Migrants and Refugees in the Social Doctrine of the Church
An irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored. Saint John Paul II.
As part of the aforementioned set of fundamental human rights willed by the divine fiat, the Church has long recognized as part of her social doctrine that the human person has the right to migrate, to sustain his or her own life and that of the family (US Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB], 2017).
Pope Pius XII on migration. For example, Pope Pius XII (1952) spoke with great clarity on this inherent right of the human person as a right that is “founded in the very nature of land.” He stated in an earlier letter to the American bishops that:
“You know indeed how preoccupied we have been and with what anxiety we have followed those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger, to leave their homes and live in foreign lands.
“The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people. For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.
“We have condemned severely the ideas of the totalitarian and the imperialistic state, as well as that of exaggerated nationalism. On one hand, in fact they arbitrarily restrict the natural rights of people to migrate or to colonize while on the other hand, they compel entire populations to migrate into other lands, deporting inhabitants against their wills, disgracefully tearing individuals from their families, their homes and their countries.”
Saint John XXIII and Pope Paul VI speak. Saint John XXIII (1963) declared that
“When there are just reasons in favor of it, [the human person] must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common worldwide fellowship of man.
“Refugees are persons and all their rights as persons must be recognized. Refugees cannot lose these rights simply because they are deprived of citizenship of their own States. And among man’s personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and – so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits – to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society.”
Furthermore, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993), “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” No fear of what may or can occur with regard to prevention is valid in terms of the above, despite a country having the right to regulate its borders and control immigration (USCCB, 2017), because this latter right of the nation-State can only occur when carried out with both justice and mercy.
Pope Paul VI (1963) declared in a frank manner that migrants often tend to end up suffering from moral and spiritual trauma both peri- and post-translocation, because of the multi-dimensional effects of the migration process itself. He added that it is Jesus Christ who, in fact, is seen “negli Emigranti è sofferente, è pellegrino, è bisognoso [in migrants and is suffering, is a pilgrim, is in need]” (ibid.).
Saint John Paul II on migrants and refugees. Speaking within the context of addressing the issue of forced migration due to untenable circumstances in land of origin of the human person, Saint John Paul II (1979) stated, “Faccio appello alla coscienza dell’umanità, perché tutti assumano la loro parte di responsabilità, popoli e governanti, in nome di una solidarietà che oltrepassa le frontiere, le razze, le ideologie . . . ogni uomo, ogni donna, ogni bambino nel bisogno è nostro prossimo [I appeal to the conscience of humanity, so that everyone assumes their own part of responsibility, peoples and governments, in the name of a solidarity that transcends frontiers, races, and the ideologies . . . every man, every woman, every child in need is our neighbor].” He (1991a) added that
“Migration always has two aspects, diversity and universality. The former comes from the meeting between diverse individuals and groups of people and involves inevitable tension, latent rejection and open polemics. The latter is constituted by the harmonious meeting of diverse social subjects who discover themselves in the patrimony that is common to every human being formed as it is by the values of humanity and fraternity. There is a mutual enrichment when diverse cultures come into contact.”
The saint (1991b) also emphasized the necessity of “abandon[ing] a mentality in which the poor – as individuals and as peoples – are considered a burden as irksome intruders.”
In a joint statement the points of which still sound hollowly true today, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (1992) declared that
“Despite an increased awareness of interdependence among peoples and nations, some States, guided by their own ideologies and particular interests, arbitrarily determine the criteria for the application of international obligations . . . In countries which had in the past offered a generous reception to refugees, there is now a disturbingly similar trend of political decisions aimed at reducing the number of entries and discouraging new requests for asylum . . . respect for the fundamental right of asylum can never be denied when life is seriously threatened in one’s homeland.”
And speaking about the moral foundation of civil law, Saint John Paul II (1995) stated that,
“[C]ivil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee . . . Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.”
Speaking about illegal and undocumented migrants, the saint (1996) emphasized that while the issue of illegal migration needs to be addressed at the root level, it is
“necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behavior, which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations . . . [it is] necessary to avoid recourse to the use of administrative regulations, meant to restrict the criterion of family membership which result in unjustifiably forcing into an illegal situation people whose right to live with their family cannot be denied by any law.”
Placing a particular burden on what this meant in practice for Christians and Catholics in particular, Saint John Paul II (1996) continued,
“For Christians, the migrant is not merely an individual to be respected in accordance with the norms established by law, but a person whose presence challenges them and whose needs become an obligation for their responsibility. ‘What have you done to your brother?’ (cf. Gn 4:9). The answer should not be limited to what is imposed by law, but should be made in the manner of solidarity. Man, particularly if he is weak, defenseless, driven to the margins of society, is a sacrament of Christ’s presence (cf. Mt 25:40, 45) . . . Today the illegal migrant comes before us like that ‘stranger’ in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is a duty of hospitality and fidelity to Christian identity itself.”
Saint John Paul II (1997a) emphasized that
“It is non-Christians, increasingly numerous, who go to countries with a Christian tradition in search of work and better living conditions, and they frequently do so as illegal immigrants and refugees . . . the Church, like the Good Samaritan, feels it her duty to be close to the illegal immigrant and refugee, contemporary icon of the despoiled traveler, beaten and abandoned on side of the road to Jericho (cf. Lk 10:30) . . . the Christian evangelizes by words and deeds, both the fruit of faith in Christ. Actions, in fact, are his ‘active faith,’ while words are his ‘eloquent faith.’ Since there is no evangelization without, in consequence, charitable actions, there is no authentic charity without the spirit of the Gospel: they are two intimately linked aspects.”
He (1997b) continued,
“For the Christian, acceptance of and solidarity with the stranger are not only a human duty of hospitality, but a precise demand of fidelity itself to Christ’s teaching. For the believer, caring for migrants means striving to guarantee a place within the individual Christian community for his brothers and sisters coming from afar, and working so that every human being’s personal rights are recognized . . . Jesus’ demanding assertion: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35) retains its power in all circumstances and challenges the conscience of those who intend to follow in his footsteps . . . In this regard, in the words of Saint James, ‘What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’ (Jas 2:14-17).”
Saint John Paul II (1999a) declared that
“Charity, in its twofold reality as love of God and neighbor, is the summing up of the moral life of the believer. It has in God its source and its goal. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lv 19:18). In the Book of Leviticus this commandment occurs in a series of precepts which forbid injustice. One of them warns: ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’ (19:33-44) . . . For the Christian, every human being is a ‘neighbor’ to be loved. He should not ask himself whom he should love, because to ask who is my neighbor?’ is already to set limits and conditions. The reason, ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ which constantly accompanies the command to respect and love the migrant, is not only meant to remind the chosen people of their former condition; it also calls their attention to God’s action: on his own initiative, he generously delivered them from slavery and freely gave them a land. ‘You were a slave and God intervened to set you free; you have seen, then, how God treated migrants; you must treat them in the same way:’ this is the implicit thought underlying the precept . . . Catholicity is not only expressed in the fraternal communion of the baptized, but also in the hospitality extended to the stranger, whatever his religious belief, in the rejection of all racial exclusion or discrimination, in the recognition of the personal dignity of every man and woman and, consequently, in the commitment to furthering their inalienable rights.”
Speaking in a direct manner about America, Saint John Paul II (1999b) emphazised with great frankness:
“As for non-Christian religions, the Catholic Church rejects nothing in them which is true and holy. Hence, with regard to other religions Catholics intend to emphasize elements of truth wherever they are to be found, while at the same time firmly bearing witness to the newness of the revelation of Christ, preserved in its fullness by the Church. Consistent with this attitude, they reject as alien to the spirit of Christ any discrimination or persecution directed against persons on the basis of race, color, condition of life or religion. Difference of religion must never be a cause of violence or war. Instead, persons of different beliefs must feel themselves drawn, precisely because of these beliefs, to work together for peace and justice. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, call Abraham their father. Consequently, throughout America these three communities should live in harmony and work together for the common good.
“The Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.”
He (2000) continued,
“In many regions of the world today people live in tragic situations of instability and uncertainty. It does not come as a surprise that in such contexts the poor and the destitute make plans to escape, to seek a new land that can offer them bread, dignity and peace. This is the migration of the desperate: men and women, often young, who have no alternative than to leave their own country to venture into the unknown. Every day thousands of people take even critical risks in their attempts to escape from a life with no future. Unfortunately, the reality they find in host nations is frequently a source of further disappointment.
“At the same time, States with a relative abundance tend to tighten their borders under pressure from a public opinion disturbed by the inconveniences that accompany the phenomenon of immigration. Society finds itself having to deal with the ‘clandestine’ men and women in illegal situations, without any rights in a country that refuses to welcome them, victims of organized crime or of unscrupulous entrepreneurs.
“In Jesus, God came seeking human hospitality. This is why he makes the willingness to welcome others in love a characteristic virtue of believers. He chose to be born into a family that found no lodging in Bethlehem (cf. Lk 2: 7) and experienced exile in Egypt (cf. Mt 2: 14). Jesus, who ‘had nowhere to lay his head’ (Mt 8: 20), asked those he met for hospitality. To Zacchaeus he said: ‘I must stay at your house today’ (Lk 19: 5). He even compared himself to a foreigner in need of shelter: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25: 35). In sending his disciples out on mission, Jesus makes the hospitality they will enjoy an act that concerns him personally: ‘He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me’ (Mt 10: 40).
“How can the baptized claim to welcome Christ if they close the door to the foreigner who comes knocking? ‘If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?’ (1 Jn 3: 17) . . . In all the societies of the world the figure of the exile, the refugee, the deportee, the clandestine, the migrant and the ‘street people’ . . . for believers becomes a call to change their mentality and their life, in accordance with Christ’s appeal: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’ (Mk 1:15). In its highest and most demanding motivation, this call to conversion certainly includes the effective recognition of the rights of migrants: ‘It is urgent in their regard that one know how to overcome a strictly nationalistic attitude to create a State which recognizes their right to emigration and encourages their integration . . . It is the duty of all – and especially Christians – to work energetically to establish the universal brotherhood which is the indispensable basis of true justice and a condition for lasting peace’ (Paul VI, Octogesima adveniens).”
Saint John Paul II (2001) declared that
“Although it is true that highly developed countries are not always able to assimilate all those who emigrate, nonetheless it should be pointed out that the criterion for determining the level that can be sustained cannot be based solely on protecting their own prosperity, while failing to take into consideration the needs of persons who are tragically forced to ask for hospitality.”
He (2002) added that
“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. That must not discourage us from pursuing the will of God . . . mixed cultural communities offer unique opportunities to deepen the gift of unity with other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities. Many of them in fact have worked within their own communities and with the Catholic Church to form 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.”
Furthermore, the saint (2003) stated that,
“No one should be indifferent to the conditions of multitudes of immigrants! They are at the mercy of events, often with dramatic situations behind them. The mass media broadcast moving and sometimes horrifying images of these people. They are children, young people, adults and elderly persons with emaciated faces and sad, lonely eyes. The camps that take them in often impose on them serious restrictions . . . Nor is it possible not to denounce the trafficking practiced by unscrupulous exploiters who abandon at sea, on precarious crafts, people desperately seeking a more certain future. Anyone in critical conditions needs prompt and concrete assistance . . . I deeply hope that every Ecclesial Community, made up of migrants and refugees and those who receive them and drawing inspiration from the sources of grace, will untiringly engage in the construction of peace. May no one let injustice, difficulties or inconvenience be a discouragement!”
 In Message for World Day Migration (1995a).