Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles has been both garnering praise and taking a drubbing for his somewhat melodramatic statements on immigration. A New York Times editorial lauded him for his boldness and his injection of a moral dimension in the political debate. Catholic bishops intervening in political disputes is, one might note, not usually among the Times ’ favorite things. As anti-abortion commentators have pointed out, Cardinal Mahony has not distinguished himself by statements in defense of unborn children comparable in forcefulness to his statement of preferences between competing immigration bills in Congress.

Following the blessing of the Times ’ editorial page, the cardinal was given the op-ed page to expand on his views. One of the more gentle criticisms of the cardinal’s position is offered by the editors of National Review :

In Wednesday’s New York Times , Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles made his case. He not only opposes the House Republicans’ immigration bill, which emphasizes enforcing the laws against illegal immigration, but has directed the priests of his archdiocese to disobey it if it becomes law. The bill, he writes, “would subject [priests], as well as other church and humanitarian workers, to criminal penalties.” He adds, “Providing humanitarian assistance to those in need should not be made a crime, as the House bill decrees. As written, the proposed law is so broad that it would criminalize even minor acts of mercy like offering a meal or administering first aid.”

If the House Republicans had proposed such a bill, they would deserve to be opposed. But they have not, and Cardinal Mahony is at least uncharitable in claiming that they have. The cardinal points to a provision of the bill that makes it illegal to “assist” an illegal immigrant to “remain in the United States.” (The person providing such assistance would have to know, or recklessly disregard, the assistee’s legal status to have committed an offense, by the way, not that the cardinal shares that information with his readers.) That provision is directed at those who traffic in illegal immigrants. Its language largely replicates existing legal provisions that have never been applied against charitable work. The cardinal has never raised any objection to the existing law, and indeed praises it in his op-ed.

Mahony writes, “Only comprehensive reform of the immigration system, embodied in the principles of another proposal in Congress, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration bill, will help solve our current immigration crisis.” He is referring to the McCain-Kennedy legislation that (to characterize it polemically) would provide an amnesty for illegal immigrants here and raise immigration levels.

The cardinal’s language (“What the church supports is . . . ”) may confuse the casual reader. Surely he is not suggesting that it follows from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church that a particular piece of legislation is the “only” way to “solve our current immigration crisis.” That would be an absurd abuse of Mahony’s teaching authority. Presumably what he means is that this legislation, in his judgment and the judgment of other bishops, best embodies the moral principles that the Church believes should govern immigration policy.

Everybody who has been paying even modest attention knows that there are several pieces to the current immigration debate, including protecting the integrity of the border, finding a way to encourage the return or to legalize the 11 million or so illegal immigrants now in the country, establishing a guest worker program, assimilating immigrants on their way to citizenship, and dealing fairly with the hundreds of thousands of people who are not from Mexico and have been waiting in line for years to enter the country legally.

In a forthcoming issue of F IRST T HINGS , Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School has a critically sympathetic examination of the policy proposed by the bishops conferences of the U.S. and Mexico, which is not to be confused with Cardinal Mahony’s personal advocacy.

Next to the Wall Street Journal ‘s virtual advocacy of dismantling the border altogether, the Catholic bishops are probably the most influential pro-immigration lobby in the country. This is not unrelated to the fact that the overwhelming majority of immigrants from Latin America are Catholic. The alliance of corporate America and the Catholic bishops on this question throws into a cocked hat the conventional notions of what is liberal and what is conservative.

Charles Krauthammer has been writing that we will never get a coherent immigration policy until we regain control of the border with Mexico, and I expect he is right about that. He and others argue that a nation that can build thousands of miles of eight-lane freeways can build a wall that works. Put into the mix sophisticated technology in law enforcement, and I expect that, too, is right. My own hunch, however, is that we’re not going to have a coherent immigration policy any time soon.

According to some commentators, the recent wave of street demonstrations by immigrants legal and illegal has created a backlash. Perhaps so. The anti-immigrant sentiment was already powerful, as evidenced by the bill strongly backed by the House. Both by conviction and by a calculation of the Latino vote ten or twenty years from now, President Bush seems to be determined that the Republican party not be perceived as the anti-immigration party. Democrats obviously want to encourage that perception. If, after the wrangling in the Senate and the subsequent negotiations with the House, a bill emerges that is widely perceived as anti-immigration, I would not be surprised if the president exercises his veto power for the first time in office.

One thing is for sure: The Catholic Church, at least 30 percent of whose members in this country are Hispanic, will continue to champion the cause of immigrants. This is true because of the present circumstance and probable future. The message of John Paul II’s Synod of the Americas in 1997 suggests that the future is going to be, more and more, that of one continent called the Americas. Needless to say, not all the people of the U.S. share that vision. It seems probable that some new law will be adopted in this political season (what season isn’t political?), and just as probable that it will be riddled with the contradictions that will keep this pot boiling for as far as anyone can see into the future.

But maybe not. For a somewhat different perspective, persuasively argued, watch for Mary Ann Glendon’s article in F IRST T HINGS .


In addition to which :

Where does theology fit into the self-understanding of the contemporary university, if it fits at all? That’s the question initially posed by philosopher James Stoner and addressed in the May issue of F IRST T HINGS by three theological luminaries: Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and David Hart. Isn’t it time that you became a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ? Click here .


Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School says of Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :

"The author of The Catholic Moment has done it again. From its opening meditation on the death of the Pope that Neuhaus was one of the first to call ‘the Great,’ to the closing notes on the conclave that elected Benedict XVI, this beguiling book brings the reader into conversation on the current state of the Church with one of the great Catholic thinkers of our time. No one is better than Father Neuhaus at reminding us why, even in times of confusion and controversy, it’s a joy to be Catholic!"

The book can be ordered from Amazon here .

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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