The section of the Catechism that speaks about immigration (section 2241) is divided into two paragraphs that seem to be in tension with one another. Both are equally true, and to dismiss one of them in favor of the other would distort the Church’s teaching on this highly polarizing issue. So I wanted to take a detailed look at this section of the Catechism in its entirety in order to parse out what the Church is trying to teach us. The first paragraph of this section concerns the right to emigrate:
“The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.”
Let’s start by noticing the language that the Catechism uses in that first section, “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner…” Welcoming immigrants from less prosperous countries is a moral obligation, not a mere suggestion or allowance. This is because persons have a “natural right” to emigrate. A natural right is a right we are endowed with simply by existing. These rights transcend civil laws and thus such laws are judged by the degree that they respect these rights. Saint John Paul II, quoting Saint John XXIII, speaks to the right to emigrate:
“Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own state. When there are just reasons in favor for it, he must be permitted to migrate to other countries and to take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership to the human family, nor of citizenship in the universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men” (Address to the New World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Immigrants, 1985).
The second paragraph concerns the role of the state and the duty of immigrants to respect the laws of the nation that receives them:
“Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”
There’s two things to take note of here. The first is the word “may.” States are allowed to regulate the natural right to immigrate, but is it not an obligation. This language amounts to permission, not a moral command. Second, the state may only restrict the natural right to emigrate “for the sake of the common good.” That means that if a civil law restricts this natural right, for it to be in accord with the Catechism, it must both be justified by a rational appeal to the common good and the obstruction of the right to emigrate must be proportionate to the threat to the common good.
Finally, the last sentence of that paragraph says, “Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” Again we see the word “obliged,” so we know we are dealing with a moral command. And on this point I have heard many Catholics say that if someone crosses our border illegally they are violating their obligation to respect our laws and the state is thus justified in deporting these “criminals.” However, I don’t think this reading of the Catechism is accurate.
Persons are only obligated to follow just laws, that is, laws the respect the natural rights of man. Catechism section 2242 explains:
“The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ ‘We must obey God rather than men’…”
In other words, as a friend of mine, Ben O’Hearn, says, “People do have a duty to respect lawful civil authority – when those laws are just. If laws aren’t just, then the duty may be relaxed or abandoned entirely. For example, a law mandating Catholic hospitals to provide abortion or contraceptive services should be ignored and fought by the Catholic hospitals.”
So the question is, are the United States’ immigration policies just? That same friend, who happens to be an attorney who works with migrant farmworkers (including immigration relief for victims of workplace violence or human trafficking), says no:
“Our current immigration system does not allow people who want to come to the United States as immigrants to sign up and wait for a spot. There are (last I counted) about 80 different types of visas available, but the only one that I know of that would allow a stranger to come here and stay (without family or employer) is the visa-lottery program (which is not an option for Mexicans and Guatemalans, and is pretty limited otherwise). We will let them come and work temporarily, but we won’t let people stay. This is creating a captive workforce in the U.S. that is routinely exploited, treating people as disposable. When workers complain about the hours or pay not being what was promised, or if they are injured on the job, they can be sent back home.”
So if a foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood is unjustly prevented from legally emigrating to the United States and therefore enters illegally they are following the natural law (God’s law) over civil law, and are completely justified in doing so. Bishop Thomas Wenski put it this way:
“The so-called illegals are so not because they wish to defy the law; but, because the law does not provide them with any channels to regularize their status in our country which needs their labor: they are not breaking the law, the law is breaking them.”
So to summarize what this passage of the Catechism is teaching overall: If a foreigner has a just reason, if they are “in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin,” to emigrate to the United States they have a natural right to do so. The US is only allowed to restrict that person’s right, “for the sake of the common good.” If an immigration law unjustly prevents a foreigner from entering the country and that person crosses the border illegally they should not be treated as criminals because they are rightly following God’s law over man’s.
This reading of the Catechism is affirmed by the Bishops of Mexico and the United States in their joint pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” Paragraph 39 of that document says:
“The Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good. It also recognizes the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights. These teachings complement each other. While the sovereign state may impose reasonable limits on immigration, the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated. In the current condition of the world, in which global poverty and persecution are rampant, the presumption is that persons must migrate in order to support and protect themselves and that nations who are able to receive them should do so whenever possible.”
I hope this detailed explanation of the Catechism helps you to approach this highly political issue with the mind and heart of the Church so that you can speak truth and justice into an area in desperate need of both.
Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.