Protecting 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights
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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.
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