for us to support them, as again it furthers the work of the Church in bringing people to God.

But when the policy issue is one in which competing duties must be balanced and this involves complex and competing legislative proposals that Catholics can disagree on, it is a misleading distraction for the Bishops to get heavily engaged.

So I ask the Bishops: Your Excellencies,  if I think Senate bill 744 does is flawed because it encourages further illegal immigration without securing the border and I oppose it, Am I committing a sin? If the answer is “no” would your time not be better spent addressing things like sin and its avoidance?

You see your Excellencies if your point is that we should be humane in dealing with illegal immigrants then I agree. In fact this is identical to telling a cancer surgeon you should be humane and competent dealing with a patient. But if you are specifying a specific piece of complex legislation, that even you acknowledge “Catholics are free to disagree about”, then isn’t this more like telling a cancer surgeon not only to be kind to the patient, but do this operation rather than that operation? Would not this be way outside of your area of competency? In fact are you not wasting time with this when you should be more specifically looking to bring people to heaven?

I personally do not know enough about Senate bill 744 to feel strongly about it one way or another. It is 844 pages long and frankly I have not read it.  Unlike, say the USCCB… I base my political preferences on things about which I have a reasonable level of knowledge.  Most of us can not be experts in everything, and we should not try. If a given Bishop has a deep personal interest in this issue and forms a policy preference one way or another based on this interest and knowledge, they are free like any other American to make their case,  but they should avoid making the case as “Bishop” since they enjoy no more divine mandate than the first 5 names in the phone book to weigh in on that kind of issue.

The point of this post is not to say yea or nay on Senate Bill 744. Catholic X-ray is  agnostic on that issue, and immigration reform per se  is not really the topic of this blog. What we are saying is that the mission of the Church is described in the Baltimore catechism. It says:  “Jesus Christ founded the Church to bring all men to eternal salvation” Pretty simple mission statement that. When the Bishops are engaged in the mission statement of the Church they enjoy a divine mandate and we should be under their authority. When they are engaged in simple politicking like for example favoring one particular Senate bill over another alternative based on specific detailed provisions of immigration law, favored by their liberal staffers, then they are not Bishops but functionaries of the Democratic national committee. Again as noted above, this is not to say the “Bishops should not be engaged in politics.” That would be nonsense. Its all about priorities and emphasis.

At the moment we are sliding into a moral abyss in this country on multiple different levels. We might slow the descent if we began to focus on the moral problems we face, and the laws that specifically undermine our moral fabric. To the extent politics is of concern to Bishops as “Bishops”,  the primary concern should be opposition to laws that are in themselves violation of the natural law, and thus as St. Thomas Aquinas would say not law at all but a corruption of law, or that somehow impair the ability of the Church to bring men to God. The main concern should not be particularly complex pieces of legislation, that of their nature are necessarily imperfect, but involve no intrinsic immorality and therefore do not cause anyone to lose their salvation.

Dealing with more complicated and technical policy issues that “good Catholics can disagree on” Is really then a technical issue. The best decision is determined by recourse not to the natural law, or scripture but to empirical data. This will often require expertise in areas not common among the clergy, and therefore is a job for the laity.  If the Bishops really want to impact that kind of thing favorably, then help us to be personally holier and more virtuous in general and good policy choices will follow.

While we are on the immigration topic I would like to refer you to an incredible miracle attributed to the intercession of St Francis Xavier Cabrini ( Mother Cabrini) who is the patron saint of Immigrants, the first American cannonized and to those of us who are Italian-American, she is a “piason”. Mother Cabrini pray for us....


For an incredible miracle story see

Novena to Mother Cabrini

O loving Savior, infinitely generous, seeking only our interest, from your Sacred Heart came these words of pleading love: “Come to me all you that labor and are burdened and I will refresh you.” Relying on this promise of your infinite charity, we come to you and in the lowliness of our hearts earnestly beg you to grant us the favor we ask in this novena, through the intercession of your faithful servant Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Amen.

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