Joe Biden, the self-declared President-Elect, is widely portrayed by the media as a “good Catholic” for his liberal position on immigration, with expectations that he will reverse many of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies once he takes office. “Biden has vowed to reverse limits on temporary workers, loosen visa restrictions on international students, halt border wall construction and end private immigration detention centers,” NPR reported on November 12. Indeed, according to a press release from Biden’s team, immigration was one of the topics discussed during a phone call with Pope Francis on November 12.
It’s not surprising that immigration was on our Holy Father’s mind, given that his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, was interpreted as an endorsement for countries to loosen immigration restrictions. “When Francis defends seemingly limitless ‘rights without borders’ (§121),” wrote Assumption University professor Daniel J. Mahoney, “he ignores the crucial role of self-governing political communities in sustaining social friendship, and the rights and obligations of a free society.” Prominent Catholic podcast host Taylor Marshall, in turn, interpreted Francis as endorsing an end to all borders tout court. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò censured the encyclical’s “indiscriminate welcome of immigrants” and derided the “immigrationist claims of the globalist agenda.”
No doubt Fratelli Tutti has many pro-immigration exhortations. Until “substantial progress” is made in all nations for a “dignified life and integral development,” writes Pope Francis, “we are obliged to respect the right of all individuals to find a place that meets their basic needs and those of their families, and where they can find personal fulfilment. Our response to the arrival of migrating persons can be summarized by four words: welcome, protect, promote and integrate” (§129). A little later he writes: “Immigrants, if they are helped to integrate, are a blessing, a source of enrichment and a new gift that encourages a society to grow” (§135). Our Holy Father, in particular, calls for Europe to “assure assistance and acceptance to migrants” (§40). Presumably, he thinks the same of the United States.
Certainly no one could accuse Pope Francis of not taking seriously God’s commandment in Leviticus 19:34: “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.” Indeed, one might properly interpret the second chapter of Fratelli Tutti—a reflection on the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan—as a not-so-implicit exhortation for Christians (and nations) to invest more energy in caring for poor migrants. Yet, in other ways, the encyclical can be read as an argument—albeit perhaps an unintentional one—for careful, conservative immigration policies that limit the number of “strangers” a nation should take in.
The first place we see this is in Pope Francis’s emphasis on loving and maintaining one’s unique cultural identity. Early in the encyclical he writes: “Peoples that abandon their tradition… end up losing not only their spiritual identity but also their moral consistency and, in the end, their intellectual, economic and political independence” (§14). He urges countries to respect the values of other countries’ cultures. He admonishes nations not to “look down” on their “own cultural identity” (§51). “There is no worse form of alienation than to feel uprooted, belonging to no one,” he writes, exhorting the nations to “foster a sense of belonging among its members, [and] create bonds of integration between generations and different communities” (§53). Our Holy Father explains: “The different cultures that have flourished over the centuries need to be preserved, lest our world be impoverished” (§134).
Yet what we are witnessing in the West, and certainly in the United States, is a great upheaval over the nature of our traditions and culture. The 1619 Project—which is now being taught as part of many school districts’ social-studies curriculum—has sought to rebrand American history and society as thoroughly, and even indelibly, racist. Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, whose books sell in the millions of copies, launch bromides against the “white patriarchy” and “white fragility.” Our elected officials encourage or permit the tearing down of our monuments, even to historical figures as saintly as Junípero Serra and Damien of Molokai.
Americans are engaged in a vociferous and even nasty debate over our history and culture at its core. Moreover, many are quite eager to exploit new, vulnerable immigrants as weapons in a war against traditional American values that they deem racist, sexist, and backward. This program runs deep. The Smithsonian this summer featured an exhibit that labeled “hard work,” “self-reliance,” and politeness as emblematic of a white, racist patriarchy. Certainly relevant to the discussion of immigration is how capable America is of welcoming and integrating large numbers of migrants when we increasingly lack a coherent sense of a shared American vision.
Elsewhere in his encyclical Pope Francis argues that more prosperous nations “can offer a generous welcome to those in urgent need.” However, he says, they can also “work to improve living conditions in their native lands by refusing to exploit those countries or to drain them of natural resources, backing corrupt systems that hinder the dignified development of their peoples” (§125). Indeed, as quoted earlier, “unnecessary migration ought to be avoided” by helping other nations to offer a “dignified life and integral development” to their citizens (§129).
This is a harder strategy to implement, but one often overlooked. Illegal immigration is often driven by disastrous political realities in countries whose poverty and instability have roots in earlier U.S. foreign-policy decisions. Alternatively, foreign investment in those unstable countries that provides security, stability, and economic opportunities can significantly stem these migrant trends. U.S. assistance in Colombia represents one success story: homicides, kidnapping, and terrorist attacks have dropped dramatically in recent years. America can reduce immigration, especially from neighbors in our hemisphere, with such an approach.
Related to this, Pope Francis also argues that “an appropriate and authentic openness to the world presupposes the capacity to be open to one’s neighbor within a family of nations. Cultural, economic and political integration with neighboring peoples should therefore be accompanied by a process of education that promotes the value of love for one’s neighbor” (§151). He exhorts us to pursue a “lively sense of neighborhood,” where “community values are maintained” (§152).
Here our Holy Father implicitly refers to what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls the “order of charity,” the concept that “there must necessarily be some order in things loved out of charity.” In other words, our loves should be ordered in concentric circles. Of course, God is preeminent. This is followed by our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and our neighbors. When applied politically (and using the framework provided by Pope Francis) this would mean that we care more for those nations closest to us via geography or culture. Considering geography, we would prioritize poor, desperate Latin Americans over poor, desperate Africans or Middle Easterners. Returning to Pope Francis’s first point on culture, we would also want to consider which cultures are best capable of integrating into our unique American society.
Lawrence M. Mead argues in Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power that there is significant research to support the idea that certain peoples and cultures are better equipped to assimilate into America than others. He cites, for example, the differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures and between cultures that are moralistic and those that are defined by situational ethics. The United States is generally individualistic and moralistic. Significant sections of the rest of the world are not. Trying to assimilate persons with such different backgrounds from America, Mead notes, typically takes multiple generations and is a far greater burden on the state and society.
No less than the Dalai Lama declared in 2018 that “Europe belongs to the Europeans.” On Europe’s crisis of refugees, Tibet’s Buddhist spiritual leader added: “Receive them, help them, educate them… but ultimately they should develop their own country.” In an earlier 2016 interview, the Dalai Lama declared: “Europe, for example Germany, cannot become an Arab country.” Perhaps our Holy Father could call an ecumenical conference and invite the Buddhist leader to share his thoughts on immigration!
None of the above is intended to argue that America is currently allowing too many immigrants, or too few, which is beyond my intention here. However, as Francis himself seems to admit, Catholics can be faithful to Church teaching while still maintaining a sober, restrained position on immigration. Mass immigration, our Holy Father implicitly acknowledges, can undermine the cultural and political unity of a nation (so will promoting legal recognition of same-sex unions, I might add). Helping our neighbors become stable and prosperous is a better long-term plan than simply welcoming wave after wave of economic or conflict-induced migrations. And if we welcome immigrants, we have a duty to prioritize those from our closest neighbors or those with whom we share cultural identity. All of this, to cite Francis, is done because Americans, like all peoples of the earth, are called to “protect and love our native land.”
[Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano]