Benedict on the Border—A Showdown over Church and Nation-State

April 29, 2008

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Benedict on the Border—A Showdown over Church and Nation-State

With the visit of Pope Benedict to the U.S., American Catholics are faced with a grave confrontation between Church and State, a conflict between their supernatural faith and their patriotic duty, unparalleled in the English-speaking world since Pope Pius V deposed Queen Elizabeth I—and encouraged Catholics in her realm to topple her from power. Right?

That’s what you’d think, from reading the statements of open-borders activists alongside the complaints of restrictionist ex-Catholics like Tom Tancredo.

In fact, the current argument is much more complicated, and reflects millennia of tension between the notion of national sovereignty and the universal claims of Christian faith and morals. First, let’s dispose of the nonsense about an absolute “separation of Church and State.” Such an idea is simply anti-Christian (anti-Catholic, anti-Orthodox, and anti-Protestant). To the degree that any of our country’s framers supported this principle (and historians disagree), they did so because they were Deists, who saw God as a distant lab technician watching us like rats in a maze. And they were wrong, so it’s our duty to fix their mistake—while retaining the freedom of conscience upon which our mostly Protestant Founders insisted. “Separation of Church and State,” as it’s currently used, is a mindless piece of rhetoric meant to confuse people, to present the fake alternative of a godless technocracy or the Spanish Inquisition.

If the Church is to be anything more than a hapless, harmless chaplaincy which throws holy water over the latest whim of the State, it’s sometimes going to have to challenge the claims of kings and presidents. Most paleocons were happy when Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict rejected American wars against Iraq—just as neocons were testily dismissive. Now the papal Prada is on the other foot. Or is it?

From certain media reports and a few careless statements by bishops, you might really think that the Catholic Church is rejecting its complex, long-time teaching that a given State must balance the interests of civic order and the Common Good against the claims of compassion. (For a splendid history of how the official teaching developed, see Chilton Williamson here.) Whatever you read in the media, whatever reporters try to glean between the lines of a particular speech made by good Pope Benedict for a particular occasion, the official stance of the Catholic Church on the immigration issue can be found—who would have thought?—in its current Catechism. The key passage is the following:

“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.”

Real incendiary stuff. Is there anybody out there who’d care to assert the contrary, that even when we are able—without destroying the wages of our native working class, or endangering our sovereignty—to welcome needy poor people who in fact “respect with gratitude” our heritage, obey our laws, and “assist in carrying civic burdens,” we still shouldn’t accept any immigrants? There might be a few folks out there who simply want to see America shrunk down to 100 million childless ex-Methodists, stoically driving their hybrids to spend Sunday mornings solemnly watching birds. Apart from them, I doubt there are too many people who want zero immigration, who oppose it on principle. The argument isn’t about them—and it only serves the cause of open-borders activists to pretend that they represent a serious contingent in the debate.

However, the same can’t be said about the true believers on the other side of this chasm. There really are thousands of fervent activists out there who are trying to seize the Church’s chasuble and drape it over a position that goes way, way beyond anything the Church has taught—or ever would teach. If you boil down the actions of certain American bishops (and their well-paid lobbyists) on the subject of immigration, and note their opposition to any attempt by Americans to impose some rational, prudent control over the annual influx of some 2 million people (half illegal) into our country, you come up with quite an extreme proposition:

That poor people in any country have an unlimited right to better their lot by migrating to the nearest rich country, whose citizens have no right to stop them. Indeed, the citizens of a richer country have no moral claims or legitimate self-interest, their nation has no meaningful sovereignty, and they have essentially no rights. When you strip away all the weasel-words and manipulative rhetoric, this is precisely what “pro-immigrant” groups believe and teach—that the underdog is always and everywhere right.

Clearly the Church will never teach this, because it is rank heresy. Sure, sovereignty is not absolute—any more than are property rights. A starving man with no other options may steal a loaf of bread, St. Thomas teaches; just so, a Jew would be justified in sneaking from Hitler’s Germany into Switzerland. That doesn’t justify looters stealing car stereos, or my forging a passport so I can improve my standard of living by moving to Zurich. (Much as I’d like to.) It’s a juvenile mind that rejects a moral principle such as property rights or sovereignty just because it admits exceptions. (Indeed, in denouncing the Treaty of Westphalia, the Church rejected the modern notion of absolute State sovereignty—and rightly so, unless you think that the government owns us, body and soul.)

Even if one assumed that the Church had no interest in moral consistency, there are solid pragmatic reasons why no pope would ever enunciate open borders as a principle: popes live in Italy, and the Vatican is staffed by Italians. Accepting the open-borders axiom would oblige Italy to accept the entire population of North Africa, much of which is eager to relocate a few hundred miles to the North. (Indeed, Vatican City would have to accept any gypsy or Moslem who applied for citizenship….) Is the Vatican really interested in turning Italy into an Islamic state? I rather doubt it. So those on the Catholic Left (or in the pocket of the cheap-labor lobby) who await a papal denunciation of border control
had better not hold their breath.

Of course, the Church could conceivably teach that only Americans are forbidden to close their borders, while Italians and Poles and Mexicans have the right to defend their national sovereignty…. Indeed, this is implicitly what many Americans, addled by neocon notions of a “propositional country” seem to believe. But I don’t think the cleverest Jesuit could whip up a theological argument for this.

All of this is not to say there are not conflicts, and will not be painful tensions, between the particular interests of one’s sovereign nation and the policy of a given pope. Historically, popes have opposed:

• the unification of Italy
• the revolt of the Poles against the Tsar
• the Irish rebellions against Great Britain
• the revolts of Spain’s colonies against the Crown, and
• Lincoln’s use of force against the Confederacy.

In each of these cases, many good Catholics who also loved their countries had tormented consciences, and agonized between their patria and the papacy. It’s conceivable that such a conflict could arise again, this time affecting Americans. (And it would probably end up in a compromise like the Treaty of the Lateran in 1921 1929—which leaves Italians free to venerate, in different ways, both Garibaldi and the Blessed Pius IX.)

But it isn’t happening now. Indeed, I’d like to step back from my Machiavellian analysis of history, and point to the wise words which the good Pope Benedict actually uttered on the subject at hand.

“It seems to me that we have to distinguish between measures to be taken immediately, and longer-term solutions. The fundamental solution [would be] that there is no longer any need to immigrate, that there are sufficient opportunities for work and a sufficient social fabric that no one any longer feels the need to immigrate. We all have to work for this objective, that social development is sufficient so that citizens are able to contribute to their own future.

On this point, I want to speak with the President, because above all the United States must help countries develop themselves. Doing so is in the interests of everyone, not just this country but the whole world, including the United States.

In the short term, it’s very important above all to help the families. This is the primary objective, to ensure that families are protected, not destroyed. Whatever can be done, must be done. Naturally, we have to do whatever’s possible against economic insecurity, against all the forms of violence, so that they can have a worthy life.”

The voice of the Vicar of Christ is also that of a sophisticated student of history, whose compassion for the needy is not tempered but complicated by a deeply rooted prudence—which for statesmen as for streetsweepers is the governing natural virtue.

John Zmirak is author of the new graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor.

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