Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The bishops and moral pragmatism, with immigration as a case study

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 31, 2017

Phil Lawler made an important point in What Trump’s success should teach Church leaders. He highlighted the damage that is done when bishops appear to foreclose complex prudential discussion by repeating platitudes. As two excellent examples, Phil chose Trump’s wall and Islamic terrorism. I found it to be an important commentary.

But I want to take the discussion one step further to ensure that no misunderstanding arises. The key to Phil’s insight, it seems to me, is not that Churchmen themselves need to provide concrete proposals. Rather, they must address such policy issues as if they actually recognize a difficult prudential question when they see one, and as if they understand that the details are beyond their competence.

Unfortunately, too many bishops make pronouncements based on what is deemed politically correct in our dominant secular liberal culture. Being more or less culture bound, many bishops (like most academics) repeatedly insist upon whatever part of Catholic social teaching mirrors the regnant political correctness. Such pronouncements appear to be normal and safe. Beyond this, such people have nothing more to say.

Using the problem of immigration as my example, let me pose a question: When the episcopal contribution to the discussion is that “we must welcome immigrants”, what does this imply? It implies that immigration policy is to be based more or less excusively on the avoidance of an intrinsic evil, namely the failure to welcome immigrants. But this very implication conceals the truth. For immigration policy must actually be the result of prudential decisions operating within a more generalized and larger framework of applicable principles.

This is, in fact, another instance of the progressive tendency to treat prudential positions as absolute, and to treat intrinsically evil positions as merely prudential. As I wrote elsewhere not too long ago, it is the mark of a secular mind to absolutize the relative, and to relativize the absolute.

To repeat, then, this sort of episcopal commentary gives entirely the wrong impression of the nature of the problem at hand. It is the fluff which comes from bishops who have forgotten how to do their jobs.

The correct approach

Now consider another kind of episcopal response. Suppose a bishop issues the following statement:

Here are the principles which must govern our national discussion of immigration:
  • First, all things being equal, all persons have a general right to migrate that cannot be denied.
  • Second, no human right is absolute. Rather, the exercise of rights may be reasonably restricted based on the demands of the common good.
  • Third, governments are morally obliged to protect and promote the common good in the territories they govern.
  • Fourth, a government that cannot or will not control its borders will fail in this moral obligation.
  • Fifth, it follows that all governments should welcome immigrants as much as possible consistent with the common good, but never in ways that are harmful to the common good.
In other words, immigration policy must always be developed with both the theoretical right to migrate and the practical demands of the common good firmly in mind.

Now what does this second type of episcopal statement imply? It implies that immigration policy is not absolute in character but prudential, to be made as effective as possible within the general guidelines provided by all applicable moral principles. It also implies that immigration policy is not the province of the Church, but rather an issue to be properly resolved by the laity.

In such cases, then, bishops will confine themselves to reminding the laity of all the relevant principles, urging them to neglect none of them as they seek to resolve or at least ameliorate a difficult practical problem. Bishops will also recognize that there can be legitimate differences of opinion on all prudential questions. In consequence, they will be very slow to condemn any prudential policy, unless: (a) It includes the specification of an intrinsic evil, or (b) It goes so far in one direction or another that it appears to ignore one or more of the relevant moral principles altogether.

This ability of high-ranking churchmen to distinguish between what is prudential and what is intrinsically evil is not only a key to the Church’s proper guidance of human government, but also to the authentic spiritual renewal of the Church herself.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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