Today, the civil societies and political cultures of the United States and Europe are witnessing a movement toward a reassertion of national sovereignty. In this debate that includes the adding to the fortification of the borders of the United States (in particular our southern border with Mexico) and Europe, all to reduce the flow of legal and undocumented migrants from the Global South. The fact that these migrants are people fleeing violence, political instability, and lack of economic opportunity is either ignored or viewed with suspicion for fear that they might bring that same violence and instability into our countries.
In the United States, anti-immigrant rhetoric is wrapped up in the language of fear that we will lose the United States to those who do not share the values of our country. The immigrants are accused of bringing everything from crime, to lax attitudes toward big government, to ways of living “exotic” to American tastes. The Catholic Church is experiencing history that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rhymes with the history of anti-immigrant rhetoric used a century ago. Then, anti-immigrant opprobrium was directed against people from southern and eastern Europe, and much of Asia. The arguments used against these groups bear a close similarity to those arguments used against immigrants from the Global South. Most arrived practicing a Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish faith antithetical to the Protestant establishment. Their customs, for example their cultural and religious festivals, were viewed by other Americans as exotic. Americans feared these new arrivals would not assimilate into this country. It was argued that immigrants would import organized crime, or anarchist, Communist, or Socialist revolutionary ideas which would undermine American democracy. (Some persons did get deported for Mafia or extremist political activity, but not before most innocent immigrants got tarred with that same brush.) Anti-immigrant fears were compounded by the United States’ entry on the side of the Allies in World War I in April 1917, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November that same year. Long-established German communities, like the one in Milwaukee, found their German culture forced underground out of fear that fifth columnists would aid in the Axis war effort. All of this led to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which implemented a national origins quota favoring immigrants from Britain and Western Europe, and severely limited visas to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and most of Asia except the Philippines, which was a United States territory at the time. This legislation reinforced prior legislation that banned Asian immigration to the United States. The singular goal of this legislation was to preserve the social hegemony of the United States as white and Protestant. This same era saw the implementation of Prohibition, which was driven to a significance degree by anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Then as now, the Catholic Church works with these migrants and takes criticism for this work. However, criticism now comes from fellow Catholics. For example, Steve Bannon, a Catholic with contacts with politically like-minded Catholics here and in Europe, accused the United States’ Catholic bishops of advocating an open borders policy in a bid to counter what would otherwise be declining numbers of Catholics in the United States, which would dilute the American sense of nationhood. He is not the only U.S. Catholic with this view. A January 2019 Pew survey showed that Catholics divide on the issue of immigration following the political platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties. However, when a Catholic argues for an absolutist view of national sovereignty reflected in strict immigration policies which do not take into account human rights and dignity, they oppose their own church. Official Catholic Social Teaching respects national sovereignty and identity and the right to maintain borders, but the rights of any single nation are limited by their membership in the community of nations, and human rights, in particular the needs of the refugee and the immigrant who needs economic and political security. National sovereignty is limited by a global social mortgage where human rights and the needs of the international community trump the rights of any one nation state.
The term “social mortgage” was coined by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. There, he wrote that the right to private property, while necessary and good for human development, was not without its limits. He argued that the universal destination of goods, the idea that the goods of the Earth are destined to serve the common good of all people, placed a “social mortgage” on all private property. Catholic social teaching commonly understands this “social mortgage” to mean that while the right to private property must be defended so that individuals have the means to provide for themselves and their families, the use of property in the service of the common good must take precedent. For example, the government may expropriate private property to serve specific needs of the common good, such as a public infrastructure project or a government institution which serves the public. Government may, too, tax wealth to fund institutions and services dedicated to the public good.
When one examines documents produced by popes, Vatican dicasteries, and national bishops’ conferences, national sovereignty, including the right of a nation to protect its national identity and regulate its borders is affirmed but limited. Sovereignty, according to Pope John Paul II, is affirmed as the unique subjective expression of a country in its political economic, social and cultural reality. On a practical basis national sovereignty is a basis to resist armed aggression by other nation states. Pope John XXIII allows countries to regulate immigration, but only for “just reasons.” The U.S. Catholic Bishops allow for control of borders too, but not for the acquisition of wealth or turning away those whose human rights are being violated in their homelands.
On the other hand, these same documents demonstrate that the Roman Catholic Church argues that sovereignty is not an absolute right to be held by any nation. A social mortgage is placed on national sovereignty by virtue of their membership in a global community of nations, and by the need for all nations to work to uphold human rights on an international basis. The Church teaches that the polity of any nation is founded upon the exercise of human rights on a local level. Of course, a nation must uphold the human rights of its citizens, especially minority peoples vulnerable to persecution by a majority group. But, this exercise of human rights does not end at the border. When human rights are threatened anywhere in the world, nation states, by virtue of their being part of a community of nations, must cooperate to defend human life and dignity. Special attention must be paid to accommodating those forced to migrate, either legally or without proper documentation, due to their lives being in danger or lack of economic opportunity. Wealthy nations are singled out for this duty, and for promoting human development which would prevent involuntary migration in the first place, precisely because they possess the resources, expertise, and infrastructure to do so. The Church has advocated this, even during times of widespread migration. For example, the current migration crisis is the largest since World War II. During that latter crisis, in 1948, Pius XII issued the Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana, which called for nations to open their borders to persons seeking refuge from “overcrowded countries,” or countries suffering social, economic, and political deprivations following World War II. In a letter to the Bishops of the United States, quoted in this same document, Pius XII stated, “Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.” Of course, the current anti-immigrant rhetoric, now as it was a century ago, denies that these migrants are legitimately needy or decent, but any objective view of U.S. immigration history then, and the majority of scientific studies taken how immigrants contribute to U.S. society compared to their cost, refute this. (Consider too this quick thought experiment. This summer is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. Could these national feats have been achieved with the more homogenous U.S. population of the early 19th century? So much for “losing the country.”) Any doubt cast on the Church’s position is swept away by John Paul II. In Ecclesia in America he declared that “the Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.”
The Catholic Church’s preference for political arrangements which transcend the nation state should not surprise anyone who is familiar with its history. The Catholic Church existed before the rise of the modern nation state established by the Treaties of Westphalia signed in 1648. Much of the late classical and medieval period saw the Church working for a restoration of the peace and order of the Roman Empire across Europe. The years following World War II saw Catholic political leaders in France, Germany, Italy, and other western European states lay the foundations of what would become the European Union. They wanted the states of Europe to transcend a nationalism which destroyed Europe with two World Wars and triggered the genocide of Jews and Slavs, to a political solution where nation states maintain their unique social and cultural identities, but pooled their sovereignty to develop a common free economic market and a region dedicated to democracy, social welfare, and human rights for all people. This historic Catholic preference for political arrangements and social policies which respect the nation state, but relativize it in face of the human rights of individuals to political freedom, personal security, and the ability to work and provide for one’s family, and the common good, is not popular today with a significant percentage of the population convinced of the finitude of our resources and the fragility of our social fabric. The prophetic role of the Church here is to crack open and break up this renewed parochial nationalism, and remind all of the words of Paul in Galatians 3:28, that regardless of background, we are all one in Jesus Christ. This is our eschatological destiny as Christians. We will leave our nation states behind for the Kingdom of God, but the Church must remind all that this vision is ours to implement now.