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Recently, while speaking in the Italian city of Bari, Pope Francis mentioned contemporary “populist” politicians—specifically, those who describe recent waves of migrants traveling from Africa to Europe as an “invasion.”

“I grow fearful when I hear certain speeches by some leaders of the new forms of populism; it reminds me of speeches that disseminated fear and hatred back in the thirties of the last century,” he said. “Fear is leading to a sense that we need to defend ourselves against what is depicted in demagogic terms as an invasion. The rhetoric of the clash of civilizations merely serves to justify violence and to nurture hatred.”

Decrying walls and calling on European politicians not to close their countries’ borders, the pope said that to oppose international migration is to “stand in the way of the unification of the human family, which despite many challenges, continues to advance.” “Notions of racial purity have no future,” the pope said, though without stating which notions he was alluding to. “The message of intermingling has much to tell us. To be part of the Mediterranean region is a source of extraordinary potential: may we not allow a spirit of nationalism to spread the opposite view, namely, that those states less accessible and geographically more isolated should be privileged.”

Guinean-born Robert Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has a somewhat different view of migration. In April 2019, Cardinal Sarah gave an interview to the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles in which he called mass migration a “new form of slavery.” He made clear his view that proselytizing in favor of the mass movement of peoples from Africa to Europe is at odds with the Christian message. “It is better to help people flourish in their culture than to encourage them to come to a Europe in full decadence,” he said. “It is a false exegesis to use the word of God to promote migration. God never wanted these heartbreaks.”

In this interview also, he seemed to acknowledge that he was challenging a position being articulated somewhere within the Church. “Today, many priests and bishops are literally bewitched by political or social issues,” he said. 

Today, I am not afraid to say that priests, bishops and even cardinals are afraid to proclaim what God teaches and to transmit the doctrine of the Church. They are afraid of being frowned upon, of being seen as reactionaries. So they say fuzzy, vague, imprecise things to escape criticism, and they marry the stupid transience of the world. . . . All migrants who arrive in Europe are penniless, without work, without dignity. . . . This is what the Church wants? The Church cannot cooperate with this new form of slavery that has become mass migration.

He also warned that the West, with its low birth rate, risks disappearing. In making this point he had recourse to the concept of invasion: “If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision.”

In his most recent book, The Day is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Sarah speaks emphatically in several different passages of the risks and ills of mass migration.

Everything must be done so that people can remain in the countries that saw their birth. Every day, hundreds of Africans die in the waters of the Mediterranean.
Very soon, we know, there will be in Europe a singularly dangerous imbalance on the demographic, cultural and religious levels.
Globalized humanity, without borders, is a hell. The standardization of ways of life is the cancer of the postmodern world. Men become unwitting members of a great planetary herd, that does not think, does not protest, and allows itself to be guided toward a future that does not belong to it.
Men do not resemble one another. Nature, too, is multifariously rich, because he ordained it so. Our Father thought that his children could be enriched by their differences. Today globalization is contrary to the divine plan. It tends to make humanity uniform. Globalization means cutting man off from his roots, from his religion, from his culture, history, customs, and ancestors. He becomes stateless, without a country, without a land. He is at home everywhere and nowhere.
I can understand the idea of some cooperation of peoples. I can understand a certain opening of boundaries so as to improve economic exchange. But the libertarian liberal ideology is nonsense. Europe is dying of this selfish delirium.

Cardinal Sarah’s elucidation of Church teaching on mass migration appears to align with that found in Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the Israelites’ laws regarding foreigners. He divides relationships between natives and outsiders into two categories: hostile and peaceful. On the first he was unambiguous: Hostile outsiders—those belonging to tribes or nations opposed to the culture and creed of the Jews—should never be welcomed. The Jews, he declared, did not admit visitors from all nations equally, since peoples closer to them were more quickly integrated into the population than those from farther away.

Regarding peaceful relationships, Aquinas identified three categories of “strangers”: 1) Travelers (in today’s parlance, tourists); 2) Those who “came to dwell in their land as newcomers” but without full citizenship, like part-time resident aliens who come for work or other purposes; 3) Those seeking full admission to the nation, who, having pledged their allegiance to it, were required to wait for two to three generations before being regarded as fully integrated. The reason for this, he made clear, was that if foreigners were allowed to “meddle” in the affairs of a nation soon after arrival, “many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.” For Aquinas, total integration into the creed, life, culture, traditions, and language was essential for full acceptance of the “stranger.” In other words, the “stranger” bore the greater part of the burden for ensuring that he ceased to be such.

In this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is ad idem with Aquinas, placing equal emphasis on “welcoming the stranger” and the responsibility of governments to protect their own citizens. Countries are obliged “to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” But a nation is not required to accept numbers of migrants likely to impose an excessive burden on its own citizens—and migrants themselves have responsibilities to their host nations. The Catechism also states that political authorities, for the sake of the common good, may make immigration subject to various juridical conditions, “especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.” Immigrants are obliged to respect “with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” The Catechism also emphasizes the primacy of subsidiarity, which implies that loyalty to the nation is superior to loyalty to a global ethic. 

The differences between Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah on these questions are so stark as to suggest that the Church today speaks with two diametrically opposing voices on the issue of the meaning of “love thy neighbor,” at least when it comes to “welcoming the stranger.” Perhaps it is in part for this reason that there was speculation last year about the possibility that Cardinal Sarah would throw his lot in with those Catholics who had come out in unequivocal opposition to the pope on other matters, some even going as far as to accuse him of various heresies.

Cardinal Sarah soon dismissed such suggestions. “Whoever is against the Pope is, ipso facto, outside the Church,” he said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, published to coincide with the release of his book last October. “Those who place me in opposition to the Holy Father cannot present a single word of mine, a single phrase or a single attitude of mine to support their absurd—and I would say, diabolical—affirmation.”

He further said that those who portray him as an opponent of Pope Francis are being used by the devil to help divide the Church. “I would add that every Pope is right for his time,” the cardinal said. “Providence looks after us very well, you know. . . . The truth is that the Church is represented on earth by the Vicar of Christ, that is by the Pope. And whoever is against the Pope is, ipso facto, outside the Church.”

In The Day Is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Sarah quotes liberally from Pope Francis as well as his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Indeed, he insists that his book echoes Pope Francis. The dedication reads: “For Benedict XVI, peerless architect of the rebuilding of the Church. For Francis, faithful and devoted son of St Ignatius. For the priests throughout the world in thanksgiving on the occasion of my golden jubilee of priesthood.” 

On occasion, Pope Francis has said things not entirely dissimilar to some of Sarah’s statements. In March 2017, speaking to reporters on a flight home from South America, the pope said that governments have the right to exercise prudence in admitting migrants, regulating flows when the number of arrivals becomes unsustainable: “This means you have to ask yourself first: How much space do I have? Second: You have to remember it’s not just about taking them in, but also integrating them.”

In other instances, Pope Francis might well appear to be “opposed” to Cardinal Sarah. In September 2018, speaking to members of his own order, the Jesuits, in Mozambique, he said: “Building walls means condemning yourself to death. We can’t live asphyxiated by a culture as clean and pure as an operating theater, aseptic and not microbial.”

The phrase “oppose” has many different, if related, meanings. It can mean “challenge” or “disagree with” or even “contradict,” and each of these terms in turn has different meanings, depending on context. In Catholic terms, “oppose” might be phrased as “refuse to submit” (to the pope or the Magisterium). Refusing to submit is something quite different from simple disagreement—at its highest in this context amounting to “vertical schism,” a refusal to accept the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, a ground for excommunication.

It may be that, in emphasizing that he was not opposed to Pope Francis, Cardinal Sarah was taking pains to stress that he was not, in differing from the pope on certain matters, ipso facto “opposing” the pope—as others clearly were. He was making clear, in other words, that his intentions were in no sense schismatic, distancing himself from those who appeared to nurture such intentions and may have been counting Cardinal Sarah an ally.

There are differences of opinion between theologians concerning where and to what extent Catholics must obey the pope’s teachings and judgments. It appears to be the generally held view that, when the pope speaks on matters other than doctrines relating to faith and morals, he does not speak for God or the Church and is expressing nothing more than his personal judgments and opinions. The present pope, being especially garrulous, delivers himself of diverging opinions in all kinds of situations; interviews, impromptu press conferences, off-the-cuff comments to bystanders, and so forth.

Papal infallibility arises only in relation to matters of faith and morals. A Catholic may disagree with a pope’s personal opinion or judgment, but may not disagree with Church teaching and remain a Catholic. For a pope to render one of his decrees infallible, he would have to deliver it ex cathedra, from the chair of St. Peter, making it absolutely clear at the time that this was his intention. The last time this happened was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII infallibly declared the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.

It seems clear that the pope’s declarations on mass migration are not magisterial interventions, and might at the highest be called “non-definitive teachings.” (Various magisterial teachings require various degrees of adherence, a separation being made between “definitive” and “non-definitive” teachings.) It has also been noted that Pope Francis frequently appears to contradict even himself, so that sometimes it seems possible for anyone to claim to agree or disagree with him on just about anything.

It is possible for a cardinal to disagree with the pope on procedural or pastoral questions, though not on questions of Church doctrine or discipline. Otherwise, a cardinal has a duty to inform the pope respectfully if he believes he is wrong about something. The authority of the pontiff derives from the pope’s obedience to the Lord, and in this he may be subject to the fraternal correction of his cardinals. Pope Francis himself has said that disagreement in the Church is necessary and good: “If there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn't be normal.”

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.

Photo by Bradley Weber via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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