Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Immigration: Catholic Thought on Social Issues

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 19, 2006

Mary Ann Glendon is Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. Among her many accomplishments, she served as Vatican representative to the UN’s Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, she is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, she was named one of the 50 most influential women lawyers in America by the National Law Journal, and she received the 2005 National Humanities Medal. Among serious intellectuals, policy makers and well-informed Catholics, Glendon’s name is a household word.

Clarity in Complexity

I bring up the case of Mary Ann Glendon in another attempt to encourage Catholics to recognize that clarity on social issues comes by recognizing their complexity rather than by taking sides. While the Church teaches certain fundamental principles concerning the social order—principles largely drawn from her unsurpassed understanding of human nature and human ends—she also teaches that a proper response to social concerns depends on sound human analysis, creative thinking, and prudence.

We might take the conflict between Israel and Lebanon as a prime example. Layer upon layer of complexity make it extremely difficult to find an appropriate solution. The rush to judgment by so many politicians and commentators, as if there is something to be said only on one side or the other, is, frankly, ludicrous. Surely what is required is a serious analysis, a creative and prudent application of sound principles to the entire complex reality of the Middle East.

The Problem of Immigration

However, my illustration of choice is not war but immigration. Recently in the United States we’ve been treated to wildly diverging comments on this issue. On one side, radical nativists, environmentalists and population controllers have united in opposing the increase of what they can only regard as the unwashed masses. On the other side, pro-immigration groups, including too many simplistic clergymen, talk as if all problems can be solved simply by including everybody. Who, in all this, tries to understand the complexity of the problem?

Well, Mary Ann Glendon. She provides a model for a sound Catholic discussion of social issues in an article entitled Principled Immigration, which appeared in the June/July 2006 issue of First Things. Glendon rightly raises key points about the demographic winter afflicting the West, the unique advantages of the United States in handling large groups of immigrants, the related concerns which must be addressed, the key components of a sound immigration policy, and the important moral principles to keep in mind.

How to Handle 35 Million Immigrants

Glendon starts by pointing out that immigration is at least a partial solution to the demographic winter—the catastrophic decline in the birth rate—which afflicts Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America. But she doesn’t stop with mere numbers, because the declining birth rate is symptomatic of an attitudinal crisis which further affects our ability to accommodate immigrants. This is “a crisis involving changes in the meanings and values that people attribute to aging and mortality, sex and procreation, marriage, gender, parenthood, relations among the generations, and life itself.” The results? Family breakdown, the decline of social structures that depend on the family, increased stress for schools, legal instability and interest-group politics, a crisis in tax-supported social services for an aging population, mothers and children at serious risk.

Nonetheless, Glendon argues that an affluent society which “does not welcome babies is going to have to learn to welcome immigrants if it hopes to maintain its economic vigor and its commitments to the health and welfare of its population.” Fortunately, America has some special strengths for dealing with this problem (which is far more severe in Europe). First, our 2.08 babies per woman is not far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Second, the United States has successful experience in absorbing large numbers of immigrants. Third, our immigrant populations tend to share many of the fundamental Christian values of most Americans.

Problems and More Problems

These advantages, says Glendon, must be pitted against a multitude of discrete but related problems: the impact of migrants on wages and available jobs; the costs that illegal immigration imposes on taxpayers, especially for schools and social services; potential weakening of national security; the “iron triangle of exclusion” formed by the alliance among anti-immigration groups, radical environmentalists, and aggressive population controllers; the social cost of immigration and the loss of cultural cohesion; the rapid decline of the kinds of intermediate institutions which used to help integrate immigrants and the replacement of these institutions by “divisive racial minority politics”.

In addition, Glendon notes a particular concern that is largely unique to our country: the American cultural emphasis on rule of law. This is a defining characteristic of our social life, quite different from cultures bound more by shared experience, religion, history and symbols. For Americans, as the rule of law erodes, so does our identity. Others may well find this strange. But in the United States, it makes the problem of illegals very much more vexing than it might be in other places or other times.

Responses and Principles

I have already mentioned the extreme responses so common on this issue, but to these Glendon adds the lament that we are too often trapped in a false conceptual division between good (legal) immigration and bad (illegal) immigration, as if eliminating illegal immigration would eliminate the problems associated with all immigration. Clearly such a paradigm is mindless. More sensible responses acknowledge that all immigration is a problem for both the sending and the receiving countries; that law and the personal comportment of the immigrants need to be balanced; that non-destructive, effective education for immigrant children will be essential; that government will have to work at all levels with private initiatives, especially faith-based organizations.

What principles, then, should we apply in attempting to address this problem? Glendon takes five principles from the 2003 Joint Pastoral Letter issued by the Mexican and US Bishops (Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope). The five points are: (1) Persons have the right to pursue opportunities at home; (2) In the absence of such opportunities, they have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families; (3) Nations have a right to protect their borders which must be balanced against an obligation to accommodate migration in proportion to their economic strength; (4) Refugees and asylum seekers should be protected; and (5) The human dignity and rights of undocumented migrants must be respected.

Final Thoughts

To these five episcopal principles, Glendon herself adds two more. First, a diverse rule-of-law society must be careful about the messages it sends to persons who wish to become part of that society. For example, what impact would amnesty for illegals have on the cultural-legal formation of these future Americans? Second, solidarity imposes duties on the disadvantaged as well as the advantaged. Citing John Paul II:

Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity should not adopt a purely passive attitude, or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 39)

Here we have two sides of the same coin: creating yet another victim class, whether real or imagined, will do no one any good.

So, are you ready to take sides in the current debate? No? As with most social issues, our only real hope is to eschew the politics of left and right, to transcend that crippling dialectic. Mary Ann Glendon has given us a model of how Catholics are called to think, because we have our own intellectual traditions and we are not supposed to be culture-bound. So let’s first recognize the complexity. Then we can think it through and propose solutions with creativity, morality and—dare I say it?—clarity.

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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