Teaching Aid - Scribner

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedProtecting the Poor, The Migrant and the Outcast

by Todd Scribner, Ph.D.
Education Outreach Coordinator, Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Awakened in the dark of night, Jose’s mother told him to leave and head north to stay with his aunt who lived thousands of miles away in another country. It was not that she wanted him to go—her heart shattered with the very prospect of his departure—but ongoing threats from gangs and drug cartels in the neighborhood where they lived anticipated his death if he stayed. She would join him soon, she promised, for remaining might guarantee her the same fate if they found that she had sent him away.

Driven from their home some three years earlier because of a civil war in her home country, Amina and what remains of her family—her father having been killed in the conflict and her brother long missing—now spend their days whittling away the time in a dusty refugee camp. Opportunities for intellectual development are limited and professional opportunities scarce. The likelihood of having a life in which Amina's God-given talents can be fully realized remain bleak if she is to remain trapped in the camp for much longer.

Such stories could be multiplied almost endlessly and told with any number of variations with respect to their details. While different in many ways, what they have in common is that all begin with suffering and many end on the same note. Most of them happen without our knowing or with only a passing nod of concern if known. Lamenting the death of hundreds of refugees who had recently died near the island of Lampedusa, Pope Francis decried the "globalization of indifference," which has conditioned us to become "accustomed to the suffering of others." We, as a Catholic people, he declared more recently, are called to counteract this debilitating tendency and to participate in the Church's mission to spread "throughout the world a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place or disposable" (Pope Francis, Message for the 2015 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20140903_world-migrants-day-2015.html).

The Catholic Church has a long tradition of accompanying migrants in their journey and of providing to them pastoral care and material support needed to start a new life. Beginning in the the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic bishops of the United States responded to the influx of Irish and German Catholics and, more recently, to large numbers of Latino Catholics who enter the United States and settle down in communities across the country. Following World War II, the Church took up the mantle of refugee resettlement, and in the intervening period, has resettled well over a million people who escaped from war-ravaged countries and other dire situations.

In the process, the Church has developed a vast infrastructure aimed at supporting vulnerable migrant populations. These include Catholic Charities and related resettlement agencies, offices of cultural diversity, and parish ministries of varying kinds. Through advocates, who work with legislators to pass legislation that respects the dignity of migrants, through social workers and other like-minded individuals, who exert long hours to provide a warm welcome, the Church demonstrates a commitment to live in solidarity with the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the vulnerable.

Such a commitment is not the product of whim or simple self-interest but is rooted in the Scriptural command to welcome the stranger (Mt 25:35), and in the moral teaching of the Church that affirms the inherent dignity of each person and the central role of family in community.

Welcoming the Stranger in Scripture and Catholic Teaching

Throughout the Bible, the theme of migration repeatedly emerges and often signifies a turning point in the life of God's people. Abraham and Sarah are called by God to migrate from the land of Ur to the promised land of Canaan. God tells them "Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father's house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing"(Gn 12:1-2).

In Exodus, Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, and for forty years, they lived as wanderers with no homeland of their own. The Israelites' own migrant experience gave rise to God's command to take special care of the alien: "When an alien resides with in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt"(Lv 19:33-34).

The Gospels begin with Matthew's story of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt because the power-hungry King Herod wanted to kill their newborn son, Jesus (Mt 2). Our Savior and his family lived as refugees because their own land was not safe. Reflecting on the flight of the Holy Family, Pope Pius XII proclaimed that they represent an archetype for all refugee families living in the world today (Exsul Familia). The Acts of the Apostles often portray the early Christian community as a persecuted people who are scattered across the world.

The central role that migration plays in Scripture and the life of the Church has led some theologians to focus on migration as a primary context and source in their thinking, thus giving rise to theologies of migration. A fundamental premise of such theologies rests on the conviction that “God, in Jesus, so loved the world that he migrated into the far and distant country of our broken human existence and laid down his life on a cross so that we could be reconciled to him and migrate back to our homeland with God and enjoy renewed fellowship at all levels of our relationships.” (“Theology in the Age of Migration,” by Dan Groody, National Catholic Reporter, ncronline.org/news/global/theology-age-migration).

From this perspective, the Church is itself understood as a pilgrim Church in the process of migrating from this world to the next, where we will find communion with God. Such an understanding emphasizes the extent to which our existence here on earth is a process of an ongoing reconciliation with God and with those around us. An emphasis on reconciliation and renewal seeks to counteract the effect of artificial barriers that separate people, including national boundaries, ethnic divisions, and even religious differences.

A Fallen World, Therefore a Divided One

Despite the fact that our ultimate goal is communion with God and with those around us, we live in a fallen world, and for as long as we do, artificial barriers that can distort human relations will remain with us. The Church seeks to mitigate the deleterious effects of these realities and instead supports the development of institutions that promote solidarity and respect for human dignity. With respect to the migration phenomenon, one way the Church accomplishes this is through the abovementioned pastoral structures and parish ministries that welcome migrants into their new land and provide support with integration. A second avenue the Church uses to create a sense of solidarity is through the public policy making process. Teaching documents of the Church have, over the past century, developed a series of moral principles that can help guide the development of migration policy. These principles include the following:

I. Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.

All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.

II. Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.

The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.

III. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders.

The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.

IV. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.

Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.

V. The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.

Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary. (Strangers no Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope [Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2003)


"I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul the Great reflects on Cain's words when confronted by God for the murder of his brother and recognizes in Cain's deflection the "tendency for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters" that is often reflected in a "lack of solidarity toward society's weakest members—such as the elderly, the infirm, immigrants, children" (Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Evangelium Vitae [EV] [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–USCCB, 1995], no. 8). Are we our brother's keeper? Yes. We are responsible for others as we are called—commanded—to love our neighbor as ourselves (EV, no. 40). This is true not only for the unborn, the sick, and the elderly, but also for the lonely migrant who has nowhere to lay his head and simply needs a little help from someone who cares. Will that someone be you?

Further Reading

On "Strangers No Longer": Perspectives on the Historic U.S.–Mexican Catholic Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Migration. Todd Scribner and J. Kevin Appleby, eds. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

Dan Groody, "Theology in the Age of Migration," National Catholic Reporter (September 14, 2009), ncronline.org/news/global/theology-age-migration.

Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States, January 22, 2003, www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/strangers-no-longer-together-on-the-journey-of-hope.cfm

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpt from Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, copyright © 1995, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope Francis, Message for the 2015 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, copyright © 2014, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.