Bishops tempted to delve into politics would have only themselves to blame for the bitter criticisms which would surely follow such a foolhardy venture. In the realm of the political, bishops have their opinions like every citizen, and like any citizen, are free to express their ideas both inside and outside of the polling place.
But they must be very careful when they speak, lest it seem that they are speaking as bishops—when they don’t intend to. If they speak as bishops, when they address political concern from the cathedra, so to speak, they might give the impression that they are teaching with the authority of the Church’s Magisterium.
But that said, we must also remember that everything which is political also touches upon the moral. This is obviously so, since every human act has a moral dimension. For this reason, the truths of our Faith must be brought into our political conversations, and bishops—the teachers of the faith—have a serious obligation to elucidate the Christian morality of our contemporary political and social concerns. They do this in order that our political conversations be brightened with the light of Christ and our political decisions reflect Christ’s fundamental law of love.
This is why when we consider the question of illegal immigration and border control, as we should if we are to be responsible citizens, we should remember that before all else we are disciples of Jesus who said, “Inherit the Kingdom of my Father, for when I was a stranger, you welcomed me” (cf. Matthew 25:34, 35b).
It is the clear teaching of the Catholic Church that sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. Illegal immigration is wrong and harms everyone involved in it.
But the corollary of this teaching must also be upheld: when our nation’s demand for labor attracts a massive number of potential immigrants, the United States must do what it can to establish an orderly process whereby needed workers can enter the country in a legal, safe, and dignified manner to obtain jobs or to reunite themselves with family members.
In recent years, when there was a steady demand for labor, the federal government allowed millions of immigrants to enter the country illegally for the sake of our economy. It did not protect the sovereignty of our borders, nor did it provide a realistic means for these needed workers to enter the country legally.
Instead the federal government left state and local governments to deal with the resultant chaos of millions of valuable workers who have no legal identity, no automobile insurance (and are unable to obtain it), no health coverage (nor funds to pay for it), and no means of acquiring legal residency.
These workers are not unknown to us. They live in our neighborhoods and pray with us at Mass. We benefit every day from their labor in framing and painting our houses, roofing our office buildings, finishing our cement walks and driveways, harvesting and processing our food, and serving us in our restaurants. These men and women broke the law by entering the country illegally, but they did this with the tacit permission of the federal government, and most have since become part of the fabric of everyday life in America, contributing by their industry and intelligence (as well as by their taxes) to the common good.
Without detailing the deficiencies either of the new law in Arizona or of the proposed legislation in Oklahoma, let me propose five principles which might serve to guide our work in implementing comprehensive immigration reform:
The Federal government must find a way to protect the nation’s borders.
Some way must be found to give the eleven to twelve million undocumented workers presently in this country legal residency. Legal residence is not the same as citizenship and does not include the right to vote, but it would allow those who are here some measure of security from the fear of detection and deportation. Legal residency should not be granted to those convicted of a felony.
The federal government must reform the immigration process,including the creation of various avenues for migrants to enter the country legally based upon a formalized agreement between employers and the immigration office.
Due process protections for illegal immigrants should be restored.
Our approach to the problem of illegal immigration must be bi-partisan and as far as possible, non-political, so as to avoid the temptation of promoting immigration reform in such a way as to gain political advantage over one’s legislative opponents.
Civilizations and cultures have always been enriched by the peaceful movement of peoples. Languages enrich one another with new expressions and greater vocabulary, new ways of cooking are learned and enjoyed, religious and cultural customs educate, and the human spirit becomes enlivened and excited in the process.
America has benefited from every wave of immigrants that has come to these shores. Whether brought here in slave ships or in the fevered holds of the Irish Famine ships, whether they come as refugees from political and religious oppression or as men and women who flee extreme poverty, each immigrant group has strengthened this country. The same is true today for the illegal immigrants in our midst from Ireland, Honduras, Mexico, or Poland.
We must recognize that all men and women are equal whether they are United States citizens or not. Christ commanded us to love one another and he meant this to be universal.
Edward J. Slattery is bishop of the diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma.