The Pope on immigration

The Pope’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees (“To Overcome Racism, Xenophobia and Exaggerated Nationalism”) is in one sense typical—it follows the line all respectable Christian religious leaders now follow—but in another sense quite extraordinary:

  • He speaks of “undocumented migrants” as among “the most vulnerable of foreigners,” of “the Christian duty to welcome whoever comes knocking out of need,” of “true acceptance of immigrants in their cultural diversity,” and of “Christ, who through us wishes to continue in history and in the world his work of liberation from all forms of discrimination, rejection, and marginalization.”
  • He “urge[s] Catholics to excel in the spirit of solidarity towards newcomers among them.” “Such openness builds up vibrant Christian communities.” Therefore, “Christians must struggle to overcome any tendency to turn in on themselves.” He further points out that “if newcomers feel unwelcome as they approach a particular parish community because they do not speak the local language or follow local customs, they easily become ‘lost sheep’. The loss of such ‘little ones’ for reasons of even latent discrimination should be a cause of grave concern to pastors and faithful alike.”
  • He further requests that Catholics work with other ecclesial communities to create “societies in which the cultures of migrants and their special gifts are sincerely appreciated, and in which manifestations of racism, xenophobia, and exaggerated nationalism are prophetically opposed.”
  • He notes, however, that “solidarity does not come easily. It requires training and a turning away from attitudes of closure, which in many societies today have become more subtle and penetrating. To deal with this phenomenon, the Church possesses vast educational and formative resources at all levels. I therefore appeal to parents and teachers to combat racism and xenophobia by inculcating positive attitudes based on Catholic social doctrine.”

What does all this add up to?

First, it appears that every country should have open borders. If they aren’t open, some migrants will be undocumented and therefore become the special objects of hospitality and care. But if we have to welcome and care for them anyway, why not make it official and give all comers papers at the border?

Second, the flood of immigrants should be welcomed by local communities just as they are, and truly accepted in their cultural diversity. No boundaries of any kind may be drawn, because even the hint of a boundary would be latent discrimination. The Catholic Church should use its vast resources to inculcate such attitudes, and work with others to spread them through society generally. That, as all “social concerns” bureaucrats agree, is the prophetic function of the Church.

But what of the local culture? The Pope “also invite[s] the immigrants to recognize the duty to honor the countries which receive them and to respect the laws, culture, and traditions of the people who have welcomed them.” So it appears the net effect is to be a world without boundaries of any kind, in which each is equally present to all others and each respects and honors the particularities of all.

By calling for such a thing the Pope is saying nothing new but simply repeating with his usual intellectual and moral fervor the view all official moral teachers hold today. What he and other moral teachers leave unexplained, however, is how the particularities that are to be honored will be able to exist as anything but individual idiosycrasies in a world utterly without boundaries in which no culture is authoritative because each is equally present and equally honored.

The short answer is that they won’t. A culture is a particular complex of habits, understandings and loyalties that are normative although mostly unstated among a particular group of people. As such, it requires boundaries. A culture can exist as a culture only among a group of people who have grown into it together and feel that among themselves they can take it for granted. Such conditions cannot exist in a group that feels obligated to be utterly and continuously open to numerous new arrivals, avoiding even latent discrimination, and called to honor them in all their otherness.

What the Pope is calling for is therefore not the honoring of culture but the abolition of culture by the abolition of every social setting in which any particular culture can exist. Can that be right? A culture is a mode of being human, and is always particular. Because man is a social animal, participation in culture—and therefore in a particular culture—is necessary for a fully human life. If it weren’t needed, why all the talk in the Church about “inculturation”?

The odd thing is that the Pope seems to understand the problem. He says “The path to true acceptance of immigrants in their cultural diversity is actually a difficult one, in some cases a real Way of the Cross.” He’s quite right. The Way of the Cross is the way of giving up everything we have and by which we live. The proposed approach to migration does involve something rather like that.

I suppose the question I would put as a citizen is whether something that involves the Way of the Cross—whatever its spiritual benefits for a man like the Pope—can be justified as public policy. Because it seems to me that as a practical matter the destruction of particular culture is much less likely to lead to the vibrant communities of which the Pope speaks than to tyranny, brutishness and mutual hatred.

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