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Frustrated by the national government’s failed efforts to reform our immigration laws, many states and municipalities have begun taking matters into their own hands. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 240 immigration-related bills became law in forty-six states in 2007. With no federal solution in sight, we can expect more of the same in 2008.

Oklahoma led the way in 2007 with perhaps the harshest law, HB 1804, which made it a felony for any person knowingly to conceal, harbor, shelter, transport, or move illegal immigrants in the state. Many fear that this measure will receive a broad interpretation, drawing within its web those who minister to the spiritual and basic material needs of others. Indeed, the bill’s author has promised another bill next year. If enacted, this further legislation will allow the state to seize the assets of those who knowingly transport, ­harbor, or conceal undocumented aliens.

In an article in the Daily Oklahoman , I characterized the primary legislative proponent of these laws as an Inspector Javert on a relentless mission to hunt down the Jean Valjeans of Oklahoma. And just as the bishop in Les Misérables offered Christian hospitality to Jean Valjean, so such local immigration laws offer the Church an opportunity to rise above partisan politics in a legally and morally complex situation.

The archbishop of Oklahoma City, Eusebius Beltran, and the bishop of Tulsa, Edward Slattery, have recently made attempts to do exactly that. They had reason to do so: Given the strictness and potentially far-reaching nature of Oklahoma’s law, these two bishops found themselves on the frontlines of the Church’s response.

In a state where only 7 percent of the population is Catholic, two challenges faced the bishops: to articulate the Church’s teaching on the contours of a just immigration policy and to protect the liberty of the Church from state encroachment. This second challenge should not be underestimated. Hispanic Catholics constitute a significant and growing minority of Catholics in Oklahoma, and some of them are in the United States unlawfully. The Church is not the cause of our nation’s disordered immigration system, but it must respond to the people it encounters, regardless of immigration status, by promoting the sacramental life among the faithful and by offering charity to all.

HB 1804 has the state poised to punish such works of mercy. According to Bishop Slattery, some fear offering rides to cancer patients because of the law’s proscription of transporting illegal immigrants. He notes that state authorities have used their new powers to intercept undocumented persons entering the churches. The law also threatens Catholic unity, with the prospect of some Catholics turning in fellow Catholics who are here unlawfully or who provide spiritual or material assistance to the undocumented.

Faithfully and courageously teaching Catholic social doctrine, each bishop has attempted to put a desperately needed human face on the “illegal alien.” Echoing the words of Pius XII, these two pastors remind us that “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and 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.”

Yet the responses of Archbishop Beltran and Bishop Slattery suffer from serious deficiencies. Both bishops view the law as unjust and immoral. But is the law unjust because of its treatment of those here unlawfully? Or unjust because of the harsh ramifications for those who offer humanitarian and spiritual aid? These issues are not clearly demarcated, and both bishops fail to make their case in a clear and coherent fashion that accounts for the nuances in Catholic social teaching.

In a highly publicized move, Archbishop Beltran and the archdiocesan Council of Priests sent Governor Brad Henry their “Pledge of Resistance” to HB 1804. The signatories stand “together in opposition and defiance of this unjust and immoral law,” promising they would “not obey this law.” In a letter published in Sooner Catholic , the archbishop said that “neither I nor any of the priest signatories intend to meddle in politics. Rather we have been ordained to proclaim the Good News.” Whether intended or not, the Pledge of Resistance makes a powerful political statement”and one that diminishes the Church’s unique ability to proclaim the Good News. Indeed, by defining themselves in opposition to this law, the signatories implicitly give primacy to the secular realm and the civil authority that promulgated the law.

What is the alternative? By simply and affirmatively proclaiming what Christ calls them to do”administer the sacraments, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the alien”the signatories could have written and signed a pledge to stand with, minister to, and love the undocumented regardless of the consequences, legal or otherwise, for the signatories.

Such a pledge of solidarity or hospitality would have given primacy to the gospel. Christians are called to be Christ for the world regardless of the cost. At this time, when a Christian witness might come with a price tag, this alternate pledge would have stated that the archbishop and the priests of the Oklahoma City archdiocese remain firm in this commitment. Additionally, by stating the case affirmatively, rather than in opposition to the secular authority, a pledge of solidarity would not have prematurely and imprudently drawn conclusions about the interpretation, force, and validity of laws such as HB 1804.

The new Oklahoma law might be read narrowly in such a way that much of the charitable and spiritual work performed by the Church and its members will not be affected. Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Act also arguably exempts the Church and its members from the law’s harsh penalties, and there is a good argument that the state law is preempted by similar federal legislation.

All of this is lost in the archbishop’s Pledge of Resistance. Indeed, the pledge evinces subtle forms of American individualism and marginalization of the Church. Archbishop Beltran and the priests signed it ambiguously as “people of faith and conscience.” Does “people” here mean just themselves, or does it mean the entire community of persons? Is the designation “Archbishop of Oklahoma City” below Beltran’s signature meant for identification purposes only or is he speaking as archbishop and for the community of believers? In seemingly speaking as individuals of faith and conscience, the signatories place their own view as one among many in the cacophony of voices weighing in on this issue. Lost in this muddle is the uniqueness of the Church’s authority to teach on these issues as the City of God in every age works to transform and humanize the City of Man.

Bishop Slattery’s approach does not suffer these shortcomings. His Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of Tulsa, “The Suffering Faces of the Poor Are the Suffering Face of Christ,” clearly demarcates the two cities. Instead of succumbing to individualism, Slattery reminds his flock that, as bishop, he has the authority and responsibility to teach, sanctify, and govern in communion with the other bishops under the guidance of the pope. Slattery’s pastoral letter in response to HB 1804 is aimed at building up the faith of those who live in eastern Oklahoma by proclaiming the Church’s teaching concerning the preferential option for the poor, solidarity with the marginalized, and the humanity of all immigrants.

Bishop Slattery’s pastoral letter falls short, however, in failing to clearly and coherently lay out the Church’s position on immigration. In one paragraph, Bishop Slattery writes: “The basic intention of this law is to deny those who have entered our country illegally the right to work in Oklahoma and the right to find shelter for their families in our communities. Thus they are forced to flee our state. I believe that the right to earn one’s living and the right to shelter are basic human rights, the fundamental building blocks of a just society, and to deny these rights is immoral and unjust.” The next two paragraphs seem to contradict this paragraph: “But I do not mean by this that our nation ought to surrender its borders. I believe . . . that we must restore the rule of law on our borders and protect our nation against attack from infiltration. As a nation we have a right, indeed the imperative, to control our nation’s borders.”

A burden of this pastoral letter is to demonstrate why HB 1804 is unjust and immoral. There are good arguments to be made that it is, but the letter does not flesh them out. If, as the Church teaches and Slattery reiterates, a nation has a right to control its borders, then it cannot be always and everywhere unjust to deny persons work and shelter in a particular location. So why is HB 1804 unjust and immoral? The letter recounts the suffering of some affected by the law, but the mere fact that people suffer, even gravely, as a consequence of the law does not make a law unjust and immoral.

Archbishop Beltran notes that “Pope John Paul II . . . frequently proclaimed the right of people to emigrate when faced with the inability to live in peace or security,” including economic security. The Church also teaches, as noted by Bishop Slattery, that nations have a qualified right to restrict immigration. How do we in the United States, at this particular moment in history, reconcile these competing rights in a just and moral way? And, do we dare speak of obligations”obligations of the would-be émigré to stay put and help his own country develop if he can, and the obligation of the United States to open its borders to those who need our resources to flourish?

Whatever the solution to our broken immigration system, three things are clear. First, it is unjust and immoral for any politician to exploit the poor and marginalized, including those here unlawfully, for his own political gain. Second, immigration, tied up as it is in national sovereignty and foreign affairs, is largely a national issue, and states ought to tread lightly. Third, even if we solve the problems and adopt a just and moral immigration policy that is completely consistent with Catholic social doctrine, individuals and families will still risk their lives to come into the United States unlawfully in search of a better life. Even here, in the face of a just law, the Church must continue ministering to them regardless of the consequences.

Michael A. Scaperlanda holds the Gene and Elaine Edwards Family Chair in Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.