In Catholic parlance, certain terms carry weight far beyond their face value meaning. Calling something a “pro-life” issue, for instance, means not only that it involves the church’s teaching on the sacredness of human life, but that it merits an investment of blood, sweat, and tears tantamount to the church’s struggles against abortion and birth control.
In that sense of the term, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, may go down as the day immigration reform officially became a “pro-life” cause for the Catholic church in the United States.
Bishops and other church leaders in America have advocated immigration reform for years, but they’ve never been more emphatic or creative about it than on Tuesday, when a delegation of nine American prelates led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston traveled to Nogales, Ariz., to celebrate a Mass at the United States/Mexican border, to lay a wreath at the border commemorating the estimated 6,000 people who have died trying to make the crossing, and to stage a news conference urging reform of what they called a “broken system.”
The liturgy featured an instantly iconic visual of O’Malley and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson distributing communion to outstretched hands from the Mexican side of the border through slats in a 20-foot-high security fence.
Using phrases that immediately perk up Catholic ears, O’Malley told the Globe that defending immigrant rights is “another pro-life issue.” He also said no Catholic who takes church teachings seriously can support the status quo, because “the law is inadequate and unjust.”
Since O’Malley profiles as Pope Francis’ closest adviser in the United States, having his weight behind those assertions gives them real force.
(In terms of church politics, one could perhaps style the other prelates who made up the delegation as well-meaning social justice types who don’t really flex much muscle in the church. That’s why O’Malley’s presence was vital, because nobody would say that about him.)
The bishops didn’t just parachute in for a photo-op. They spent three days on both sides of the border, listening to people who’ve faced staggering hardships.
They met a Honduran woman who’d fled domestic violence at home only to be kidnapped by a criminal gang, and who said she’d spent several weeks on the streets in Mexico City surviving on scraps of taco shells and cast-off bottles of juice. They met a Mexican woman whose teenage son was shot to death by US Border Patrol agents, and who traveled to Washington, D.C., to stand outside the White House hoping someone might give her an explanation. (For the record, none came.) They heard from a weeping 13-year-old Mexican girl, whose sister has been in detention for six months with no sense of when she might be released.
Such stories, several bishops said, were in their hearts as they said Mass on Tuesday.
The emergence of immigration reform as a top-shelf Catholic concern illustrates what many historians say is the classic formula for change: deep structural forces plus creative individuals who give those currents direction.
At the structural level, Hispanic immigrants are an increasingly important chunk of America’s Catholic population. Today, roughly one-third of the 70 million Catholics in America are Hispanic, and that share is destined to rise. Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, calls this the “browning of American Catholicism.”
What’s happening in the United States reflects global realities. Two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world now live outside the West, and the church’s most rapid growth is coming in places that also generate a disproportionate share of the world’s migrants and refugees, such as sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.
For Catholicism, immigration isn’t just a matter of humanitarian concern. Increasingly, it’s also about taking care of the church’s own.
In terms of personalities leading the charge, the Catholic push for immigrant rights already had its global ambassador in Francis, and now it’s found a domestic face in O’Malley.
Francis has called for the church to embrace the peripheries of the world, and he’s made solidarity with migrants a priority. Indeed, the American bishops this week were actually imitating Francis from last July, when he made his first trip outside Rome to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a major point of arrival for impoverished migrants from Africa and the Middle East seeking to reach Europe.
Among church-watchers, O’Malley already profiled as the “American Francis” in the sense of being the prelate most in sync with both the style and the substance of the new pontiff. He cemented that reputation on Tuesday, delivering an impassioned homily at the border Mass, in both English and fluent Spanish, and also walking through the Arizona desert to experience the “trail of tears” followed by migrants on their way north.
“We can no longer tolerate the suffering caused by a broken system,” O’Malley said. “The suffering and death must end.”
In terms of what reform looks like, the bishops said the end-game is a path to citizenship for people who enter the country seeking to work. In the meantime, they said they hope to end what O’Malley called “deportation mania,” especially when it involves splitting families apart, and to curb abuses in detention policies.
It remains to be seen whether the bishops’ stand on immigration reform will have any impact on the political climate in Washington. After Tuesday, however, one can’t accuse them of not trying.
A chat with O’Malley
After the Mass at the border Tuesday morning, O’Malley sat down for an interview with the Globe. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Why was it important to you to come to the border?
I’ve spent my entire priesthood working with undocumented aliens, so this is an issue that’s very important to me. It’s not about statistics, it’s about people.
Concretely, when you call for immigration reform, what do you want?
We need to roll back the deportation mania that’s taken place in the last couple of years. We need to rethink these detentions centers that are costly, unnecessary, and very often penalize people who are not criminals. We need to do something about quotas, making it easier for people to come. There are segments of our economy that depend on immigrant labor, and that should be recognized in the law rather than forcing people to enter illegally, which often means they’re exploited and in competition with American laborers.
There’s a huge downside to allowing the present situation to continue. With the borders as tight as they’ve become, seasonal workers are often trapped here now. They can’t go back and so they’re separated from their families. There are also a rising number of unaccompanied minors coming into the country, and that’s a problem.
Can a Catholic who takes church teaching seriously support the status quo on immigration policy?
No. First of all, we’re not only a nation of immigrants, we’re an immigrant church. Many of our families had very difficult challenges when they came to America, so we should identify with the suffering of these people. Pope Francis’ term [about attitudes towards migrants], the “globalization of indifference,” is a very apt way to describe how people have allowed themselves to turn a blind eye to the human suffering and the tragedies that are taking place.
So a Catholic in good faith has to support immigration reform?
I think so, yes.
American bishops are sometimes accused of not putting the same muscle behind immigration as you do on what the church deems “pro-life” issues. Is this as important as the fight against abortion?
This is another pro-life issue. Although the pro-life activities of the bishops’ conference are perhaps better known, what the conference does around immigration is huge. There’s the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), refugee resettlement, the work of the immigration committee, and so on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the same publicity.
What about the argument that the hardships faced by undocumented immigrants may be tragic, but they’re the result of a decision to break American law?
The law is inadequate and unjust. As a country we depend upon immigrant labor, so we can’t penalize them when they respond to our needs.
Does Pope Francis’ example on this issue help?
Yes, of course. People are able to connect the dots. The Holy Father is always talking about going to the periphery, about taking care of each other and being responsible for those who are suffering and poor, and that message is resonating with people because our culture has become so individualistic and people are realizing that’s not the answer.
Do you believe Catholic opinion on immigration is turning?
Definitely, I really do. It’s like capital punishment. The teaching authority of the church really moved the needle among the Catholic people, and it’s happening with immigration.
Francis and Obama talked about immigration reform when they met March 27. Do you know anything more about what was said between them?
I don’t. Of course, the president is not the one we need to convince. I’m sure he was very encouraged by the Holy Father’s commitment to immigration reform, but the ones we have to convince are in the Congress.