Leading American bishops have complained about the “harshness” of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and called for an end to deportation of aliens until the “broken” system can be fixed. Yet, despite this opposition from the Church’s hierarchy, Trump won 52% of the Catholic vote (to Hillary’s 45%), a historic margin for a Republican. How to explain this contradiction?
Real simple. The laity get it better than the bishops. Trump’s nationalism is fully consistent with Catholic social doctrine as it has developed in the last 126 years. It is the leaders of the Church who have disregarded key features of that doctrine in order to sign on to American progressivism, including an unqualified hostility to immigration law enforcement.
Under Catholic doctrine, the leaders of each state have the sacred responsibility to promote the common good, which can be defined as providing the conditions necessary for a people to live together justly and prosperously. And whose well-being are we talking about? The citizens of the state. That’s what Pope Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum and Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris.
The great theologian of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, explained that our duties are positional and depend for their intensity on the person to whom they’re owed. In Summa Theologiae, in Part II-II, Question 26, article 6, Aquinas teaches that we “ought to love one neighbor more than another.” It is right and proper that we should love our family members more than unrelated people, and fellow-citizens of our country more than aliens (Question 31, article 3).
The Church has long recognized that this implies the state’s right to regulate immigration for the sake of national security. Civic authority “should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1909.) “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…” (Paragraph 2241) Trump’s executive order, focused on seven countries recognized as stateless regions without adequate safeguards against the movement of terrorists, falls well within these bounds.
The Church also teaches that the state has a special responsibility, as Pope Leo put it, “to promote to the utmost the interest of the poor.” Unskilled, working-class citizens are vulnerable to the loss of income and dignity from unbridled competition provided by unauthorized immigrants. In Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Pope Pius XI insisted that, “the right ordering of immigration is essential if we are to promote job opportunities for citizens that pay a living wage under conditions of dignity, and if we are to sustain a generous welfare system.
Finally, a nation has the right to protect its own civic institutions. As Aquinas recognized in De Regno, “Intercourse with foreigners, according to Aristotle’s Politics, is particularly harmful to civic custom. For it is inevitable that strangers, brought up under other laws and customs, will in many cases act as the citizens are not wont to act and thus, since the citizens are drawn by their example to act likewise, their own civic life is upset.” For Aquinas, it is political habits that matter, not merely approval of abstract principles. Unbridled immigration threatens the continuity of political habits that is essential to the survival of a nation.
Catholic thought recognizes the responsibility of rich countries to be compassionate toward refugees and toward those without access to sufficient natural resources. And the United States has indeed been generous, accepting 10 million refugees in the last thirty years, and tens of millions of additional legal immigrants. But this responsibility has limits. Pope John XXIII noted that the duty of the state to admit needy immigrants should be limited “as the good of their own community, rightly considered, permits.”
All sides in the current debate recognize the same principles — that we have obligations to be generous to refugees and others in desperate straits, and that these obligations are limited by leaders’ responsibility to give primary weight to the well-being of their own citizens. And the lay Catholics who voted for Trump seem to understand their Church’s teaching better than their bishops.