The current debate over immigration reform raises an important theological question: “Who speaks for the church?”
People on both sides of the political and ecclesiastical divide regularly appeal to the teaching of “the church” in support of their views — whether on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia, on one side, or on immigration, capital punishment and war-and-peace issues on the other. Thus the immigration debate provides a useful entrance into the question of church teaching.
On December 14, 2005, Gerald Barnes, bishop of San Bernardino and chairman of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, issued a statement on behalf of the entire conference in “strong opposition” to H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Bishop Barnes characterized the bill as “extremely punitive” and warned that “if enacted, (it) would unduly harm immigrants and their families, even those who are currently lawful residents.”
The statement also deplored a provision the bishops believed “would place parish, diocesan, and social service program staff at risk of criminal prosecution simply for performing their job.” Two days later, the House passed the bill by a vote of 239-182.
In an Ash Wednesday homily, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles excoriated the House bill as “blameful, vicious” legislation, and vowed a campaign of civil disobedience in the archdiocese’s 288 parishes if it becomes law. Three weeks later, Cardinal Mahony published an op-ed column in The New York Times, explaining why “the church is compelled to take a stand against harmful legislation and to work toward positive change.”
Observers noted that the bishops’ opposition to the House immigration bill has called attention once again to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ longstanding, consistent-ethic-of-life approach to moral issues, which many politically and religiously conservative Catholics so dislike.
The bishops’ focus in recent years has been on issues of abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia, which have, in effect, placed them in close political proximity with the interests of the Republican Party. Indeed, a handful of bishops for all practical purposes endorsed the re-election of President Bush in the 2004 election.
But now the shoe is on the other foot, and cable news commentators Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs are asking whether the church should maintain its tax-exempt status given its “political activism” on immigration. Republican Rep. Peter King, a self-described practicing Catholic, lumped the bishops with the “left wing of the Catholic Church,” accusing them of being “frustrated social workers” (New York Times, March 19).
An editorial in the National Review Online edition (March 23) brings the question into clear focus. Referring to Cardinal Mahony’s use of the phrase “What the church supports…” in his op-ed column, the editorial observes: “Surely, he is not suggesting that it follows from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church that a particular piece of legislation is the ‘only’ way to ‘solve our current immigration crisis’.”
“Presumably what he means,” the editorial continues, “is that this legislation, in his judgment and the judgment of other bishops, best embodies the moral principles that the Church believes should govern immigration policy.”
Well said. If the current controversy over immigration helps us to refine and sharpen our understanding of what “the church” means when applied to moral teaching, that would be a major achievement in itself.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.Tags: Life Issues