Immigration protest in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, 2013. Photo by Joe Brusky

The Common Good in a World Uprooted

Catholic Social Ethics

The concept of the common good, so central to Catholic social ethics, provides a hopeful way to integrate these concerns for both structural factors and agency into an ethical framework for thinking about migration.

A version of this essay was given as part of a panel on “Our Call to Speak Up for Displaced People” sponsored by the National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Convening Table at the 2018 Ecumenical Advocacy Days National Gathering, on the theme of “A World Uprooted: Responding to Migrants, Refugees and Displaced People”

The Catholic Church in the United States has a long history of advocating for the rights of immigrants and refugees, and a history of providing social services to both immigrants and refugees. In addition, it is by and large a church of immigrants. The experience of migration is central to the identity of the Catholic Church in the United States. My intention, then, is to show what the Catholic Church can contribute to the discussion of advocacy for people uprooted from their homes. There is a lot that could be said, but I want to focus in particular on how the theme of the common good, central to Catholic social teaching, can contribute to this discussion.

Migrants and refugees are uprooted from their homes by a number of global forces. For example, migrants from Central America are fleeing gang violence and the danger of femicide. Natural disasters are another source of uprooting; for example, thousands of people have left Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2010, and others were forced from their homes by Hurricane Matthew last year. Refugees from Syria are fleeing from armed conflict. And in the Sahel region of Africa, people are being uprooted from their homes by the effects of climate change on the natural environment.

These global forces—violence, climate change, natural disasters, and poverty—are structural factors that contribute to the decision by millions of people to leave their homes and seek livelihoods elsewhere. Yet these structural factors are often neglected in both the rhetoric surrounding immigration and in immigration policy. For example, the debate over immigration in the United States sharply distinguishes between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants, focusing on the decision to enter the United States in compliance with immigration law or not, while ignoring the structural factors that may have contributed to that decision. The Trump administration’s policies of increasing the number of detentions along the border and of separating children from their mothers in detention, for example, are designed to create a deterrent to migrants considering crossing the border, while ignoring (or demonically disregarding) the violence pushing those migrants across the border.

Although we must take account of these structural factors, we also cannot neglect the agency of immigrants and refugees. Structural factors establish the conditions in which migrants and refugees must make their decisions, but as agents, they still make their own decisions guided by their own motivations. Agency is what allows migrants and refugees to craft a narrative out of their experience, to make sense of the forces shaping their decisions and to identify the hopes and dreams that guide those decisions.

The concept of the common good, so central to Catholic social ethics, provides a hopeful way to integrate these concerns for both structural factors and agency into an ethical framework for thinking about migration. The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes defines the common good as: “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (#26). This definition is helpful first of all because it defines the common good in terms of “conditions of social life,” suggesting that it concerns the cultural and institutional factors that shape individuals’ lives and decisions. If the conditions of social life hinder human fulfillment, then they run counter to the common good. This definition of the common good also presupposes that we have the ability to change the conditions of social life for the better. Likewise, Gaudium et Spes’s definition of the common good recognizes human agency by defining the common good in terms of individuals’ “ready access to their own fulfillment.” The common good is realized when the conditions are in place for people to pursue their own good, and the exercise of agency by the members of the community is itself part of what we mean by the common good.

This concept of the common good helps us to think more clearly about both the global forces shaping migrants’ decisions and the latter’s personal agency. For example, factors like violence and climate change are conditions of social life that undermine the common good, and migrants and refugees must seek out their own good in conditions that are detrimental to that pursuit. This definition of the common good also suggests that society has an obligation to make it easier for migrants and refugees to seek out a livelihood free from want and violence, to have “thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” However, it also suggests that society has an obligation to try to change those conditions that uproot people in the first place.

Over the past few decades, Catholic ethics has increasingly defined the common good in global terms. Both migration itself and global forces like war and climate change demand a global perspective on the common good, since these issues cannot be addressed at the national level alone. Yet this can’t mean the neglect of social conditions at the local and national levels, or the forms of responsibility that must be exercised at those levels. Catholic ethics today insists that the common good requires the exercise of responsibility at the local, the national, and the global levels.

The 2003 joint pastoral letter on immigration by the Catholic bishops of the United States and Mexico, Strangers No Longer, helps show how the Catholic tradition’s concept of the common good can contribute to the discussion of migration. In the letter, the bishops make two key points about the rights of migrants and the common good. First, they state that “Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families” (#35), particularly when social conditions in their home country make it difficult for them to provide that support. Second, they claim that “Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders” for the sake of the common good (#36). These two principles seem contradictory, but the bishops reconcile these two principles in this way:

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. (#39)

This statement makes several pertinent points relevant to our discussion. First, it suggests that the common good cannot be defined exclusively in terms of those already living within a country’s borders, but must consider the rights of those seeking to migrate. Second, the pursuit of the common good requires examining the structural factors spurring migration, such as poverty and persecution, recognizing how individual agency is shaped by these forces. Elsewhere, the bishops assert that “Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland” (#34), meaning that part of the response to the migration crisis is to address those social conditions, such as poverty and persecution, that uproot people. Finally, in the above paragraph, the bishops also state that there must be a presumption in favor of the interests of the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted when we craft immigration policy.

The concept of the common good central to Catholic social ethics helps us provide an ethical framework for thinking about both the structural factors shaping the lives of migrants and refugees and the latter’s personal agency, but how can that ethical framework be translated into advocacy? For one, it provides us the tools for explaining immigration in terms of both structural forces and personal agency. Migrants and refugees have to make choices when faced with forces beyond their control, and these forces make it difficult if not impossible for them to stay home or return home, regardless of what immigration opponents might wish. People can relate to having to make decisions based on factors beyond their control, like not finding a job or needing access to health care, for example, and being able to talk about immigration in these terms makes it more understandable. Drawing on the personal narratives of immigrants and refugees that illustrate the factors contributing to people’s decision to migrate, but without reducing migrants and refugees to statistics, is an effective advocacy strategy used by many immigrants’ rights organizations.

The concept of the common good also provides a helpful way of evaluating immigration policies. Immigration policies that violate the dignity of migrants or that fail to address the global forces causing migration do not serve the common good. Immigration policies that contribute to the common good enable migrants to pursue their own good, balanced against that of people already in host countries such as the United States. Policies consistent with the common good also must address the social conditions that contribute to the uprooting of people.

Because migration is a global issue that touches all of us in one way or another, Christians must work together to advocate for the rights of migrants and refugees and to offer just and practical immigration policies. The concept of the common good is one tool that the Catholic tradition can contribute to this ecumenical effort.

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