Tu est Petrus: The Vatican Voice in the Wilderness (2 of 3)

Words by Charles Baker

//“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.// – Leviticus 19:33-34

ONE OF THE INTERESTING dynamics at play in the present global immigration crisis has been the secular global perspective on the rhetoric coming out of the Vatican, and especially on Pope Francis’s pastoral response to the issue. While some who agree with hardline tactics of strict immigration enforcement (such as mandatory detention, federal prosecution, separation of children from parents as a deterrent, et al.) may feel that Francis, an Argentine Jesuit considered a “liberal” in the Church (though that word takes on a much different meaning in religious matters), is cozying up to leftists when he chastises Catholics refuse to accept migrants out of xenophobia, the Roman pontiff is actually holding a line of well-established Tradition and Catholic social teaching regarding care for migrant peoples, going back to the New Testament and articulated and codified during the 19th and 20th centuries. While just recently both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cited the Bible to ethically justify the White House EO requiring mandatory prosecution of persons/families entering the country illegally, and the resulting separation of families; it shall be demonstrated herein that this is a grave error, and American Catholics and Christians must repent from it swiftly before further harm is caused to these vulnerable poor, migrant, and/or asylum-seeking children and families.

Catholic Social Teaching on the option for the poor, on God’s special concern for the poor, and on the relationship between migrant/refugee families and the Holy Family goes back to the first seedlings of Christianity in the 1st Century. However, these teachings were not doctrinally synthesized until perhaps the 19th Century, with Pope Leo XIII 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor). Primarily concerned with labor than with immigration, Rerum Novarum proclaims the moral and natural right of a person to work for a fair wage and to own private property; among other things, it affirms the role of labor unions/guilds, and demands the rich to be “stewards of God’s providence” by employing their wealth for the benefit of the poor. With respect to immigration, Leo proclaims that people, having a natural right to a “means of living a decent and happy life,” may travel abroad if their homeland does not afford them such means. However, Leo concedes that it is always preferable for people to be fruitful in their homelands, and challenges nations and governments to build up “that justice which is called distributive – toward each and every class alike.”

This teaching continued to be affirmed by the Popes of the 20th Century. Blessed Pius XII, in the 1952 Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana, wrote, “we have condemned severely the ideas of the totalitarian and the imperialistic state, as well as that of exaggerated nationalism. On one hand, in fact they arbitrarily restrict the natural rights of people to migrate or to colonize while on the other hand, they compel entire populations to migrate into other lands, deporting inhabitants against their wills, disgracefully tearing individuals from their families, their homes and their countries.” It is noteworthy also that Pius XII writes with grave concern for the “innumerable refugees (who) underwent horrible suffering, being forced to abandon their possessions and to wander throughout Libya, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the district of Gaza.” He also reminds the bishops of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, an agency established by the Holy See in 1949 to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees of a war that Israel remembers as the “War for Independence,” and offers it as a model for the Church’s response to such grave moral issues.


St. John XXIII continues the thread of concern for the poor and for migrants in his 1963 encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty). In ordering the natural rights of a person, St. John XXIII lists among them the right “to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity;” and also the right “to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.(22) The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men;” when we add to this St. John’s proclamation on the family, we can begin to formulate a concrete moral reasoning around the present executive policy on illegal immigration in the United States: “The family…must be regarded as the natural, primary cell of human society. The interests of the family, therefore, must be taken very specially into consideration in social and economic affairs, as well as in the spheres of faith and morals.”


In spite of the American Religious Right’s cries of leftism when they hear Pope Francis, and prominent Catholic personalities like Fr. James Martin, condemn President Trump’s executive orders on mass deportation and separation of children from families, all of these papal writings and teachings that I have thus far shared pre-exist the Second Vatican Council. Catholics were still hearing Mass in Latin while Popes were affirming the human rights of migrant families. Nevertheless, even “conservative” Popes, such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, have expressed consistent concern and preference for the plight of migrant families. In 2008, on his apostolic voyage to the United States, Benedict addressed growing xenophobia in the US and from policies of the Bush Administration, telling the press:

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“the fundamental solution is that there would no longer exist the need to emigrate because there would be in one’s own country sufficient work, a sufficient social fabric, such that no one has to emigrate.  Therefore we should all work for this objective… This is in the interest of everyone, not just of these countries, but of the world, and also of the United States.

Besides this, short-term measures: It is very important to help the families above all.  In the light of the conversations that I have had with the bishops, the principal problem is that there be protection for the families, that they not be destroyed.  What can be done should be done. In the same way, naturally, all that is possible must be done to work against the instability of the situations and against all the violations, and to help so that they can have a truly dignified life where they find themselves in this moment.” (press interview, April 15, 2008)

Now, here it must be conceded that most of these same Popes have equally affirmed the right of nations to protect and secure their national borders for the common interest of their citizens. However, going back to Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII delivers us a well-reasoned truth: “Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” The human rights of refugees and asylum seekers precede the rights of any state. Nations, especially wealthy nations, have a moral obligation to affirm the dignity of migrant peoples in whatever situations they find themselves, including the circumstances of their entry.

It should be beyond politics to condemn such action as lying to parents and children, claiming children are going for a bath only to be sent to a detention center or shelter in another city or another state. It should not require an exposition of 100 years worth of Vatican writings to affirm God’s special care for poor migrant families, He having chosen to be born into one. And yet, here we are, listening to Americanist heretics hide behind “muh Bible” and its alleged “support” for enforcing unjust laws. The Bible teaches us that a law devoid of Justice carries no privilege of validity, and therefore levies no debt of compliance (Daniel 3:1-18). Likewise, Scripture condemns those who would uphold unjust laws (Isaiah 10:1-2). The teaching of the Church, delivered from the Holy See of Rome, is both clear and unchanging; the poor, the refugee, and the family unit all receive a special grace from God, and Justice demands we honor that by affording them all due care and concern for their welfare. It would hardly require the martyrdom of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rather that we all rise up and affirm, in thought, word, and deed, the moral and natural law, the Truth decreed by our Father and made manifest in Christ Jesus.

//And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”// – Matthew 16:17-19

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