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In 1967 the great Methodist theologian Paul Ramsey published a book with the above question as its title. It was an incisive critique of aberrations in the ecumenical movement and of the World Council of Churches in particular. Ramsey was fond of observing, with his usual wry grin, that it was an unusual book in that already on the cover it asked and answered the crucial question. On the cover was the title, Who Speaks for the Church? , and immediately beneath that: Paul Ramsey. The following reflection is from the forthcoming "Public Square" section of the Aug/Sept issue of First Things . Isn’t it past time that you became a subscriber to First Things ?

The Senate’s "comprehensive" immigration bill has been sidelined for a time but will surely return in one form or another in the near future. Everybody recognizes that there is a very big immigration problem, but disagreements over how to define and how to remedy the problem could hardly be more intense. The proposal to send them all back and seal the border is at one extreme, and the proposal to abolish the border and let them all in is at the other. The first proposal is generally recognized as outlandish, while the second has a few reputable proponents. Opponents of the Senate bill brought many charges against it. It was derided as an "amnesty" bill, and critics claimed we had been there before, in 1986, with a measure that produced the problem we’re now trying to remedy. Moreover, it was said, amnesty blurs, if it does not obliterate, the distinction between legal and illegal activity, a distinction vital to the social order. Then there was the "guest worker" provision that raised for many the specter of millions of residents who would never become citizens and the related problems that Europe has experienced with guest workers. Add to that the bill’s proposal of a complex system of "Z-visas," and it is not surprising that, in light of what has happened in the past, many Americans felt their intelligence insulted by the claim that the government is competent to find, process, and reliably certify the twelve million or more illegal immigrants already in the country, never mind the thousands crossing the border every day. These and other considerations informed the intense reaction against the Senate bill. But I believe it is fair to say that the chief factor, and a factor weaving its way through most of the other arguments, is anxiety about national sovereignty, even, if you will, national dignity. Myriad arguments were paraphrases of the claim of presidential candidate Fred Thompson that this is our American home and we should be able to decide who lives in our home. The immigration debate is about what to do about illegal immigrants. It is also, if not more so, a debate about America and what it means to be an American. If anyone doubted that before, it should now be evident to all. Among Catholic bishops, and among religious leaders in all communities, nobody has been more outspoken in this debate than Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles . Last year he received widespread media attention when he declared that he would engage in civil disobedience rather than comply with a law requiring him to report illegal immigrants, and he directed priests and other church workers to follow his lead. Many expressed admiration for his bold, even prophetic, stance, while others charged him with grandstanding, pointing out that nobody was suggesting that IDs should be checked at Mass or food kitchens. More recently, Cardinal Mahony offered a comprehensive account of the Church’s position on comprehensive immigration reform at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He very specifically and repeatedly asserted that he was setting forth "the underpinnings of the position of the Catholic Church on immigration reform legislation." His lecture is sprinkled with expressions such as "the church leadership argues that . . . "; "the Church maintains that . . . "; and "the Church’s position is . . . " We are clearly given to understand that he is not merely expressing his own views or speaking in his capacity as the archbishop of Los Angeles but is speaking for the Catholic Church. Immigration, the cardinal says, has to do with much more than what we ordinarily mean by the economy. He notes that economy comes from the Greek oikonomia , which means the arrangement of a household. The concern, he says, is "the full flourishing of everyone who is part of God’s economy, household, or community. The question is, Who belongs in the household? Is God’s good household roomy enough for all? Or who precisely is the we in we the people ?" At points in his presentation, it seems that God’s household is the Church; at other points, it is the people of Israel. In the latter connection he cites Deuteronomy 10, "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt," and Exodus 22, "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." At yet at other points, God’s household seems to be the entire human race. "As a Christian," says the cardinal, "there are no prior commitments that can overrule or trump this biblical tradition of compassion for the stranger, the alien and the worker." "These scriptural and theological foundations can be applied to the current debate on immigration in our country." Current policies are "unjust" and "immoral." They do not provide that every worker "reaps the fruit of their labor in dignity and with full rights in this society." "Thus, to restore order to God’s household, we must ensure that all are welcome to the table." And thus "the question becomes whether those who reside outside the law have the same claim to a seat at the table as those who are not outside." To that question, "church leaders say yes." If I understand him correctly, the distinction between the outlaw and the law-abiding is, at least with respect to immigration policy, morally irrelevant. There is a passing reference to respect for "national sovereignty," so long as it is not construed as "a fiction of artificial national security." This is immediately followed by the assertion that the Church’s position "is grounded in a proper view of economics, true to the etymology of the term, which emerged in ancient civilizations and in early Christian history to describe the arrangement of a household¯God’s household, which is ordered and open to those who long to sit at the table which they helped set." Cardinal Mahony’s concern for the well-being of illegal immigrants is laudable¯and unavoidable in view of the population mix of Los Angeles and southern California. It is a concern we all must share. The difficulties many of these people encounter are severe but not, in their own judgment, as severe as the difficulties they encounter south of the border, or else presumably they would not be here. It is a pity that the cardinal’s comprehensive address on these questions does not touch on ways to encourage the economic and social development of Mexico. Such ways are persuasively suggested in, for instance, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus , which is the teaching of the Catholic Church. A greater difficulty with the cardinal’s lecture, however, is the facile move from Bible quoting to public-policy prescription. That move is less characteristic of Catholic social thought than of the habits of biblical fundamentalists. The cardinal’s position is devoid of respect for what Pope Benedict repeatedly stresses as the role of reason in rightly ordering the sphere of the "authentically secular." But most striking and, I believe, unfortunate is the cardinal’s conceptually confused but unmistakable attack on the nation-state, both in its domestic responsibilities and in the international order. Such an attack has no warrant in Catholic social doctrine. The cardinal correctly says that the question is "who precisely is the we in we the people ?" To which, as the current immigration debate has underscored, most Americans respond, in accord with the preamble to the Constitution, We the people of the United States . Cardinal Mahony says that he speaks for the Church. Fortunately, and while he is undoubtedly an important voice in the Church, that is not true.

Well, isn’t it at last time ?

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