America, Immigration, and the Catholic Church

Exactly a quarter-century ago, four years after my baptism and reception into the Church of Rome, I published a book called The Immigration Mystique: America’s False Consciousness that was immediately and widely attacked on publication as being wrong on its facts (though no reviewer cited a single error), ignorant, heartless, bigoted, and, in one case, “poisonous.” The book’s subtext was substantially a critique of the contemporary Church’s apparently majoritarian view of the subject and an attempt to refute that view, which has not been materially altered in the past 25 years but rather reiterated many times, and restated with vigor. 

A lengthy editorial in the National Catholic Register summarizes it in a more faithful and comprehensive manner than much that I have read recently. It is based squarely on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, understood from the perspective of liberal Catholic opinion. While the Catechism is indeed a monumental volume grounded in texts inspired by the Holy Ghost, the constitution, written or unwritten, of a modern Western nation is not expected to directly reflect a religious text, especially one accepted only by a religious minority within that country. A state, in short, is not a church—certainly it is not the Church. For it to be otherwise would be not only terrible public policy but atrocious theology as well—based, in this instance, on Catholic intellectual tradition distorted by the confused liberal principles and sentimentalism that have compromised that tradition over the past century or so.

A further problem is the editors’ conflation of the moral duty and responsibility of an individual in his private and personal relationships with his dutiful responsibility as a member of a nation-state in its relationship with another national state and its members. But the two, not being the same thing, should operate according to different moral laws and philosophical codes. (Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book at the middle of the last century called Moral Man and Immoral Society in which he made roughly the same point, though to a different purpose.) These differ because an individual act of charity toward another individual—rescuing a brutalized stranger fallen by the wayside, for example—has results that are narrowly circumscribed and more or less foreseeable. Meanwhile acts of mass charity by a national government—such as admitting hundreds of thousands of people from an undeveloped nation for whom the word “aliens” is a better description than “strangers”—has nearly infinite consequences, most of them unforeseeable, confused, disruptive, potentially dangerous, and irreversible, as we are presently witnessing along the Southwestern border. 

The Catechism recognizes the dangerous possibilities involved, as Paul Kniaz argues in his essay “What the Catechism Says About Immigration,” comparing the duties of a national government to those of parents safeguarding their families. Further, private charity is a personal act of sacrifice voluntarily made. For a government to admit tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions, of penurious, uneducated, and unskilled immigrants amounts to compelling forcible sacrifice on its citizens—with whose welfare alone it is constitutionally entrusted—on behalf of these aliens, an act that cannot be properly described as charity at all. In fact, as a general rule, Western ruling classes since World War II have welcomed mass immigration over the angry and resentful protest of their publics for purposes that benefit (beyond the immigrants) chiefly themselves and rest of the elite class that appreciates the cheap labor, an expanded consumerist base, and an increased population that enhances what they call “national greatness” (and thus their own).

National Catholic Register claims for the United States national obligations toward immigrants and generous immigration policies that, however closely they reflect the teaching of the Catechism, have no basis whatsoever in the history of Anglo-American law and jurisprudence until immediately after World War II, and even those obligations have only narrowly to do with refugee and asylum law. The nation’s founding generation, including the founders themselves—George Washington and John Jay, among others—recognized no need for further immigration, implying that there was rather a need not to promote it. (Again, these men were not Catholics, but neither was the country they founded in 1789, nor is it today.) 

Pro-immigration opinion in this country barely existed until after 1865, and from then until 1945 it was largely confined to corporate industrial interests keen on importing cheap labor. After World War I the American public hardened against immigration to their country, and so it was shut off almost completely for nearly 20 years. After 1945 it was resumed, and it was between that time and the present day that mass immigration as an ideological cause arose among liberal internationalists, antifascists, ethnic groups, and churches and other religious enterprises, not least among them the Catholic Church. 

Enthusiasm for immigration has been a powerful force in American politics for nearly eight decades, yet immigration as a political institution has no history, basis, or justification in Western political philosophy, nor did it in Christian theology or the churches before the postwar era. National Catholic Register would explain this fact by adverting to its editors’ argument that the world has changed significantly in the past three quarters of a century, mainly on account of “globalization” which, they write, has “caused our lives [to become] practically intertwined—culturally, economically, even politically—with people across the globe.” 

In point of fact, that intertwinement is far more an impression than it is a reality; the world’s various peoples and cultures have a knowledge and awareness of each other that is largely superficial, derived almost exclusively from what they learn from Hollywood, the mass media, and social media. 

It is also a fact, empirically verifiable from the news of the day, that the more these groups are brought into closer proximity, the more mutually hostile they become: The world was never less at peace than it is in the 21st century. (Globalization is really another form of chaos, like the Tower of Babel.) The Register cites Benedict XV—one of the greatest Catholics of his time—who wrote that “in our increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family.” But the expression has anthropological and theological meaning only; as a matter of history and politics, it is merely a figure of speech and a pretty sentiment with no application to the world of practical statecraft, which is about the management and preservation of nations and their relations. Machiavelli was right in insisting that Christian nations cannot operate according to strict theological principles in managing their conflicts with pagan nations and barbaric societies, and survive to protect their citizens against them.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church alone—not the Constitution of the United States nor the unwritten one of the United Kingdom, nor that of France nor that of any country that exists today or ever did, nor the Western political tradition going back to classical Greece—justifies the Register’s claim that, “our first question [to the prospective immigrant] shouldn’t be ‘where are you from?’ but ‘How can I [note use of the first person singular] help?’ as we follow the example of the Good Samaritan—and ultimately Jesus Christ—in embracing all we encounter as our neighbors, worthy of love and dignity.” 

But there is also the question of how the stranger comes to us: importunately, legally, and peacefully, or aggressively, as if by natural right, and threatening to employ force. (I learned the other day of one member of yet another caravan making itself up in Guatemala having threatened to “declare war” on the United States should he and tens of thousands of other caravaners be refused entry into the country immediately upon their arrival at the southern border.) 

It is a question, too, of whether the immigrant comes as a proud representative of alien morals, manners, customs, beliefs, and traditions—and, finally, of his purpose in coming, whether to appropriate what belongs to people of a foreign country and culture and make it his own by exploiting their wealth, their generous (but not infinitely resourceful) institutions, and their historically hard-won freedoms. In this respect, if one insists on individualizing the situation, a more apt parable than the Samaritan coming to the rescue of the battered Jewish wayfarer would be the thief breaking into the house in the night after the master neglected to take precautions against the intrusion of his home.

National Catholic Register believes that “we” have “a call to embrace the responsibility that comes with being more fortunate than others.” The truth of this claim depends, of course, upon who “we” are. Catholics, taken as morally responsible, Christian individuals, do of course have such a call in their private relationships with other individuals. But the first-person plural pronoun as the editors use it applies to the American people—Catholics, Protestants, and secularists alike—who as Americans have no such responsibility; neither should one be imposed upon them by law, nor upon their country—especially if the result is likely to be, in time, to transform it radically, and very probably for the worse, and perhaps much worse. Quoting the Catechism, the editors urge that “a significant step of immigration reform must be to address the factors that motivate people to leave their homeland . . . we must also welcome the foreigner in search of the security and means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” 

This assertion is straight out of the Catechism. Yet here, as at many points in the modern Catholic case on behalf of immigrants and immigration, Catholic teaching has been overtaken by the international realities (as the editors themselves argue) that have developed over the past several decades, with the result that they offend against prudence, the first of the cardinal virtues. Regarding the claim that the United States must address what the current administration in Washington calls the “root causes” of immigration, one wonders whether the Register thinks Americans are a race of Olympian gods with the power to solve the world’s problems and gather in the world to themselves. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who are having a go at “addressing the factors” that “motivate” immigration from Central and South America to the United States, have so far had no success at all with their efforts.

Crucially, we are up against the insuperable fact of sheer numbers. The United States, like every other Western country, is no longer facing mere immigration: It is facing mass migration, involving potentially tens or scores of millions, or even billions, of importunate migrants. Numbers, as the saying goes, matter. 

Thus for the receiving countries, national immigration policy has become for them a question not of what they should do, or should wish to do, but of what they can possibly do without abandoning themselves and their people (including the new immigrants, by the way) to social, political, financial, and cultural chaos. No doubt billions of the world’s 7.5 billion people—if not the great majority of them—could offer or invent plausible grounds for asylum in this country. Yet even a few million immigration judges could not hear all of them nor could the territory of the United States and its (still) vast resources support such a large population. In respect to immigration, it is time for everyone, including devout and charitable Catholics, to think realistically and in practical terms about the subject.

About Chilton Williamson

Chilton Williamson Jr., a novelist, nonfiction writer, and historian, served as a senior editor at National Review and as editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Currently he writes a monthly column for The Spectator (World). His latest novel, The Last Westerner, will be published next year.

Photo: Robert Daemmrich/Corbis via Getty Images

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