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Render Unto Caesar: The Church and Immigration

by John Zmirak - August 26, 2008

Reprinted with permission from our good friends at InsideCatholic.com, the leading online journal of Catholic faith, culture, and politics.

Sometimes the Church's public face in a given country can make you proud, and sometimes it has to make you a little sick. American Catholics can justly take satisfaction that our bishops were almost alone in beginning the fight against abortion; the Southern Baptist Conference, of all things, at first backed Roe v. Wade, and it took most of the 1970s for our separated brethren to get on board defending the unborn – although they do a yeoman's share of the work today. In the 1920s, the American bishops' conference forthrightly opposed the unjust laws mandating eugenics and Prohibition – in the latter case, informing ordinary Catholics that, as St. Thomas teaches, an "unjust law is no law at all," and need not be obeyed. Bootlegging, I'm proud to say, became a kind of religious duty.

There were also times when our leaders dropped the ball. Indeed, in the sexual abuse crisis, one might say that they grabbed the ball, spirited it out of the stadium, drove it across state lines to escape local jurisdiction, and buried it in a field to hide the evidence from the D.A. In other countries, bishops have been too cooperative with dictators, or too cozy with Marxist guerrillas. But then again, in the Renaissance there were popes who placed entire cities under interdict (no sacraments, not even Christian burial) over issues of crassly secular Italian politics. Christ never guaranteed that our leaders would be wise and prudent.

So it ought not to challenge anyone's faith, or cause us scandal, when our bishops' conference or leading prelates take positions on immigration that cut loose from Catholic principles of justice and prudence, and instead wallow around in the stagnant waters of sentimental leftism. Nor should this be used – as some on the nationalist Right are using it – as a pretext to whip up anti-Catholicism, on the grounds that our bishops are flouting some American laws (hiding immigrants in church basements) and misusing their moral authority to undermine others (for instance, promoting amnesties), benefiting mainly Catholic migrants at the expense of a largely non-Catholic America.

But if we want to avoid the charge of "dual loyalty," which is rightly aimed at those who put their private or overseas affinities ahead of their duties as citizens, we must face squarely the phenomenon at hand: uncontrolled, mass immigration of almost two million, mostly unskilled, people per year into our country – nearly half of them coming illegally. As American citizens, it is our duty to our neighbors – to our fellow citizens who feel the impact of our votes – to use those votes responsibly, in the legitimate interests of the country to which we profess loyalty. We might feel a stronger bond to our fellow Catholics in Mexico and the Philippines than we do to our Mormon or Jewish neighbors; indeed, on a supernatural level, we are more closely bound to them. We might well prefer to marry one of them, instead of an unbelieving American. We owe these Catholic foreigners the respect deserved by every human being, and the prayers that knit together the Mystical Body of Christ. There's just one little thing we don't owe them: the duties we have incurred toward our fellow citizens.

Just so, if I work at an ordinary business as a manager, I owe in strict justice certain duties to the owners of the company that I do not owe to random fellow-Catholics. So if I started steering business from the company to less-qualified or more expensive contractors, just because I knew they were solid Catholics (or pro-life activists, or saintly homeschoolers with large families to feed), what I would be doing would not constitute charity but a form of embezzlement – papered over with tribal loyalty and unexamined sentiment.

I myself used to be guilty of this sin, and let me here confess it; working at a secular business magazine, I would give out freelance writing assignments to people I thought of, affectionately, as BUCLs – that is, "Brilliant, Unemployable Catholic Losers." Folks I'd met at Latin Mass, or who wrote for The Wanderer, who needed the money and could do the work… kind of. Not very well, and not on time. But I would clean up the mess, and pat myself on the back for performing an act of charity – with someone else's money.

By engaging in misguided mercies – at the expense of justice to innocent third parties – I was proving my qualifications to serve as a U.S. bishop. I was acting just like those prelates who hide illegal aliens in "sanctuary" churches, and help their children (who, if they are born on U.S. soil, through a sick quirk of American law, are citizens) collect public benefits paid for by the hard-working taxpayer. When bishops lobby for illegal aliens to attend public schools (with cripplingly expensive bilingual programs) and get free medical care, the cost of these goodies doesn't come out of their diocesan budget. I don't think our good bishops miss any golf games because they're spending the money reimbursing native-born, blue-collar Americans, many of whom can't afford medical insurance themselves.

If we let our sacramental sympathy to the fellow Catholic who might sneak across the border overwhelm our duties to the community where we live – the United States – we are not serving a "higher loyalty." We are committing a kind of treason. Likewise, when we snicker – as so many Catholics quietly do – that "America is just a Protestant country anyway… but we'll soon take care of that." I know many Catholics who privately grumble that neoconservatives have hijacked our foreign policy to further the interests of the state of Israel. The same people will turn right around and try to set our immigration policy according to the needs of Catholic parishes: We need more seminarians. We need more faces to fill up our emptying churches – and to help our sleeping shepherds dodge the question of how they lost the flock in the first place.

One out of three Catholics who grows up in America leaves the Church. The only thing that has kept our share of the population from shrinking is mass immigration of uneducated poor people. Their arrival bucks up the numbers, gratifies a deeply dysfunctional bureaucracy, and fills the empty pews… for one generation. This influx of "fresh souls" from poor countries lets us pretend that our Church is successfully passing along the Faith, is reverently offering the sacraments, and generally chugging along as it always did. In fact, by losing one Catholic out of three, American Catholicism is collapsing almost as quickly as English Catholicism did under Elizabeth I. Except that we aren't even being persecuted – and our Spanish Armada didn't sink. It crosses the Rio Grande, in small contingents, to the tune of around 1 million people per year. "Subsidizing" the U.S. Church with a constant influx of fresh Catholics to alienate and scandalize is no more prudent than paying General Motors to go right on building Humvees for the suburbs.

Let me pose a deeper question: Does transferring Catholics from a relatively traditional society such as Mexico to the slums of Los Angeles further their spiritual well-being? Are they really better off moving to parishes run by priests who dissent from Church teaching, in a state with same-sex marriage, a country with legal abortion, and a culture corrupted by Hollywood? The materialist, who sees not the soul but the body, will note that they might find higher-paying jobs – and their children will qualify for a vast array of social programs.

They will also find a flourishing gang culture to which they can assimilate, and a wide array of rabidly anti-American ethnic organizations that will teach them to resent their newfound home and retain a sullen loyalty to the lands whose poverty, corruption, and chaos sent their parents fleeing in the first place.

It might sound churlish to ask this, but we're all grown-ups here, and we're fixing the future of our country, not catering a tea party. So I'll ask it, and I wish I could do it in Spanish. Of all those illegal immigrants and their supporters who massed in the streets a year ago, waving Mexican flags, who work with their Mexican consulates to pressure the U.S. government, I ask: If you love your country so much, why did you leave it instead of fixing it? If you're so angry at ours, why don't you go home? Here's a compass, pointing south…

On this point, I have the firm support of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, after encouraging decent treatment of immigrants, teaches: "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" (2241). Does that include entering illegally, using false documents to work and avoid paying taxes, waving foreign flags, and colluding with foreign officials to undermine U.S. law? If it doesn't, then immigrants who have shirked those obligations have lost any claim on our hospitality.

At this point, some of my readers will already be shaking their heads, accusing me of xenophobia, even racism. To which I say, respectfully: Talk to the hand. For a change of pace, I'd like to see American bishops (and Mexican bishops) address the fierce nationalism that motivates so many immigrants and immigrant organizations, which drives them to lobby incessantly for the private interests of their own racial groups, and call for the reconquista of one-fourth of America's territory. What should we call that? Is the tribal groupthink practiced by groups like the one that calls itself La Raza not a form of racism? If not, why not? Just because many members of that given race are poor? As much as I've read about the "preferential option for the poor," I don't think it gives them a free pass on this issue – and to act as if it does is to dehumanize the poor. To hold one group to a lower moral standard is patronizing, and suggests that they are forever slow-witted children, or loveable, mischievous pets.

If we are indeed to treat immigrants as fully human, as equal moral adults, then we won't wax hysterical when they face the consequences of breaking the law. If I snuck into Mexico and used false identity papers to gain financial benefits from its citizens, I know I might end up in a jail cell. I wouldn't expect a Mexican parish to hide me, and sign me up for benefits funded by the local government. The state has its structures and its legal codes, and except where they are grossly unjust, we are expected to obey them. If Caesar has the right to mint currency and collect taxes – and we have this on pretty high authority, I think – then he's probably also in charge of granting citizenship. If he isn't, who is? The companies that crave cheap labor? The ethnic lobbies? Our bishops?

Or is someone out there going to argue that American immigration laws are unjust, that we have no right to limit who enters our country and when? If so, then I expect them to apply the very same logic to xenophobic Mexico – and then to Vatican City. Let's relocate Rome's gypsy camps to St. Peter's Square, and grant these "undocumented" the rights of citizens. Then when they form a majority, let them change its laws to suit themselves. Let them "redistribute" the contents of the basilica, giving "preferential option" to the poorest among them. (I'll see you on eBay; I've always coveted those reliquaries...)

Or if you wish to argue that our country really needs some 2 million mostly unskilled immigrants every single year – given that most of our lower-skilled manufacturing and service jobs are migrating overseas – I'll have to ask you why. Are the poorest Americans so overpaid that we need to bid down the price of their labor? Or are they too lazy and cosseted to work at "jobs no American will do"? (To this phrase, the favorite of the big-business, cheap-labor lobby, I always like to add, "At the wages we're willing to pay.") Are the labor and safety laws for which American workers fought for decades so stifling that we need to import an underclass that employers can abuse – locking them in overnight, sticking 16-year-olds at meat slicing machines, sending injured workers for care to public emergency wards?

And now I have a question for our immigrants and the lobbyists who "love" them: Why do so many recent Catholic immigrants vote for pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage candidates? Why are the Latino organizations rallying to the Democrats? Could it be that other issues are more important to them? That voting in their ethnic – let's be blunt, their racial – self-interest trumps for them the sanctity of life, and of the family? I remember when a bunch of white Catholics acted this way – when they voted in Louisiana for David Duke. I told them, in print, how disgusting I thought that was. When Latinos vote for pro-abortion Democrats to further their racial self-interest they are no better. To treat them as equals is to tell them that.

And to act as good citizens, as honest members of the community that protects our rights and has made possible our relative prosperity, we must seek the best interests of that community – while opening the doors to provide temporary refuge to those who are in immediate danger of death. Not to people simply "seeking a better life." I could have a better life in Switzerland; does that give me a right to citizenship? No one pretends that the "sending" countries that provide most of our immigrants are subject to mass starvation or persecution. Indeed, as immigration expert Mark Kirkorian reported in his interview for the upcoming documentary, The Promise of Home:

The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants from Mexico actually had jobs in Mexico. They're seeking better jobs. The poorest of the poor in any society very seldom leave. They don't have the resources to move.

In an age of terrorism, in a country full of "soft targets" that attracts the hatred of so many around the world, we cannot afford to leave our border unguarded. News reports have shown how narcotics cartels work with immigrant smugglers, to ship in both drugs and dealers. We've seen reports of "coyotes" bringing in unauthorized entrants from countries rife with terrorism. As expert on Islamist terror Brigitte Gabriel told the makers of The Promise of Home: "Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hezbollah… are working with the MS-13 gang in smuggling terrorists into our country. We know that al-Qaeda is paying between $25,000 and $50,000 to the MS-13 gang per terrorist to be smuggled into our country." Thanks to our lack of a border fence, al-Qaeda could pretty much swim the Rio Grande any time it liked. Remember that the next time you're patted down at the airport.

In voting for our country's "best interests," we must have a special care for the very poorest among us – the very poorest Americans. But other people have claims as well. If the "preferential option for the poor" means that middle-class people (and ethnic majorities, and even prosperous elites) have no moral claims whatsoever – and may simply be exploited with abandon – then it is no option at all. It is neither justice nor mercy but simple resentment, an ideological club.

Even if they are not as objectively needy as would-be migrants, working-class people have rights and claims under justice. So do – and here I'm going to step on some toes – middle-class people living in the suburbs. So do the rich. Pope Leo XIII actually taught that while we are all called to acts of charity, no one is commanded by the gospel to give away so much that he sinks from one social class to another. Religious vocations aside, the rich are not required to turn themselves into paupers. America need not – in fact, it should not – join the Developing World.

The Catechism also prohibits suicide.


John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.