The best advice I have ever received about understanding Catholic teaching on modern times came from a friend who recommended reading encyclicals. Pope Benedict’s “Deus Caritas Est” was the first one I picked up, in a little red, paperback version. I read it in one sitting. That copy, with my underlines and exclamation points on dog eared pages, sits at my desk and I refer to it frequently. Since then, I have read several other encyclical letters by Leo XIII, Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Benedict and Francis. I would recommend every one of them. Their words continue to help form my thought and understanding about what it means to be Catholic and human.
Like the papal writings that precede it, Pope Francis’s most recent encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” offers a timely — and timeless —perspective on our world. Francis is expansive in the subject matter he has chosen to cover, from the pandemic and political division to more philosophical topics like fraternity and forgiveness.
The Holy Father specifically addresses the issue of immigration throughout “Fratelli Tutti” and dedicates Chapter 4 to the subject. He is direct and uncompromising in elucidating the Catholic approach to the issue: “Our response to the arrival of migrating persons can be summarized by four words: welcome, protect, promote and integrate.” While that sentiment sounds much like the “Give me your tired, your poor,” engraved on the Statue of Liberty, our nation’s immigration policy started moving away from that approach in the mid-1800s when the Know-Nothing party formed in a backlash to German and Irish immigrants. Last month, however, the newly inaugurated Biden administration took a significant step in the direction Francis advocates, with the proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.
President Biden has earned mixed reviews from Catholic leaders on his first weeks in office and while the Church and the White House are bound to disagree on issues — the most concerning of which relate to abortion — President Biden’s immigration legislation has been applauded by Catholic bishops of dioceses on the border and the USCCB’s Committee on Migration.
This bill echoes church teaching, as highlighted by “Fratelli Tutti” and found throughout the Bible, and gives renewed hope to fixing a system that has been broken for too long. The policy mechanisms spelled out in the Citizenship Act begin to address the realities facing both our nation and our immigrant communities by providing an “earned roadmap for citizenship” to individuals and families already in the United States. In addition to the administration’s separate order to reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), these components work to “protect, promote, and integrate” those men, women and children who are already living, working, attending school and, in many cases, paying taxes in our communities. They are our neighbors. That they must live in constant fear of separation and deportation is detrimental to the common good and it violates the greatest commandment as taught by Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . love your neighbor as yourself.”
The second highlight of the bill addresses the “endemic corruption, violence, and poverty that causes people to flee their home countries” by providing assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Again, this step aligns directly with “Fratelli Tutti” where Francis writes: “Ideally, unnecessary migration ought to be avoided; this entails creating in countries of origin the conditions needed for a dignified life and integral development.” For too long, our national focus has been on stopping the mass migrations of human beings who overwhelm the borders between Central America and the United States in their desperation to escape inhuman conditions. Focusing only on border security to address this issue is akin to trying to stop an avalanche at the bottom of the mountain. Spending the time and money at the source is far more humane and smarter policy.
In such politically divisive times, the efforts to address the complexities of immigration in the United States are bound to meet with resistance. Debate on the issue is not inherently wrong: there will be necessary statecraft to make policy functional. Yet, I pray that we can move forward without the vitriol that has colored the conversation in recent years. With such controversial issues, the advice I received about seeking the words of the Church fathers holds true. Pope Francis reminds us to focus on the human lives that are being affected and what is best for the common good. It is time for new perspectives and actions in care for all of our brothers and sisters. The U.S Citizenship Act of 2021 is a good, Catholic-inspired, first step.