Time to Celebrate Migration

By John Rhodes on January 14, 2014

Last week, it was once again, in Roman Catholic circles, time to celebrate migration. National Migration Week 2014 was upon us. The annual event, which typically takes place every second week in January, is largely a celebration of migration. There is more than celebration, of course. There is religious reflection and there is political agenda. But all of this occurs with celebration as the backdrop. I say celebration because, in the end, the Roman Catholic Church considers migration — all migration, regardless of numbers — a good thing. And good things are celebrated.

Now, people are basically good, and thus the arrival of people from abroad, in simple terms, is consequently good. What is unfortunate are the simple terms in which the issue is addressed. Simple, or rather simplistic, terms are the prism through which the Roman Catholic Church considers migration. God created us, "and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). God loves us, all of us, regardless of country of origin (indeed, in relation to God there are no countries). God calls us to generous hospitality. Closing the door to anyone — and thus to anyone who has migrated — is un-loving. Voilà: case closed. The National Migration Week 2014 announcement reiterates this in so many words: "Undocumented immigrants are often referred to as 'living in the shadows' .... It is our call as the Church to bring the light of Christ to these populations, banish the darkness, and help to bring them from the margins of society to its center." Voilà: case closed.

What is simplistic about this? More specifically, why does the Christian hospitality promoted by the Church necessarily translate into support for "comprehensive immigration reform"? Allow me to propose an element of response. When the Church takes a single or sole political stand, especially as though it were an obvious position, the Church is not respecting the separation of church and state. Dare I say, the Church is transgressing intellectually and politically. The Church is called to articulate a theological perspective for its members, for people of faith. Such a perspective, in my opinion, does not, cannot, ought never translate into one simple political perspective.

An example of this is the following claim: God loves us and, regarding people who migrate, "comprehensive immigration reform" is the best political expression of God's love. The Church's navigation of the political arena and the moral realm must always consider personal and social complexity, and simple answers diminish the voice of the Church because they detract from the properly theological perspective that is its real domain, a domain where its pronouncements ought to remain.

Some will disagree with me and claim that "social justice" is the prerogative, and even the calling of the Church. Social justice, insofar as it is an expression of the love of which the Church is the vehicle, is the calling of the Church. But what "social justice" looks like can vary — again, because of social complexity. Perhaps the question is: For persons of faith, ought "social justice" be manifested toward individuals or collectives/groups?

What the Church seems to forget, in my opinion, is that, because the gaze is one of pure love, God, per se, looks at individuals, not collectives/groups. Love is personal. This truth, I find, helps when a Christian or another religious person is discerning how to act toward immigrants. As a person of faith, one is called to gaze upon the unique individual. If an immigrant were to knock on my door asking for help, I would help — no questions asked.

But such personal social justice, such an expression of divine love, does not necessarily translate into a single political perspective and agenda such as "comprehensive immigration reform". The individual is as far as one goes theologically speaking. The individual is as far as one goes as a person of faith. Beyond the individual, one enters the political arena. When a Church leader or member says that God is calling us to a particular political agenda regarding immigration, one steps outside the theological perspective — which is fine, but not the role of the Church. The Church is called to promote the exercise of divine love, and love always personal.