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.

[Photo Credit: Elias Castillo on Unsplash]

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6 Responses

  1. Marthe Lépine says:

    A question, if I may? I don’t live in the US, therefore it is even more difficult for me to understand such laws. But according to your article, it seems to me that the treatment of those people who were brought into the US by their parents is, to say the least, problematic. Or, why is it not possible, and someone has said never possible, for these people to become citizens? In my country, if I am not mistaken, almost any person who has been in Canada at least 5 years is allowed to apply for citizenship. Therefore, whether or not their parents entered the US legally and brought their children with them, in our country those children would automatically have a right to apply for citizenship. Why not in the US?

    • Mike Lewis says:

      I am not an expert in immigration policy in the US, but we basically have a system in great need of reform, and an insurmountable amount of gridlock due to the 2-party system. One of the items on the table is “a path to citizenship” for people in these situations, which doesn’t exist at the moment.

      Maybe someone with more expertise can chime in about the specific hurdles.

  2. Christopher Lake says:

    For many years, the Republican Party (speaking here of the Party as an entity, not of individual members of the Party) seemed only too willing to allow businesses to financially benefit from the labor of “illegal” immigrants, while doing very little to solve the many problems within the broken American immigration system. With the election of Donald Trump as President, the Party, as a whole (again, not speaking of individual members of the Party here) has taken a very sharp turn away from this previous policy, and towards harshness re: “illegal” immigrants, while *still* not doing much to address the serious problems of American immigration policy. This is one of many factors that has led me, as a Catholic, to be less and less willing to publicly identify myself with the Republican Party– and this is after many years of being a loyal Republican. Yet I still cannot bring myself to vote for many (most?) Democrats either, as many Democrats are openly opposed to various Catholic teachings on other serious matters, such as abortion, euthanasia, religious freedom, and marriage. Basically, living here in the Maryland/DC area, where one is, seemingly, societally expected to either be a vocal, enthusiastic Democrat or Republican, I find that I can be neither– precisely *because* I am a Catholic who takes *all* of the teachings of the Church very seriously.

    On the subject of immigration, Pope Francis has recently made some very radical statements (“radical,” by contemporary, comfortable, Western standards, that is, although not so much by New Testament standards!). He has clearly spoken of Americans being willing to welcome immigrants into their communities– and, to my mind, significantly, he hasn’t spoken of this welcoming being only for “legal” immigrants. As a Catholic, I take his words seriously. The particular region of the U.S. in which I live (in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.) is very heavily populated by immigrants. As a white, only-English-speaking guy who moved here, years ago, from an almost-all-white region of Alabama, I won’t deny that I have experienced culture shock to some degree. Yet I remind myself that my ultimate citizenship (and the ultimate citizenship of all Christians) is in Heaven– and in the meantime, I am not called to any form of easy cultural “comfort” (0r comfortability!) here on Earth, but to *holiness*, however that may manifest itself. In terms of shared values and concerns, I may well have more in common with many “illegal” immigrants who are Christians than I have with many contemporary, “secular” American citizens. In any event, I pray that the broken American immigration system is reformed, seriously, and soon. In the meantime, I find myself alienated, in different ways, from both the Republican and Democratic Parties, but happily Catholic, and thankful to God for the “radical” Catholic Christian witness of Pope Francis!

  3. Daniel says:

    A helpful analysis. I think it would benefit from a discussion of international law as well. There’s an intermediate step to jumping to natural law, which is international law. I and many others would argue that US immigration law violates international law and therefore isn’t itself legal.

    I’m just not willing to concede that this is simply a positive law versus natural law issue.

  4. Allen W Thrasher says:

    We in the US have a serious unemployment problem, especially for unskilled workers. It may be far larger than it usually appears, because, in an era when the number of physically taxing jobs, or those considered dangerous, is decreasing, the percentage of the working age population on disability is increasing; I suspect the collaboration of sympathetic physicians willing to stretch the truth. Unlimited immigration means a permanent labor surplus, which means unemplyment, plus suppressed wages for the employed. It is particularly unjust for blacks and other groups historically discriminated against, including long-term Hispanic citizens. It might well seem unjust, moreover, that the Hispanics have now surpassed blacks as the largest minority population. Are there enough affirmative action slots or enough funds for transfer payments by way of reparation for both, when both are clamoring for them? I doubt it.

    One’s obligations to one’s own are greater than those to others; those of a country or the state to its own citizens than to foreigners. In a parallel case, if one were contributing heavily to a free medical clinic in Papua New Guinea but a near relative had a treatable medical condition which insurance would not pay for, it could not only be permissible but obligatory to cease the one’s donations to PNG, even if people there suffered badly.

    The case in parts of Europe is IMHO, even stronger. E.g. Italy has a colossal rate of youth unemployment, so how can it absorb vast numbers of young men with few modern skills from the Near East and Africa, especially if they are utterly alien in religion and culture, and according to much testimony, behaving lawlessly and arrogantly?

    • Adrian Rehak says:

      “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.” Quoted from above. It says that immigrants are OBLIGED to respect with gratitude the material AND SPIRITUAL HERITAGE… obey its laws… assist in carrying civic burdens. That is the problem. Many, perhaps most, illegal immigrants accept few and frequently none of their responsibilities. Illegal immigrants who commit crimes, or go on welfare, or refuse to assimilate, refuse to learn English, refuse civil responsibility create the environment that existing citizens do not want them. CCC says, “…more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able…” Those illegal immigrants who create the environment such that they aren’t wanted create the problem that more prosperous nations find they are unable to accept them. It may be that the bad apples spoil the whole barrel and perhaps the majority would be good citizens. However, the evidence from California seems to indicate that ghettos of illegal immigrants have very little interest in assimilating. It also means that Muslims have no right to bring Shari law into any countries to which they immigrate. Has that gone well? Absolutely not. Therefore, if immigrants won’t accept their responsibilities, why would ANY country want to accept them? Finally, I do think USA immigration law needs improvement to accept more LEGAL immigrants while retain no illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, Congress is totally ineffective to accomplish of value. This is especially true while the Democrats are only interested in hating Trump and not in the good of the country or any potential immigrants.

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