Fr. Nick VanDenBroeke got into hot water recently for a homily he delivered on January 5, which is Immigration Sunday in his diocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In the homily, he called for restrictions on Muslim immigration, saying that “Islam is the greatest threat in the world both to Christianity and to America … we need to recognize that and our laws of immigration need to reflect that.” He posted an audio online, local papers picked it up, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) complained, and the rest is history.
After a January 29 meeting with Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Father VanDenBroeke issued a statement saying, “My homily on immigration contained words that were hurtful to Muslims. I’m sorry for this. I realize now that my comments were not fully reflective of the Catholic Church’s teaching on Islam.”
The Archbishop also issued a statement saying, “The teaching of the Catholic Church is clear. As Pope Benedict XVI noted, ‘The Catholic Church, in fidelity to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, looks with esteem to Muslims, who worship God above all by prayer, almsgiving and fasting, revere Jesus as a prophet while not acknowledging his divinity, and honour Mary, his Virgin Mother.’ … That continues to be our teaching today.”
What do we make of all this?
For what it’s worth, I don’t think the errors of Muslims are the big threat to America and Christianity. The big threat is that Americans and Westerners are destroying what remains of their own civilization and religion. If our governing classes didn’t want to merge America and Christianity into a global technocracy, it wouldn’t be so hard to deal with Muslim immigration and many other issues in a more sensible way.
But Muslim immigration does touch on the nature and identity of American and Western society, so it is still an important issue. And on that issue Father VanDenBroeke is right that large-scale Muslim immigration into non-Muslim countries causes problems.
With all the good will in the world not everyone gets along equally well. That’s why good fences make good neighbors: they reduce the friction when we want to do our thing and other people want to do their very different thing. So why not, as Father VanDenBroeke suggests, “consider the religion and worldview of the immigrants or refugees”?
Ever since “diversity” became the justification for affirmative action, people have claimed it makes us stronger, but they also note it’s a “challenge”—which means it causes problems. So why not ignore the rhetoric, look at the substance, avoid the problems, and accept the obvious point that it’s harder for people to live together when ultimate loyalties and standards differ?
Also, we need to consider the value of the standards and loyalties in question. Most of us would rather live in a society that skews toward Christianity, natural law, widespread participation in government, and a great deal of personal freedom than one that skews toward the Koran and a code of law determined by religious scholars based on divine commands that are understood as absolutely arbitrary.
And it’s better if presenting and acting on such views doesn’t look like an attack by one ethno-religious community on another. But it will inevitably look that way when there are large communities of Catholics and Muslims in the same society.
And then there’s the problem of the often violent relations between Muslims and other religious communities, a problem related to the Koran’s attitude toward war as the means of spreading Islam. You don’t have to believe that Muslims individually are violent to think that this is relevant in how things often turn out with them when large numbers are involved over long periods.
Such concerns—and the policies that take them into account—do not violate natural right or Catholic teaching. The basic purpose of a government is to look after the common good of its people, and government is entitled to limit immigration in accordance with that good. With that in mind, the right to immigrate to America can’t be the sort of “fundamental personal right” with regard to which Gaudium et Spes forbids discrimination based on religion.
Nor is different treatment for different religious groups foreign to recent American immigration policy, as shown by the less favorable treatment granted Orthodox and Muslim believers compared to Soviet Jews, Evangelicals, and Catholics.
It is true that Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium speak well of Islam and Muslims, pointing to similarities between their faith and ours. But they don’t suggest that there can be no practical problems that need to be dealt with.
Indeed, Nostra Aetate notes such problems, saying that “not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems.” It asks all “to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together … social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom,” but “forget the past” evidently means “don’t hold grudges” rather than “ignore experience.”
Prudence is, after all, a virtue in government. And if prudence tells us that mutual understanding shouldn’t be put under too much stress, and that differing attitudes toward the good life and the nature of justice can lead to political and social problems, then it seems that justice, welfare, peace, and freedom would best be served by letting the Muslims run things their way where they are while we run things our way where we are.
This means that historically Christian nations would do best not to import large Muslim communities, who would inevitably feel disadvantaged as long as the host society retained any tincture of Christianity, and whose faith considers such a situation a radical inversion of how things should be.
The resulting pressure for radical secularism and abolition of traditional connections would serve the goals of our present governing classes, who want to eliminate the specific qualities of the West in the interests of universal technocracy, and who think Islam and Muslims can be managed because they don’t take religion seriously and consider ordinary people endlessly manipulable. It doesn’t seem a good idea to support them on this point whatever the rhetoric about inclusion, tolerance, racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and so on. As always, it is best to keep basic considerations in mind.
But there are other real issues to consider. In a difficult situation it’s good to be diplomatic, and that’s a big reason popes from Gregory VII to Benedict XVI have so often preferred to say nice things about Islam and Muslims. Unfavorable treatment of Muslims with regard to immigration would make relations more difficult with a Muslim world given to outrage, even—or especially—if the treatment were justified. That’s okay if it can’t be avoided, but the problem should prompt reflection.
Increased friction with Islam isn’t the only problem recent trends in immigration have created. Other groups are also said to enrich us culturally, but as diversity and numbers grow when does an enriched culture become an incoherent one? And not all groups do equally well. Mexican immigration doesn’t raise the issues we’ve been discussing, but to all appearances it’s resulting in another enduringly disadvantaged community on American soil. Saying the trend is going to reverse—because we won’t let it continue—seems a poor basis for policy when inequality has been such a stubborn problem wherever it exists.
With all these things in mind, and given the growing inequality and moral and cultural incoherence of American society, why isn’t the best approach to all these concerns a general pause on immigration so that Americans can figure out what they can agree on and how they can best live together? The alternative is government by elites estranged from those they govern. That is increasingly what we have, but why accept and further the trend?
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