A Reply Perspective of the Holy See on Catholic Social Teaching and Migration

Michael A. Blume, SVD
Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has much to say on migration issues, as Fr. Hehir has ably brought out in his presentation. Mine intends to complement what he has said, by examining the Holy Sees role in proposing this teaching by examining three of its contributions, which are not always well known but nevertheless important.

Before going to my topic, I would like to make some observations of CST. This body of teaching has evolved particularly since the nineteenth century industrial revolution, when worldwide developments in society, states, labor and ownership, as well as in migration ( see RN 46-47), called for discernment and response of the Church.

These were and are signs of the times which the Church has always has the duty of scrutinizing ... and of interpreting ... in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics (GS 4). The Holy Spirit guides the Church to interpret what is happening in the world and its history in the light of Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, who reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling (GS 22) and thus the dignity of human nature that he took to himself. This dignity is the centerpiece of CST. On that basis the Churchs social teaching proposes principles for reflection ... provides criteria for judgment ... [and] gives guidelines for action (CCC 2423).

Ecclesia in America

I would like to start with (EA), which, referred as it is to the vast geographical, cultural and religious reality called America, has also borne fruit in the joint pastoral letter of the Bishops of Mexico and the United States, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. That letter builds on the ecclesial communion and collaboration encouraged by EA among local Churches, applying them to the specific needs of migrants moving between Mexico and the United States.

In the handout I prepared, you can see that EA 65 deals explicitly with migration and EA 52 briefly with refugees. Both references are in the context of promoting a culture of solidarity, a major issue of CST. Solidarity, as EA 52 states, is the fruit of the communion ... grounded in the mystery of the triune God [and] ... is expressed in Christian love which seeks the good of others, especially of those most in need (EA 52), among whom are migrants. They, in turn, often bring with them, says EA 65, a cultural and religious heritage which is rich in Christian elements. To experience this reality basically the theme of our conference requires a pastoral strategy of mutual openness that will bring enrichment to all ( ibid.).

The theme of migration penetrates EA. Its concerns about family, for example, are also about family in migration. The challenges of youth are also those of young potential migrants. Church as reconciled communion is also Gods People learning how to embrace different cultures. Meeting Jesus Christ in America today includes welcoming him in the stranger. Ministry and solidarity with the poor necessarily reaches out to migrants.

EA brings migration-related issues before the Church in America and calls for reflection, prayer and action, whose goal is appropriating CST, being inspired by it, becoming capable of interpreting the present situation, and determining the actions to take ( see EA 54). These regard the quality of welcoming, appreciating, and defending the stranger in ever evolving social and cultural situations. When authentic, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, constantly calling to mind everything that Jesus Christ has left us, and producing, in the community enlarged by migration, fruits like love, joy, and peace ( see Gal. 5:22). If I may interpret this further, we are talking about the power of Jesus Christ, exercised in the communion of hierarchy, religious, and lay faithful, that makes his authority and gospel present, transforming the social, cultural, political and economic realities surrounding migration in America (see EA 8, 10, 54, 68). It is growth of the seed of Gods Kingdom, planted by teaching the social doctrine of the Church.

Messages of the Holy Father for World Day of Migrants and Refugees

The titles and concerns expressed in the twenty-five messages of this Pontificate ( see the handout) show the continuing reflection of CST as it is reread and restated in a migration key. Here are the most obvious examples:

  • forced migrants and refugees and the violation of their most basic human rights (1979, 1984)

  • the family in migration and challenges it faces (1980, 1986, 1993)

  • respecting and promoting the cultural identity of migrants  something at the heart of our meeting (1981, 1985, 1991, 1999)

  • the human dignity of migrants in irregular situations (1984, 1995)

  • serious problems faced by migrants (1987)

  • particular burdens of migrant women (1994)

  • the love of Christ and his Church for migrants (1997, 1998)

  • respect for the religion of migrants (2002)

  • the commitment to overcome all racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism affecting migrants (2003).

Wherever the human persons dignity, life, social relations, or culture are in question owing to the experience of migration, CST has a contribution to offer as can be seen in these messages. They are, in a sense, a compendium of CST on migration, offering a prophetic word that encourages ( see Lk. 22:32) those involved in the world of migration, trying to live out their faith there.

The messages, however, do not stop at social justice issues. CST, while certainly flowing from natural law, is primarily an expression of the faith of the Church in Jesus Christ, whose Holy Spirit pushes us to ever renewed ways of living out his gospel and evangelizing. It is important to discover this spiritual reality, which is essential to the identity of the messages and makes them different, say, from declarations of migration advocacy groups. Pastoral-social action and spirituality go hand in hand, and the messages offer good models for that.

The gospel message promotes justice and development in the world of migration precisely because it leads to conversion of heart and of ways of thinking, fosters the recognition of each persons dignity, encourages solidarity, commitment and service of ones neighbor, and gives everyone a place in Gods plan, which is the building of his kingdom of peace and justice, beginning already in this life. This is the biblical perspective of the new heavens and a new earth ( cf. Is. 65:17; 2 Pt. 3:13; Rv. 21:1), which has been the stimulus and goal for mankinds advancement in history (RM 59). Progress in the world of migration necessarily derives from God, and from the model of Jesus God and man  and must lead back to God ( ibid). Proclaiming the gospel and pastoral-social action are closely linked.

Discourses of the Holy Father or His Representatives to Various Organizations

The Sunday Angelus and the Wednesday General Audience have often been occasions for addressing the world about migrants and their concerns, as shortly before World Refugee Day this year (June 20th) when Pope John Paul II spoke about young refugees and appealed to the international community to deal with the causes of their problems. In texts listed in the handout, you can also note frequent support for the 1951 Geneva Convention, a key rights instrument, and an appeal for generous interpretations of its letter and spirit. International cooperation on migration issues is likewise urged, a frequent refrain in the Holy Sees diplomacy, also in the Israeli and Palestinian situation, which keeps unsolved one of the oldest and largest refugee situations in history. There are also lesser known statements, such as the New Year Message to the Diplomatic Corps or addresses to ambassadors presenting their credential letters, many of whom come from countries affected by dramatic forms of human mobility. Finally, speeches and messages at international meetings carry forward the reflection and positions taken by the Holy See on the evolving reality of human mobility and the discernment of its meaning and implications.

Something similar can be said for statements by Papal Representatives (Nuncios, Permanent Observers, and others) accredited to international organizations (UN, UNHCR, European Union, etc.) or to States or by Delegations of the Holy See to international conferences. This is the Holy See in dialogue with the peoples and nations on migration. (Last week this involvement was further attested in the presentation of Words that Matter, a collection of 1,310 such speeches in the period from 1970 to 2000, which includes a chapter on refugees).

The handout summarizes the main issue in these discourses as they touch on migration, whether forced or voluntary. Reading them, one might ask: What do these reflections on development, justice and peace have to do with migration? The answer is that they deeply affect the movement of people.

  • Thus there is a nexus between integral human development (another name for peace, as Popolorum progressio affirms) and respect for human rights. Break the link, and we have the reasons why so many people leave their homelands or are even forced to do so. The discourses frequently urge addressing the root causes of displacement, which include the unresolved problem in international debt and the increasing number of least developed countries.

  • A special insistent contribution of the Holy See, something in practice almost unique to Christianity, lies in the affirmation that there will be no peace without justice, and no justice without forgiveness. Thus, peace is more than agreements, promises, or treaties, however necessary these may be. Something enduring, mercy and forgiveness, has to cement them. Otherwise the cycle of forced migration starts again.

  • In speaking of solutions, the discourses often refer to the human family, all men and women seen as united in origin and destiny, in a culture of solidarity based on the universal common good. In such a culture, richer nations keep promises made to poorer ones and build confidence, not distrust (Message for the World Day of Peace 2003, n. 8). (This observation may also be relevant to the seemingly stalled migration situation between the United States and Mexico.) Implicit in this is also an international culture that puts the universality of human rights as one of its core principles.

The Pope and his representatives tend to be optimistic about what has been achieved and can be achieved in international diplomacy, reflecting on what would be the situation if even the often imperfect progress made through negotiations had not taken place. Never giving up is part of Christian hope and closely linked to CST.

Is this all only talk? While some may think so, we should not undervalue the power of what springs from faith and hope. Faith moves mountains and breaks down barriers constructed by the human heart. The seed of the Kingdom grows in unexpected ways ( see Mk. 4:26-29).

Truth and Love: The Dynamism Behind CST on Migration

In conclusion, let me mention two things that make CST possible and, in its own way, effective. The first is one of the four pillars of peace as taught in Pacem in terris and a continual refrain in the thinking and teaching of John Paul II: the truth. There exists in mans very nature an undying capacity to break through the barriers of error and seek the road to truth (PT 158). An inner dynamic pushes each of us to reach out to the truth, affirm, respect and love it. That is the truth about God, man, history  and human mobility. Here is the basis for discovering that migrants do come bearing gifts, that the stranger is a bearer of culture that can enrich and complement my own, that migration was and is related to positive economic and social developments of many countries. The search for the truth is a struggle against yield to what John XXIII called the barriers of error. That means going beyond prejudices and populist media to the people who are migrants. Discovering and loving the truth of the other is a life-long project of conversion from going along with the crowd to new attitudes of trying to know and love the bearers of other cultures, the migrants themselves. This is the path to discovering what are the needs of the migrants  and not project my own on them  what are their aspirations, and in what ways they can be met. Ultimately it is the demanding  and rewarding  task of discovering the mystery of the other, the migrant, as a brother or sister for whom Jesus Christ died and rose.

The second is: Stake everything on charity. That phrase is from the Churchs program for the twenty-first century, laid out in Novo millennio ineunte (NMI). Charity of its nature opens out into a service that is universal; it inspires in us a commitment to practical and concrete love for every human being (NMI 49), including the stranger, sacrament of Christ himself ( see Matt. 25:35-37). The Holy Father calls for continuing our two-thousand-year tradition of charity, now with greater resourcefulness and creativity. Essential in this is getting close to those who suffer, so that the hand that helps is seen not as a humiliating handout but as a sharing between brothers and sisters (NMI 50). Then echoing a migration theme, the Pope continues: We must therefore ensure that in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the Kingdom? ( ibid.).

A privileged instrument for that is CST. I hope the three examples I have explained may provide some of the encouragement in the faith we all need.

Other abbreviations:
CCC - Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992)
GS - Gaudium et spes (Vatican II, 1965)
PT - Pacem in terris (John XXIII, 1963)
RM - Redemptoris missio (John Paul II, 1990)
RN - Rerum novarum (Leo XIII, 1891)
UN - United Nations
UNHCR - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees