As spiritual assistant of a local fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, I responded to a quite racist post by a member of the fraternity about those who wish to cross our southern border. I responded by providing the members of the fraternity with the statements from the US bishops about migrants and refugees.

A member of the fraternity responded, “I feel like arguing with him!!! Open borders are creating the crisis. Attracting families to come!!!!! Should I say that to him?”To which, I responded:

Refugees vs. Migrants

I would respond by saying that refugees are different from migrants, and it’s important to know the difference. Migration at the southern border is at an all-time low. Refugees fleeing violence in their countries are the people clogging the border crossings!

Refugees have human rights internationally. These rights are among those enumerated in numerous international treaties. All countries are constitutionally obligated to accept refugees. The U.S. bishops remind us that we are also morally obligated to accept them. I’d have to say that, for me, accepting refugees seems to also be in line with Gospel values.

It is, of course, important to distinguish between true refugees and those just trying to get into the country any way they can. Under the current conditions, it is clear that most people presenting themselves at the southern border are women and children fleeing violence in their countries. This makes them true refugees deserving of human right protections.

So, what can we do to stem the tide of refugees at our borders? The most critical thing, in my opinion, is to build up their countries at home. We’ve been deporting gang members for some time now, as we should, but without any concern for what they’ll do back in their home countries. The effect has been outright lawlessness and people taking their children and fleeing the chaos which has now enveloped their countries. Instead of threatening to withhold foreign aid, that aid is the key to restoring law enforcement to these countries which have become, in effect, failed states with no ability to effectively police their own cities.

I agree that there is a crisis at the border, but it seems to be not a crisis of “open borders” but rather a crisis for an unprepared nation having problems dealing with the refugees presenting themselves at the border or to agents once they’ve crossed. As much as we’d like to think that there’s a simple solution, such as a wall, the problem in Central America has been building for some time now, and there are no easy solutions. In the short term, we need to beef up our refugee processing, and — in the longer term — work at improving living conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, etc. in order to address the root problem.

Church Teachings

What does the Church teach about refugees?

Catechism #1911 Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to “provide for the different needs of men; this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education, . . . and certain situations arising here and there, as for example . . . alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families.”

Catechism #2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

US Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship The Gospel mandate to “welcome the stranger” requires Catholics to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking. Comprehensive reform is urgently necessary to fix a broken immigration system and should include a broad and fair legalization program with a path to citizenship; a work program with worker protections and just wages; family reunification policies; access to legal protections, which include due process procedures; refuge for those fleeing persecution and violence; and policies to address the root causes of migration. The right and responsibility of nations to control their borders and to maintain the rule of law should be recognized but pursued in a just and humane manner. The detention of immigrants should be used to protect public safety and not for purposes of deterrence or punishment; alternatives to detention, including community-based programs, should be emphasized.

Inability to Accept

Now, what do we do if we find ourselves to be in disagreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church?

I think that the Church was quite wise to print the text of the catechism in different size fonts. The largest font is reserved for dogmas (e.g., “Jesus is the Son of God”) and smaller and smaller type is used for the application of these dogmas.

One could say, “I’m with the bishops on everything except the death penalty” or “I’m with the Church on everything except accepting refugees.” These are disagreements with the teachings of the Church and not with the underlying dogma.

One would hope that, in time, with prayer and reflection, one would confirm their conscience to the teachings of the Church, but it is the human condition that occasionally we fall short. It’s why we find Catholics who are actively involved with the application of the death penalty, who work with nuclear weapons, who are pro-choice, who want to refuse safety to refugees, etc. These Catholics can accept the dogmas of the Church but find it difficult to accept fully the application of that dogma, as taught by the Church.

The Church has always taught that the conscience is supreme. Catechism #1782 tells us “Man (sic) has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience (emphasis added). Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.'” (You can see more of what the Catechism has to say about conscience here.)

The Church does say that we are obliged to correctly form our consciences, but more than anything we are obliged to follow it. If one sincerely feels in their conscience that it is wrong to assist the refugees at the border or to deny them the safety of our country, then they are obliged to follow their conscience regardless of what the bishops teach about it.

Jim McIntosh
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Jim McIntosh

Director, US Franciscans Communications at US Franciscans
A former missionary to Perú and Bolivia, I am now working half-time at a parish in New Jersey and half-time as webmaster for US Franciscans.
Jim McIntosh
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