The Catholic Church and Illegal Immigration

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for years. But with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent declaration that illegal immigration at America’s southern border constitutes an “invasion,” the button has gone from hot to scorching. Many self-described but poorly-catechized Catholics — particularly of the terminally-online keyboard warrior variety — have decried Abbott’s stand at the border, mischaracterizing it as uncharitable and even unchristian. But the Lone Star State’s governor, himself a convert to Catholicism, clearly has an understanding of the Catholic Church’s teaching on immigration, borders, and national sovereignty.

The inextricable relationship between borders and national identity, culture, and sovereignty was for so long understood that few popes ever spoke on the relationship between borders and immigration before the World Wars. The great Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on borders and immigration in his 13th century masterwork the Summa Theologica. Relying on analysis of Sacred Scripture, Aquinas explained that while nations are called to exercise charity to foreigners, each nation’s chief responsibility is to its own people, with the dual aims of preserving national unity and the common good.

A nation’s relations with foreigners, Aquinas explained, may be “twofold: peaceful, and hostile: and in directing both kinds of relation the Law contained suitable precepts.” That is to say, God’s Law demands nations respond differently to peaceful and hostile foreigners. While Aquinas emphasized that foreigners should be treated with dignity and not abused, he declared that a nation has the right to reject or repel immigrants it deems “hostile.” Furthermore, in order for immigrants to be adopted into a country, they must first adopt that country’s culture and way of life. “The reason for this,” he explained, “was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.”

It is perhaps difficult to recall that Aquinas was writing centuries before democratic republics would come into existence, in an age of monarchs and knights, where the voting booth was not yet even a glimmer in man’s imagination. Many conservatives’ comments on immigration today are reminiscent of the Angelic Doctor’s reasoning.

Centuries later, especially in the wake of World War II, immigration escalated exponentially, prompting Catholic leaders to speak on the subject in order to inform the consciences of the faithful. Pope Pius XII was one of the first pontiffs to directly and clearly address the issue of immigration, laying particular emphasis on not only the common good of a nation but the common good of the whole human race. Witnessing countless masses of refugees displaced by the near-global conflict, Pius XII asked Americans in a 1949 address, “Is the policy concerning immigration as liberal as the natural resources of a country so abundantly blessed by the Creator would allow and as the needs of other countries seem to require?” In his 1952 Apostolic Exhortation Exsul Familia Nazarethana, Pius XII wrote:

Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.

The pontiff was speaking of immigration of necessity — not of want, not of whim, but of necessity — the sort of immigration Aquinas would classify as “peaceful.” Families displaced by war and violence still seek shelter in nations blessed by God with abundant riches, and while every nation has a duty to its own people, it has also a duty to mankind as a whole.

But hundreds of thousands of fighting-age males are not necessarily fleeing war — and if they were, they would be cowards, leaving behind their women and children while they refuse to fight. Asylum claims are too readily accepted by the derelict government and its agents. Even fleeing economic impoverishment is not always necessary: America’s success is not predicated simply on its geography and topography, but on the will, imagination, and fiery spirit of its people; if America can produce a culture of success and prosperity, so also can other nations, if they are not readily abandoned by their own people.

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