On August 21, the Vatican released Pope Francis’s 2018 message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, a commemorative feast established by Pope Pius X in 1914. The message collects some of Francis’s now well-known considerations regarding migration, bringing them together into a four-point program: “to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.”
While much of the content of the message is therefore familiar to attentive followers of the pope’s statements, one particular expression stands out not only for its novelty, but indeed because of its apparent dissonance with earlier statements by the pontiff and with elements of Catholic teaching more broadly.
In what is perhaps the most puzzling line of the message, the pope asserts that the principle of the centrality of the human person “obliges us to always prioritise personal safety over national security.” In the full text, Pope Francis even invokes his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, as the underlying source of this notion:
The principle of the centrality of the human person, firmly stated by my beloved Predecessor, Benedict XVI, obliges us to always prioritise personal safety over national security. It is necessary, therefore, to ensure that agents in charge of border control are properly trained. The situation of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees requires that they be guaranteed personal safety and access to basic services. For the sake of the fundamental dignity of every human person, we must strive to find alternative solutions to detention for those who enter a country without authorisation.
Despite the explicit mention of Pope Benedict, the footnote provided has little bearing on the statement in question. The note redirects to Caritas in Veritate 47, in which Benedict indeed speaks of “the centrality of the human person,” but in the context of development, with no reference whatsoever to national security, immigration or the common good.
The statement provoked a good deal of comment and wound up highlighted by numerous media outlets as the most newsworthy expression in the entire message. The Guardian, for example, titled its story: “Pope Francis: prioritise migrants’ dignity over national security,” while the Washington Post printed the AP article with the headline “Pope: Rights of migrants trump national security concerns.” For its part, Reuters posted a piece called “Pope says migrants’ rights should override national security concerns.” Even certain Catholic media, such as the UK-based Catholic Herald, underscored this aspect of the Message, with the title “Pope Francis: put migrant safety before national security.”
This declaration provoked some consternation because it seems to contradict the ancient Aristotelian principle asserting the priority of the common good of society (koinion sumpheron) over the particular good of individuals, a concept fully incorporated into traditional Catholic theology and teaching.
According to Catholic teaching, the common good and the good of each individual person are not in opposition to one another, because the common good does not refer to some abstract collectivity such as “the state” but to the human community made up of real persons. It entails all the social conditions necessary for the material and spiritual flourishing of individuals, families and groups. Still, there is an understanding that individuals must look beyond their particular good to direct their activities to the common good as well.
Catholic teaching insists that the primary function of government is the pursuit of the common good of society, which explicitly includes national security.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the role of the state “is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society” (1898) and political authority itself derives its “moral legitimacy” from its effective commitment to the common good (1902). Authority is exercised legitimately, the Catechism continues, “only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned” (1903).
These statements are particularly germane when one considers that one of the three essential components of the common good, as expressed by the Catechism itself, is “the stability and security of a just order” (1909). The common good “presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defence,” it explains.
In other words, national security is one of the core components of the common good and therefore a fundamental responsibility of public authority.
The pope’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees must, of course, be read within the context of Catholic tradition, and in dialogue with other statements by Francis himself, which gives a better sense of what Francis was trying to express.
Pope Pius XII, in a letter of December 24, 1948 to the American Bishops, urged openness to migrants and refugees, with the sole caveat that the common good—or public welfare—of society be protected.
The sovereignty of the state, Pius stated, “although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public welfare, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.”
It is noteworthy that the one condition Pius places on his plea for openness to “needy and decent people from other nations” is the “public welfare” (publicae utilitati). In other words, Pius asserted that public welfare be placed above the particular good of individual migrants.
Pope Francis himself has seemed to express this very point in earlier statements.
In an extended interview earlier this year with the Spanish daily El País, the pope reaffirmed basic Catholic doctrine regarding immigration, namely, that sovereign nations have the right to maintain secure borders and to receive immigrants in an orderly and controlled fashion. He also seemed to imply that where threats to national security exist in the form of terrorism, nations may impose stricter criteria in admitting migrants.
“Yes, every country has the right to control its borders, who comes and who goes,” Francis said, “and those countries at risk—from terrorism or such things—have even more right to control them more.”
In this statement, Francis seemed to imply that concerns for national security—and therefore the welfare of citizens—legitimizes greater vigilance on the part of public officials in the regulation of migration.
This also falls within the Pope’s broader perspective that immigration flows be regulated in a “rational” fashion.
In May of 2016, a reporter asked Pope Francis whether Europe should be welcoming so many migrants, to which the pope responded that “it is a fair and responsible question because we cannot open the doors irrationally.”
In his most recent message, Pope Francis has shown once again that he has a particular gift for stimulating dialogue and debate on topics that affect Catholics in a particular way, and society in general. Moreover, the pope has a way of saying seemingly contradictory things at different times, which require being read together in order to garner the full sense of what he is trying to convey. Taken singularly, they can appear incomplete or even discordant with traditional teaching, whereas when taken together, their full meaning often becomes clearer.
In this particular instance, Francis is plainly not mounting a case to undermine the importance of national security or the duty of the state to protect its citizens. He is rather underscoring the dignity of each human person and the moral requirement to treat each one—whether a citizen or a foreigner—with the respect due to that human dignity.
That being said, the frustration experienced by many Catholics over the pope’s often imprecise language and seemingly studied ambiguity is not without merit. To say something that taken at face value is simply incorrect—such as the above affirmation, which came not in an off-the-cuff remark but in a formal message—can seem to many a disservice to the immense teaching authority that has been placed in the pope’s hands as successor to Saint Peter.
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