Like so many others around the world, I find myself shocked and angered by the assault on human rights that has occurred in the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency. If I were to speculate, I would imagine that St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II are weeping in heaven over the fate of refugees, immigrants, the infirm, the sick, Muslims, and the poor.
Two years ago I had the privilege of delivering a lecture at the Catholic University of Lublin to commemorate the first anniversary of St. John Paul II’s canonization. It was an honor for me to speak about Pope John Paul II’s defense of human rights at the institution where he taught for decades. Among the many blessings I encountered during my stay there, I met a Polish bishop who gave me a prayer card with pictures of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II.
I have always had a deep admiration for the “Human Rights Popes”, who valiantly used their intellect and leadership capacities to promote the dignity and rights of the human person. Thus, I was very grateful for that prayer card, which rests on a bookshelf nearby as I write.
Today I find myself praying to these two saints. I am praying for the courage to overcome fear in difficult times in order to stand on the side of truth and justice – as they did so admirably.
I am praying that we remember their words and deeds about the dignity of every human being and his or her inalienable rights – regardless of their race, gender, religion, or citizenship status.
I am praying that the president changes his ways and abandons policies rooted in fear, bigotry, and xenophobia.
I am praying that Catholic lawmakers – such as Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Pat Toomey, and the many others who represent a third of the U.S. Congress – fulfill their duty in accordance with the teaching of their Church to defend the rights of the unborn, refugees, migrants, Muslims and other religious believers, the sick, and the poor – even if it puts them at odds with the president.
St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II taught that elected officials have a solemn responsibility to protect human rights and the common good. Remaining silent, as many leaders have thus far, abdicates this duty.
In the same spirit as Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate and other papal statements, John Paul expressed deep admiration for the “spiritual heritage of Islam and the value it has for man and society.” He urged Christians and Muslims “to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together for the benefit of all men, ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.’”
Banning people from entering the U.S. solely because they hail from Muslim-majority countries or considering the Muslim religion itself a threat to national security stifles the realization of John Paul II’s vision.
The “migrant pope,” as Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio has called him, strongly supported the rights of migrants and refugees. John Paul argued that membership in the human family precedes citizenship status, and grants all people “the right to migrate to other countries and take up residence there,” as he put it, “when there are just reasons for it.”
Fleeing from persecution or extreme economic deprivation certainly constitutes a legitimate reason according to the Church’s teaching – even if the world’s leaders do not think so.
St. John XXIII had articulated this teaching in his monumental defense of human rights Pacem in Terris: In no uncertain terms he affirmed the rights of refugees, who are “persons and all their rights as persons must be recognized. Refugees cannot lose these rights simply because they are deprived of citizenship of their own States” (#105).
John Paul II also claimed in Laborem Exercens that people have a right to migrate in search of decent work. In like fashion, St. John XXIII did not accept walls that exclude people from obtaining a decent life in another country if they cannot achieve it in their homeland:
“And among man’s personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and—so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits—to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society” (#16).
Building a wall at the border and sending refugees back to trauma and possible death is morally unacceptable. Promoting health care policy that will likely kill an estimated 43,000 people in the U.S. is reprehensible. St. John XXIII and St. John Paul reminded us that medical care is a human right, not something that should be denied by the political winds or the logic of the market (Pacem in Terris, #11; Centesimus Annus, ##34, 40).
In an era that portends widespread rights violations of extremely vulnerable persons, what can be done? What should be done?
These two saints provide examples of how to work for the common good in trying times. John XXIII showed his willingness to dialogue with Kennedy and Khrushchev alike during the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps averting war by doing so. He opened the door to dialogue with socialists, whose “false philosophy” may have some “good and commendable elements” (#159).
I pray that those of us who oppose president Trump’s policies try to find common ground with him and his supporters – common ground rooted in the desire for peace and justice for all.
But if dialogue fails, we must have the courage to struggle for justice. Here we may look to St. John Paul II, who supported Christian nonviolent resistance.
A memorable photograph of John Paul II standing face-to-face with General Jaruzelski displays the courage and determination the pontiff had in leading the charge against the Communist regime in Poland. According to various accounts, Jaruzelski the dictator was shaking in his boots during the encounter.
The Polish government had run roughshod over the rights of its citizens. Thus, Pope John Paul buoyed his compatriots in the resistance movement Solidarnosc: “Solidarity ignites struggle” – he said on the Baltic coast in 1987 – “always nonviolent struggle…struggle for the rights of the human person…” He again affirmed the “positive role of conflict” as a “struggle for social justice” in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (#14).
John Paul II saw speaking truth to power as a requirement of our humanity. His fellow Pole Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was tortured and killed for his role in Solidarność, put it this way: preserving one’s human dignity depends on “standing by the truth in every situation, even if it costs dearly.”
True freedom and democracy require commitment to life in truth. St. John Paul stated on numerous occasions that denying the link between freedom and truth can lead to totalitarianism. Without truth, individuals can ruthlessly pursue their interests while denying the basic rights of others.
Truth serves as the bulwark against deceitful betrayal of humanity. When truth disappears, the defenseless suffer especially, as the truth about their humanity and rights vanishes like quicksand.
Case in point: multiple reports indicate zero fatal terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been carried out between 1975 and 2015 by residents of the Muslim-majority countries banned by Trump’s executive order. In addition, the U.S. admitted roughly the same amount of Muslim and Christian refugees in 2016, while harboring more Christians every year since 2006. These facts belie two key assertions about the necessity of the ban, which will cause grave harm to many refugees.
In a situation like this, people must summon the courage to call government to task. The people should not recognize laws that contradict “the divine will,” as St. John XXIII maintained in Pacem in Terris (#51). For God has created an “astonishing order in the universe.” Human beings are foremost responsible to God. Thus, John argued that a “government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force” (#61).
I pray to St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II–and to the Lord Jesus–that we pursue truth, freedom, justice, and the God-given rights of every human person. I pray that our government accepts its role in preserving these cherished values.
Gerald J. Beyer is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University. In addition to numerous articles on Catholic social thought, he has published Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).