US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Pope Benedict on immigration reform

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The pope has a practice of greeting groups of bishops--usually from the same ecclesiastical district called “a metropolitan province,” like the Province of the Archdiocese of Chicago and its “suffragan sees” in Illinois.  Recently Pope Benedict XVI greeted one such group: “I would begin by praising your unremitting efforts, in the best traditions of the church in America, to respond to the ongoing phenomenon of immigration in your country.”  He also complemented the bishops for advocating for “the just treatment and the defense of the human dignity of immigrants.” He had already expressed his support for bishops' efforts supporting comprehensive immigration reform. While acknowledging that it is a complex and difficult issue still, in Catholic teaching, nations do have the right to regulate their borders. But his message was clear.

The American church does have what Benedict called “a long-standing commitment” to the immigrant. I remember, in class at Catholic University, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the doyen of American Catholic History, said the one word to understanding the story of the Church in America was “immigration.” We all are, of course, immigrants--even the native Americans who cross the Bering Sea from Asia on a land or ice bridge and spread through the Americas 12,000 to 25,000 years ago. But the Catholic Church at the founding of the republic numbered only a few thousands, centered in southern Maryland. Irish and German merchants and seafarers began to settle in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia as the ink on the Constitution was drying.

So the bishops had to respond quickly. Archbishop John Carroll was lucky, at the expense of the French Church, in welcoming émigré priests fleeing persecution of the revolutionary government. But the Irish and the French were not always a peaceful mix. And from very beginning the issue of immigration preoccupied the American Church.

It seems--even to our own times--the church had always to hustle to keep up providing priest and services to a burgeoning congregation of new peoples--first, the Irish and the Germans, later the eastern and southern Europeans, and now, as Pope Benedict serves, Catholics from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Usually this was done adequately and even heroically as priests and sisters accompanied the people to America. The “national parish” has yet to disappear from our ecclesiastical landscape. But the transition hasn’t always been entirely frictionless. Archbishop Carroll has deal with the “whiskey priest” dumped by Irish bishops on the new church. The Germans hung on to their language and customs so intensely that at the end of the nineteenth century some were proposing the appointment of German bishops with separate jurisdiction.

One force that eventually created unity among the bishops and people that rose above the difficulties of the multilingualism and multiculturalism of the American church was “nativism.” Already before the founding of the republic there was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment. But these were overwhelmed by the expanse of a new country w yet to be peopled--notwithstanding that it was already peopled by the Native Americans--and by rather generous and optimistic expectations of the American experiment--but not applying to the black slaves. By the 1830s, as too many Irish and Germans came and nationhood became more complex, the cry was beginning--“Americans for the Americans”--which meant “white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.” The U.S. was to experience successive waves of nativism and attempts to exclude some or all immigrants. Ironically, since in the national perspective it was still a big country to fill up, the federal government did little, and so the states took to passing restrictive laws on immigration and citizenship--much like Arizona and Alabama today.

By the time the American bishops came together to form the National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1919, they were generally united by bitter experience in advocating for the immigrant and providing services to their various communities. One emphasis was immigration law. They established a special office that worker vigorously to prevent the enactment of restrictive national legislation in the 1920s. After they failed to prevent that, they turned their efforts to servicing immigrant communities. In the 1950s they were in forefront in protecting migrant farm workers, in welcoming displaced refugees from Eastern Europe and in reforming immigration law. The cycle was renewed in the 1970s with the large unauthorized migration across the Mexican border--an issue that is still with us--and refugees from Vietnam.

Pope Benedict rightly praised the American church for its continued support of the immigrant. It’s a response to Old Testament’s admonish to welcome the strange and treat him/her as one of your own, but it is also recognition that this is who we are--“we all were once strangers in the Land.” (Lv. 19:34)