Two moral aspects of immigration issues: asylum requests and family separation

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The mission of the Church is to save souls. Our Lord Jesus Christ gave the church the means of achieving this, namely, his own sacred authority for proclaiming the Gospel, for offering the seven sacraments and for participating in the life and mission of the church. We all live out this mission, well or poorly, according to our vocation and state in life.

This mission is not political. It is separate from our mundane pursuits. It does, however, overlap with the world in several areas, especially in moral teaching; in rebuking sin and evil; and in forming hearts and minds open to Christ, or at least to the seeds of his goodness, justice, and truth in the created order. The church preaches goodness and justice, and calls out evil and injustice, because these truths are primarily spiritual.

The church also claims an inherent freedom, given by God, to carry out this mission. This does not mean that the church should be “in charge” in society, and certainly not in politics. It does mean that the worldly authorities, whose legitimacy also is ultimately given by God, cannot justly prevent the church’s mission. The government or society in general cannot rightly silence the church’s proclamation, or tell the church when or how or for whom to offer the sacraments, or force the church’s members to put their faith away in order to engage in any aspect of social life. Each year under the direction of the bishops, the church in the United States takes time to emphasize the importance of freedom that we share in our nation.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke lucidly of two “legitimate autonomies,” for the church and for society, in which the church is free to live her mission, and society is free (within the limits of natural law and justice) to arrange and regulate mundane affairs. In this, he was merely stating clearly the unchanging teaching of the church and not inventing any new ideas. Ideally, these two areas of life should find themselves more or less cooperating for the common good. Whenever they find themselves at odds, it is a clear sign that at least one of them is suffering from some afflicting evil.

We are all familiar with the litany of social evils that afflict our Western and American society. Whenever social mores or government policy actively promote these evils, the church must rebuke, attempting to persuade people of a better and higher truth and goodness desired for us by our Savior.

But there are also evils that can corrupt the activities of the church. One such corrupting evil in the church right now, which often passes unnoticed, is partisanship. The mission of the church is not political. But so much of our politics today is wrapped up in the rhetoric of justice, which imitates the words of the Gospel. It can easily happen that well-meaning people fail to distinguish between worldly and spiritual meanings of justice, and hence take as part of the church’s mission to form hearts and minds something which is actually a mundane issue of political judgment.

Two weeks ago, at the recent meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the conference (and former bishop of Sioux City), issued a timely statement about two moral aspects of the immigration issue, namely, asylum requests and family separation. The church’s teaching on these two aspects is perfectly clear, and frankly, so too is the natural law. There are legitimate grounds for requesting asylum, and any practices or policies that prevent or limit asylum requests from being made, or refuse to accept and adjudicate them, are wrong. Likewise, the family has a prior reality to man-made laws, and has the right in principle to remain together in most circumstances. Any practices or policies that unnecessarily separate children from parents are wrong.  I gladly stood with my brother bishops in calling for these problems to be recognized and corrected by the current administration.

Last week saw several attempts by the government to do just that. President Donald Trump signed an executive order, directing that families arrested for illegally crossing the border should not be separated, and that the peculiarities in the law requiring children to be held separately from their parents, and for different time limits, be reconsidered as well. And several laws were proposed in Congress, offering solutions to this issue, and to some of the problems of adjudicating asylum requests in a timely way.

Granted, these efforts were limited and imperfect. The scope of the moral and legal problems with immigration, having festered for decades, are now enormous. It is impossible to conceive of legislation that would solve all these problems, in ways satisfactory to all the agendas involved. That is often the nature of politics.

I was greatly disappointed, however, that many voices in the church went on to oppose these attempted solutions because of their limits and imperfections. The proper role of the church is to point out these limits and imperfections, while leaving it to the legitimate autonomy of the political actors to act. Reasonable people are left to wonder whether partisan corruption afflicts the church.

One of the most insidious things about injustice is that the weak, the poor and the marginalized always suffer the most. The church cannot embrace Christ’s “preferential option for the poor” in matters of worldly injustice, if she herself tolerates corruption among her own members. It falls on all of us as disciples to hold each other accountable for how we use the gifts of our Savior. Above all, pray constantly for each other, and for our leaders in the church and in the world, from whom “more will be demanded.”

Please continue to enjoy the blessings of summer with your friends and family and don’t forget to pray for beneficial weather. May God bless you all.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

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