A Catholic's Dissent from the Bishops' Immigration Policy, Pt. 3

By Jerry Kammer, April 18, 2014

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Yesterday's post described how the Rev. Dan Groody, a Notre Dame theologian and immigration activist, sacralizes immigrants by identifying them with Jesus and the Eucharist. Today I want to relate that teaching to the insights of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his remarkable book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt, whose book is a field guide to the moral systems of liberals and conservatives, writes about the hard-wired human tendency to form "tribal moral communities." He observes that "religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousands of years. That binding usually involves some blinding – once any person, book, or principle is declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it."

In his teaching about immigration, Father Groody invokes a familiar biblical admonition – "So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt" – to present an admonition of his own:

When we forget our personal and collective immigration stories, we easily repeat the mistakes of the past. George Santayana said, "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This remembrance is a way of acknowledging God's saving activity. When we forget, immigrants easily become the target of social problems and are quickly typecast as a threat to the common good. Instead of hospitality and openness, many immigrants find scapegoating and rejection, hostility and fear.

This, I believe, is where Father Groody and the Catholic bishops go wrong. They undermine their own moral authority when they seek to shut down discussion of the social, cultural, economic, and political effects of the era of mass immigration that has been building momentum for the past five decades.

They treat such concerns as agents of moral infection, as the sort of perilous temptation that my catechism class described as "the near occasion of sin."

Haidt is a lifelong liberal who has come to appreciate conservatives as having a broader range of moral concerns than conservatives. Father Groody doesn't want us to question immigration or think clearly about it.

Well, sorry, father. One of the things I learned at my Jesuit high school and at Notre Dame was that Catholic institutions, at their best, encourage open inquiry in the tradition of classic liberalism.

I came to work at the Center for Immigration Studies because I wanted to respond to those who try to shut down the discussion by claiming that those who want to limit immigration are motivated not by legitimate concerns but by bigotry, racism, nativism, and anti-immigrant hostility.

I want to be part of a well-informed discussion of the complexity and moral ambiguity of the issues involved in shaping immigration policy. I think people on both sides of the debate should take note of this admonition from Jonathan Haidt:

[I]f you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, then you're asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism – which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity – is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

In order to have this discussion, each side must be willing to open our ears and our eyes to the other. That is why I disagree with Father Groody's admonition, even as I recognize that it is a more benign presentation of Catholic social teaching than what I heard at an earlier immigration conference at Notre Dame in 2004. It came from Bishop Thomas Wenski, who was then chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.

I will describe that remarkable episode next time, in a final post in this series.


Continue to Part 4

Read Part 1 and Part 2