Plans to reform the immigration system are on everyone’s lips at the moment. The New York Times reports that priests are planning to “preach a coordinated message” backing changes in immigration policy, including using Sunday Masses to “urge Congressional passage of a legislative overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.” The decision “to embrace political action from the pulpit,” the Times tells us, is part of a wider effort by “faith groups that support President Obama’s call for new immigration laws,” which includes advertising campaigns, phone calls to Catholic Republican congressmen, and public rallies.
In another immigration-related move, the University of Notre Dame, perhaps the country’s best-known Catholic institution of higher education, has announced that it will begin to admit undocumented migrants as students, providing they have the requisite academic qualifications. Those who are not in the country legally will not qualify for federal aid, but Notre Dame has committed itself as an institution “to meeting the full demonstrated financial need for all admitted students.”
No doubt Notre Dame’s decision will be subjected to criticism, just as some Catholics have dismissed the bishops’ support for immigration reform as “leftist jargon.” Yet, whilst the practicalities of the immigration system, and how it can be reformed, are a hugely complex matter, the principle seems difficult to argue against. In the Book of Ezekiel, speaking of the land with which God had abundantly blessed Israel, the Prophet exhorts the Israelites:
You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as native-born sons of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance, says the Lord GOD. (Ezek 47:22)
Yet, even granting the basic principle—which recurs frequently, in strong language, throughout Scripture—that we must not “neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb 13:2), and that those who pervert the justice due to them will be “cursed” by God (Deut 27:19), we see in operation here two very different approaches to the immigration question that reflect, in turn, two very different approaches to the question of how the Church should engage with secular political structures as the Church, as the Body of Christ in the world, and not merely as a conglomerate of American citizens.
The first approach—involving the embrace of “political action from the pulpit”—is distinctly counter-productive. It is well-intentioned insofar as it seeks to translate Christian doctrine into practical action aimed at building a more just society (something we should all be concerned about). But it is inherently self-defeating. Catholics can’t translate the word of God into righteous deeds if they are not hearing the word in the first place. They can't be expected to translate doctrine into action if the exposition of doctrine that ought to be occurring within churches has been replaced with “political action from the pulpit.” We can’t take Christ out into the world unless we first encounter him, and turning church services into rallies for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans, for that matter) makes it harder, not easier, for Catholics to encounter Christ in our common worship.
In an address bluntly entitled “Priests Do Not Have a Political Mission,” Bl. John Paul II reminded clergy that although they have a responsibility to provide guidance on the “ethical aspect” of political questions, including those “concerning the possession, use, allocation and distribution of earthly goods,” it is important to remember that “the role of priests in social and political action is not identical to that of the laity.”
The lay Christian is called to be directly involved in this activity to make his contribution so that Gospel principles may hold ever greater sway in society. Following Christ, the priest is more directly concerned with the growth of God's kingdom. Like Jesus, he must renounce involvement in political activity, especially by not taking sides (which almost inevitably happens). Thus he will remain a man for all in terms of brotherhood and, to the extent that he is accepted as such, of spiritual fatherhood.
Given that American Catholics are used to living in a country in which some bishops do not blush to publicly declare their support for the Republican Party, openly musing that perhaps Jesus would have thought it a “terrific” idea to abolish the welfare state and replace it with private charity (after all, it worked out so well during the Great Depression, didn’t it?), it is not surprising that episcopal support for the Obama Administration’s immigration reform policies seems, in comparison, like a relatively tame foray into the political sphere. But it is still worth questioning whether the pulpit is an appropriate place to express support for specific sets of policy proposals—especially on a matter which is so complex and involves so many contingent prudential judgments, in which justice for the sojourner must be seamlessly reconciled with justice for the native (1 Tim 5:8): hardly an easy task.
The second approach, taken by Notre Dame, has a different starting point. It doesn’t eschew social activism. But it realizes that political action isn't just about going to rallies and writing Congress to ask them to do something. It begins by asking what we can do, instead of telling someone else what they should do. It begins by looking to the “little platoons” (to use Edmund Burke’s phrase) of civil society that lie within Catholic control, and to ask how these can be used to plant little seeds of the Kingdom in which those of different races are “no longer strangers and aliens,” but “fellow citizens” within the household of their Father (Eph 2:19).
One of the first things Catholic communities ought to ask themselves is not, “what is our senator doing?” but, "what are we doing to ensure that migrants and their children are treated equitably within our own communities and by our own institutions?” If Catholics are not already living out in practice the call to treat the strangers among us as if they were natives (Lev 19:34), then lobbying Congress and indignantly complaining about current immigration rules becomes an exercise in seeking to remove the specks from everyone else’s eyes without removing the logs from our own. Social justice of any kind begins within our own homes and communities, not with dull sermons that embrace “political action from the pulpit.”