Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Lent reminds us that we live as pilgrims in this world. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not suffer, die, and rise from the dead for us, so that we could remain ensconced here for this life, but so that we could follow him to heaven forever. In Lent, we practice more faithfully that path of union with Christ, the way of the cross and freedom from worldly sins and temptations. The fate of our eternal souls is worth a little sacrifice.
But while we disciples should not be of the world, we still remain in the world, which God has given us as a gift. Therefore, during our pilgrimage, we also have obligations in the world. Exactly what and to whom we are obliged, and in what order, depends on our vocation and state in life, but the broader categories of morality and virtue apply to all of us, as Christ revealed and taught. Among the virtues, the most overarching are the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, fortitude and temperance. If we follow all these virtues well, imitating Christ and the saints, we’ll be well along the path to heaven in any vocation.
Our commitment to Christ-like virtue also means that Christians must always face up to the moral evils of the day. Our weapons in such battles are spiritual ones, not worldly, merely political ones. We rely on conversion, the witness of holy disciples, fasting and charity, and above all, prayer. This is what Jesus taught the first disciples, when he sent them out preaching the kingdom of God (see Mt 10, Lk 10). The church does not rely on worldly power to achieve even good and just worldly goals, because this would be to follow a different path than Christ’s.
For example, in the current debate about Iowa’s “Heartbeat Bill,” which would eliminate abortions as soon as a baby’s heartbeat is detectable, this is of course a just and worthy goal, and one that we should all support.
However, this particular bill is not a prudent or temperate way of reaching that goal, for a number of reasons. It is a provocative piece of legislation, sure to lead to immediate lawsuits against it. Ultimately, we have little reason to expect that the state or federal Supreme Courts could uphold the law. If that happened, the current 20-week “pain-capable” abortion ban in Iowa, so long labored for, would also be lost, because this bill explicitly repeals it in favor of the heartbeat limit. Abortion would again become legal through all 40 weeks of pregnancy.
In addition, we risk letting the courts set the precedent that the baby’s heartbeat is not legally recognizable as “human life,” making future pro-life gains even more difficult. Finally, using the “weapon” of court-imposed laws has worked against us too many times for us to trust this path as wise, even for worthy goals. Therefore, the Iowa bishops and the Iowa Catholic Conference cannot support the bill whole-heartedly.
Prudence and justice must work together. Lasting pro-life laws will only result from a broad popular consensus, a growing culture that is more pro-life than not. And that will only come about through the prayers, witness, and convictions of well-formed and courageous disciples – namely, you. This is the “incremental” strategy which the church has been pursuing for five decades, with notable successes (and, sadly, a few setbacks).
Similarly, the current debate over DACA (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”) and immigration reform requires justice, prudence and temperance working together. The broad lines of Catholic teaching are clear. Nations have a right and a duty to secure their borders and regulate immigration, for the sake of peace and the common good. This includes screening out criminals and terrorists and preventing illegal border crossings. Those who would immigrate into a country also have rights, including the right to seek employment, the right to family unity (within reason), and the right to safety, both while entering the country, and while present in it, even illegally. They also have a duty to respect the laws and customs of the country they enter.
Moreover, we Christians, even those who are here illegally, have a claim on our charity. This is more fundamental than policy. We witness to Christ in welcoming them to our parishes and schools, and in serving them with the sacraments, church programs and aid, and our own personal time and charity. From this perspective at the foot of the cross, it is easy to see that both poor border security and the insecurity of having no legal status are significantly unjust and harmful to the common good.
All this implies that it would be just, prudent, and reasonable to support some version of DACA, while the exact details need temperance among those elected officials whose responsibility it is to resolve them. But such legislation must be enacted legally, by Congress, and not unconstitutionally (which alleviates none of their insecurity), as the previous administration unwisely did.
In terms of wider immigration reform, the same virtues demand both greater control over our own border, and also wider avenues of access to legal presence in our country (not necessarily permanently, and not necessarily for citizenship). I believe that we will never fully control illegal immigration until all those coming here to work (because work is available and will always remain enticing) can enter and work legally.
Both these particular issues are far more complex than can be treated in this space. I hope these brief thoughts, and especially the light of faith which I am attempting to bring to them, will be helpful to you. I continue to pray for all of you during this Lenten season. Please pray also for me.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City