The most astonishing moral declaration I've ever heard from a member of the Catholic clergy was made at a 2004 conference on immigration at the University of Notre Dame. The speaker was Bishop Thomas Wenski, who was then chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration. Said Wenski:
I think we can make a summary of Catholic social teaching in one phrase: No human being can ever be considered as a problem. When we consider a human being as a problem, we depersonalize him, we offend his human dignity. When we allow any class of human beings to be categorized as a problem, then we give ourselves permission to look for solutions. And as the history of the 20th century has proven, sometimes we look for final solutions.
I listened in stunned disbelief. A leader of the Catholic Church, my church, was warning that concerns about immigration were so fraught with peril that they must be rejected lest they produce horrors akin to the extermination campaign with which Hitler pursued his "final solution to the Jewish problem"?
I looked around the room for a sign that someone shared my stunned disbelief. All I saw was somber nods of agreement. I was in the presence of a group that moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "a tribal moral community", united in its defense of a sacred principle. The sacred principle was immigration. For Bishop Wenski, any notion that it should be limited was perilous heresy.
Haidt describes such thinking this way: "[W]hen a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don't match reality."
Now, righteous blindness is not limited to those on Bishop Wenski's side of the immigration debate. Our national search for a solution to the challenges of reforming immigration policy is equally obstructed by those whose default position is "What part of illegal don't you understand?" They are also united in a tribal moral community and blind to opposing ideas.
Immigration policy involves an extraordinarily complex set of issues, fraught with legal and moral ambiguities. Pious fantasies and self-righteous stubbornness abound on both sides. As John Higham, the dean of American immigration scholars, wrote:
In this situation, the restrictionists have claimed to be the hard-boiled realists, though their "realism" has seldom been free of prejudice or hysteria. Antirestrictionists, on the other hand, tend to gloss over the dilemmas that immigration poses. Reluctant to confess that a problem exists, they fling the ancient ideals in their opponents' faces. Neither side has had the will or vision to bring our traditional principles into a creative relation with the facts of the modern world.
Institutions of higher learning have a duty to advance free inquiry, the open and energetic pursuit of knowledge. I found that spirit in abundance when I was a student at Notre Dame. But the 2004 conference where Bishop Wenski issued his chilling proclamation, like the March conference that this blog examined last week, made no room for alternative opinions that might have advanced the pursuit not only of knowledge, but also of the sort of compromise by which our democracy functions.
Immigration policy involves an array of fascinating, complex questions. I would like to suggest one that should be of interest at Notre Dame because it involves a statement in 1981 by the university's beloved president, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. At that time he was chairman of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, which was formed to study the issue and recommend reforms to Congress.
Notre Dame could advance the current debate if it discussed whether there is relevance today in Father Hesburgh's assertion that:
[I]f U.S. immigration policy is to serve this nation's interests, it must be enforced effectively. This nation has a responsibility to its people — citizens and resident aliens — and failure to enforce immigration law means not living up to that responsibility.
If Bishop Wenski doesn't want to think of this matter as a policy problem, perhaps he would agree that it presents a challenge worthy of discussion.