Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

More on Immigration: A Contemporary Case of Corban?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 20, 2013

My recent commentary on immigration (“Illegals” are not “Immorals”: A Persistent Immigration Fallacy) drew an unusually intense response, both in Sound Off! and by email. Please note that I sometimes received more than one printable comment from a single reader, but it is a general Sound Off! policy to avoid publishing multiple comments from the same person.

First, let me say that I believe it would be pointless to attempt to respond to each comment individually. Some comments were supportive. Obviously, there is no need to answer those; I am perfectly capable of basking in their warm glow! Some seemed to accuse me of positions which I do not hold and have never expressed anywhere. It is, alas, all too easy to see red flags and make assumptions on an emotional issue. The logic of some comments is sufficiently flawed that even those who disliked my treatment would probably not want to endorse the particular criticism—and here silence is surely the greater part of discretion.

But other comments raised important issues which simply went beyond the purpose and scope of this particular essay. This is true, for example, of all those who rightly insisted that the various countries must surely have a legitimate authority to secure their borders and manage immigration in an orderly way. It is also true of those who noted, again rightly, that a large prudential element is inescapable in dealing with immigration. And it is true of those who argued–once again rightly—that what I called “conventions” are not mere shadowless nothings, but have a significant role to play in the proper ordering of any society. It was even true of those who pointed to the economic stress of immigration in a nation with extensive social benefits.

Now those who read carefully will see that I allowed for all four of these points, but my topic did not permit me to dwell on them. I noted, for example, that government could legitimately restrain immigration based on “demonstrated evil intentions on the part of immigrants, or some other particular, severe and direct danger to the common good.” I acknowledged the role of prudence, implicitly with every reference to judgments about the common good, and explicitly with respect to the benefits to be accorded to immigrants (“a separate question which must be settled prudently”). I specifically stated the other side of the “convention” issue, when I wrote: “There is certainly room for both custom and convention in handling immigration; they may shape but not obliterate fundamental rights.” And attentive readers will also recall that I explicitly quarantined the social benefits issue for the time being.

The Drama of Immigration

The drama of immigration is played out against a double background: On the one hand, the genuine right of the human person to migrate, which the Church has formally taught; on the other, the genuine duty of governments to protect the common good. Prudence, of course, is inescapable in assessing the demands of the common good, but a proper motivation—a desire to honor the rights of another insofar as that is reasonably possible—is also necessary. The fact that prudence is involved does not cause any immigration decision whatsoever to be moral. It does, however, permit good people to differ on policy within a range of options which really do strive to honor the right to migrate.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church actually expresses this fairly neatly in number 2241, which I quote here in full:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

I had already explained this interplay between the right to migrate and the duty of government to protect the common good in a previous commentary, which I referenced in “’Illegals’ are not ‘Immorals’”. It is absolutely essential to read this as background to the topic currently under discussion: Immigration: The Contested Principle. It will eliminate a great deal of misunderstanding.

Back to my Current Purpose

But it is important to recall that my purpose in “’Illegals’ are not ‘Immorals’” was to address a different aspect of the issue—the selfish legalism that Catholics sometimes fall into when they grant some sort of absolute status to their own States and Laws in the matter of immigration, a status which is too neatly aligned with their own self-interest, and which they would not dream of admitting in the area of abortion. The Church rightly insists that we begin by doing our best to include others, and that we are in fact morally bound to respect the right to migrate insofar as we can. Attitudes which start from any other premise betray an impermissible exclusivity; they use human law as an excuse to dismiss others as if they have no deeper claims to make in their own right.

You may remember that I closed “’Illegals’ are not ‘Immorals’” with Our Lord’s words to the effect that it is what comes from the heart that makes us unclean. But all of us, in assessing our powerful States, our human laws, and even our own claims of ownership, need to keep in mind the discussion which led up to this teaching. Here it is:

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.” [emphasis added]

Indeed, there are many such things that we do. All I can say is that I see far, far too much of this “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” whenever Catholics discuss immigration. At times it is so bad that one can only guess that some Catholic Americans really do believe in Manifest Destiny. This is spiritually very grave. I address everyone here who loves his own comfort and even his own cultural dominance, and in this I sadly include myself. We must take this problem seriously. We must take this problem to heart.

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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  • Posted by: - Jun. 23, 2013 2:48 PM ET USA

    It is interesting that those who typically strongly decry government intervention in areas such as financial markets and health care quickly become socialists when it comes to immigration. Take the government out of the equation and let the free market control immigration. It worked well enough between 1492 and 1952. I will make an educated guess that 98% of Catholics concerned about "illegal immigration" had ancestors who came to the US during the "free market" era.

  • Posted by: martin.kurlich4399 - Jun. 23, 2013 2:05 PM ET USA

    Nobody I’m aware of is against ‘striving to honor the right to migrate'. But, as you admit, “prudence is involved.” Yes, prudence is legitimately involved in immigration policy. Immigration is NOT a yea or nay issue. People can LEGITIMATELY disagree about details. Unlike with inherently evil subjects (e.g. abortion).

  • Posted by: FredC - Jun. 22, 2013 3:07 PM ET USA

    If our neighbor is in need of survival assistance (food, water, shelter, safety, etc.), we are obliged to give it to him. If our neighbor wants assistance to improve his state in life (new car, nice home, more money), we are not obliged to give it to him. What is true of the relationship between me and my neighbor is also true between our country and people from other countries. Illegal immigrants have no right to take what they need simply so they can have a better life.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 22, 2013 2:23 PM ET USA

    I also must note that it is the Catholic Bishops of this country who often allow parishes in the United States to become safe houses for illegal immigrants, pushing the Americans who fund those parishes to the side, and allowing their favorites to run roughshod over their feelings and finances. Unsafe, too, I might add, since our child protection program in this diocese does not force Hispanic adults to get criminal record checks the way the Anglo adults must before working with children.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 22, 2013 8:56 AM ET USA

    The Catholic Church's position on immigration seems lax on the morality of all the immigrants currently residing in the US who knowingly broke the law and illegaly entered the US in violation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church number 2241. The Church also seems blind to the financial and societal ruin that unlimited immigration will bring to the US. At what point is it more important to protect the goose that lays the golden eggs?

  • Posted by: charlesteachout5398 - Jun. 22, 2013 1:15 AM ET USA

    One of the occasional terms one may hear on this subject is the term "immigrants", which applies, in the case, for example, of recent statements of Archbishop Gomez on this subject, to both legally applying immigrants and the" border crashers". There's a big difference between the 2 that the Archbishop conveniently ignores. That is, to me, a moral fault. Let us welcome all immigrants who respect and intend to live by our American laws, and avoid impugning those who disprove "border crashing"

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jun. 20, 2013 7:20 PM ET USA

    A superb insight, Dr. Mirus, absolutely superb.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jun. 20, 2013 6:14 PM ET USA

    I do not love my own "cultural dominance." Anyone can see that the Church in the US growing thanks to those fine Catholics south of the border who kneel instinctively before a statue of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. I applaud this with tears of respect in my eyes and hope for more such immigrants. But not all immigrants come here with such wisdom on board. Lately, many come with the idea of making our republic a giant Saudi Arabia. To them I say, "No thanks and please go home posthaste!"