Immigration has seized the political spotlight again, with a record wave of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border seeking asylum and reunification with family members in the US.
The “surge” is being labeled a humanitarian and political crisis by partisans, and it may imperil the Biden administration’s immigration-reform agenda. But it represents a leadership challenge to Catholic bishops and US pastors, too, since the American faithful, at least those who are native-born, are not saying amen to Church teaching on immigration.
The pair of reform bills that passed the House of Representatives, and now await debate in the Senate, holds great consequence for millions of immigrants who lack legal status, access to citizenship, or whose families have been separated. One bill offers pathways to citizenship for so-called Dreamers (those brought to the US as children) and those residing in the US under temporary protective status; the other extends similar protections and options to farmworkers. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was quick to endorse both reform measures soon after they were introduced.
Yet, the USCCB has been issuing such pro-reform and pro-immigrant statements for two decades. For more than eight years, Pope Francis has been an equally tireless and vocal advocate for the rights of migrants. He chose Italy’s island of Lampedusa, a landing point for those making dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean, as the first place he visited outside of Rome, in the earliest days of his pontificate.
Since 2013, Francis has been calling the world, including the United States, to reject xenophobia and indifference, and to welcome, protect, and integrate migrants and refugees. In his 2015 address to Congress, he commended the US for not being “fearful” of foreigners, because “most of us were once foreigners.” Arguably the most pro-immigrant pope in history, the son of immigrants himself, the Holy Father has created and elevated a dicastery to advance the rights and inclusion of those forced to flee their homelands. He even commissioned a sculpture, entitled “Angels Unawares,” that literally centers the plight of people on the move, in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square.
Two weeks ago, in response to the detention of thousands of unaccompanied children and teens at the border, the bishops of the United States and Mexico issued a joint statement urging both governments to protect the most vulnerable, especially minors, and address the root causes driving so many to flee their Northern Triangle homelands.
It’s noteworthy that, as nativism, border closings, and exclusionary policies have ascended around the world, in the face of unprecedented human displacement and migration, the Magisterium of the Church has struck a consistent counter chord. Catholic ministries have remained on the forefront of aiding, educating, and defending migrants. The Jesuit Refugee Service, for instance, assists more than 750,000 forcibly displaced people in 56 countries each year. Domestically in the US, the Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services serves more refugees and migrants than most nation states, resettling nearly a third of all refugees admitted to the US in the past 30 years. Sr. Norma Pimentel, the head of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in 2020.
So, American Catholicism can claim as heritage nearly two centuries of pro-immigrant interventions by Church institutions and Church leaders. Almost as historic is the current alignment we are seeing between a sitting US President (who is also a Catholic), the Congress, the Catholic bishops and the pontiff. A rare coalition, indeed, that is demonstrating a shared will to advance immigration reform in the United States. Is this moving the hearts and minds of American Catholics, specifically non-Hispanic whites?
According to data from the Pew Research Center and Public Religion Research Institute, the sensibilities of this once “immigrant” Church in the US have grown increasingly wary of immigrants, with a majority of white Catholics worrying that immigrants (regardless of legal status) pose economic and cultural threats to the American way of life; and nearly half favoring more restrictive policies, tougher enforcement, and limited paths to citizenship or legal residency.
Although the divide has grown over the last five years, between what those in the pews and those in the chanceries or dicasteries hold to be true about those who cross borders, the disjuncture of opinion has existed for more than a decade.
Some scholars note that Catholics are now less willing than believers in other Christian denominations to heed what their religious leaders are saying about immigration. One prominent Catholic ethicist observes in this reticence a stark departure from the history and norms of Church teaching regarding “welcoming the stranger.” This, despite the demographic fact that the plurality of recent immigrants, documented and undocumented, identify as Catholics.
Is it that white Catholics in the United States—assimilated, educated, affluent—are less willing, because of race or class or ethnicity, to identify with co-religionists who are foreign-born or poor? Do native-born American Catholics no longer understand themselves as heirs or members of an “immigrant” Church? A global Church?
The intergenerational climb of middle- and upper-class white Catholics might account for some of the disconnect. Hispanic Catholics, by contrast, favor more expansive and forgiving immigration policies than whites do.
What about working-class whites? Sociologists, political scientists, and pastors need to tell us more about what’s influencing those faithful who feel less secure (and more threatened) about their economic or social status.
It’s reasonable to speculate, though, that rising ethno-nationalism evident in other Christian churches—particularly evangelical congregations—is also swaying those dubbed “evangelical Catholics,” religious conservatives, mostly white, whose views tend to track more closely with born-again Protestants than with certain tenets of Catholic social teaching.
In a meaningful shift, more white Catholics now identify as members of the Republican party. Some see the influence of the US Bishops, and their punitive criticism of pro-choice Democrats, as having a hand in moving the American Church to the political right. Changes in party affiliation, whether a cause or an effect, do seem to correlate with increasing support for the hardline positions adopted by the GOP, and decreasing support for more generous immigration policies favored by the USCCB.
It’s not simply political polarities or party affiliations, however, that explain why the faithful of European descent may be turning a deaf ear to what the Church has to say about immigration. Many also cite an erosion in trust in the bishops, in general. The US Church’s unrelenting sexual abuse crisis, ongoing for almost two decades now, continues to undermine its influence with its own fold. There are fewer people in the pews, and they are less willing to follow the guidance their bishops offer on any matter that might be considered more “prudential” than doctrinal.
We can’t call it the sensus fidei, since there is considerable disunity between white and brown Catholics, laity and Magisterium, foreign and native-born, on this issue. But we can call it a sign of the times—one that suggests the Church in America has migrated quite a long way from its own history and early identity.
In the 1920’s, when the Catholic press and Knights of Columbus and American Bishops fought against restrictions that would have barred Italians and eastern Europeans from legal entry, on the grounds that the laws were “anti-Catholic,” who would have imagined the about-face we are seeing now? A Roman Catholic president with an immigration-reform agenda that is quite consonant with the stances of the USCCB and the Holy See confronts meaningful opposition in the pews, of all places. Biden may find himself preaching, along with the shepherds of the Church, to a Catholic choir that isn’t necessarily listening.
Image: Foreground of “Angels Unawares” by Timothy Schmalz. Photo by Itravella – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86378896
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Anne Murphy is a writer and consultant living in the Boston area. The mother of three adult children, she has led Catholic schools and served as international director of communications and fundraising for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome. In 2007, she co-founded a parish ministry to welcome and help resettle refugee families in the Archdiocese of Boston. Anne's writing has appeared in national magazines and newspapers. She holds a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Fordham University.