Last Tuesday some Catholic bishops hosted a mass at the Arizona border with Mexico that largely was a plea for legalizing the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in the U.S. They focused on illegal immigrants who perish while surreptitiously crossing the desert. Cardinal Sean O’Malley gave a moving homily.
“We come to the desert today because it is the road to Jericho; it is traveled by many trying to reach the metropolis of Jerusalem,” O’Malley said. “We come here today to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert.”
Recalling his own Irish ancestors, O’Malley warned: “America at its best is not the bigotry and xenophobia of the no nothings [sic], but the generous welcome of the New Colossus, that mighty woman with a Torah, the Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles...”
And O’Malley continued: “We must be vigilant that lamp continues to burn brightly.” Indeed. But are the policy choices really so stark as the implied divide between hospitable Samaritans and 19th Century chauvinistic Know Nothings?
Are there not prudent reasonable arguments on both sides of the immigration issue, including Americans concerned about border security, national sovereignty, and the impact of uncontrolled illegal immigration on a growing, unemployable under class that includes many legal immigrants? And if there were improved border security, would it not spare illegals from potential death in the desert, not to mention their much more common exploitation by smugglers and traffickers?
The Catholic bishops lamented incarcerations and deportations, but both are only completely avoidable under a regime of open borders and unlimited immigration without standards. Religious advocates of “immigration reform” might be more persuasive if they included within their protests moral arguments for legitimate border controls. Otherwise they risk implying that the U.S. Government is merely a cornucopia obliged to provide unlimited goods and services to all who can reach our borders.
Another bishop at the protest reasonably noted: “We must look at the root causes of migration in this hemisphere – both violence and poverty – and pursue long- term strategies that allow families to remain home and live in safety and dignity.” But his point would be stronger if he acknowledged that both poverty in and migration from Latin America to the U.S. are falling because of economic growth there, sometimes better than here, plus plunging birth rates. Mexico, for all its problems, is becoming a middle lass country, and dated stereotypes about impoverished Mexicans without options need to fade.
Whatever the spiritual wisdom of their legislative advocacy on illegal immigration, the Catholic bishops are at least reasonable people who comport themselves with dignity. And their pronouncements are politically relevant. It’s also notable that none of the Catholic bishops at the border sought arrest there or elsewhere in a bid for media attention.
Sadly, none of the same can be said for United Methodist bishops, several of whom have recently sought arrest at contrived anti-deportation rallies, two of the bishops outside the White House, and the other more recently in Chicago. None achieved major media attention, begging the question, if a Methodist bishop is arrested but ignored, does it really count?
The Methodist bishops were specifically peeved at President Obama. Chicago Bishop Sally Dyck told Obama in her post-arrest statement on March 27 that “mass deportations” are “morally reprehensible” while urging a “just and humane immigration reform.” In effect she asked the President to ignore and stop enforcing the law without consent from the legislature. What other laws should he ignore? Her plea that deportations stop until “reform” is achieved was disingenuous, as United Methodism as official policy opposes all deportations and supports open borders. That stance is just one more reason why official Methodist political advocacy hasn’t been taken seriously in decades.
Bishops and officials of any religious group are called to be considerably more than political polemicists. They are supposed to be, if they are called to political witness, serious moral thinkers who recognize that a fallen world typically offers no simple solutions to complex social problems, and that even thoughtful solutions instead often create new problems. They might even acknowledge that the other side of their politics might also include some reason and virtue.
The religious enthusiasts for liberalized immigration and mass legalization rarely if ever acknowledge their proposals’ potential if not likely consequence of encouraging further illegal immigration, of further besetting an already unsustainable welfare entitlement state, of further depressing wages and increasing the ranks of the purportedly unemployable. And their apocalyptic rhetoric too often portrays illegal immigrants condescendingly not as moral agents but hapless victims of impersonal forces.
Christian discernment can’t promise moral certainty on most political issues and if anything should caution especially church officials away from it. And such discernment should certainly warn against superficial sloganeering that claims quick solidarity with the oppressed against their purported oppressors.
Careful moral reasoning is hard to demonstrate at political rallies much less media driven staged arrests, which may be one more reason for church officials to consider reticence over political loquaciousness.