Catholic Social Teaching Shapes Immigration Stance
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2006

Immigration dominates recent headlines. Until recently, observers assumed that public opinion was mostly hostile to immigration and undocumented immigrants, in particular. The passage of a immigration reform bill by the House of Representatives that many, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, considered too harsh may have set into motion a shift in public opinion. The U.S. Senate is apparently not interested in supporting some of the House bill’s harsher provisions. At this time, no resolution is in sight.

Catholic leaders have prominently spoken in favor of fairness for immigrants, documented and undocumented, leading to praise by some and criticism by others. Unfortunately, the criticism is often based on misunderstanding or mischaracterization of what was actually said.

Catholic teaching on immigration emanates from Catholic social teaching on human dignity, the primacy of the family, and the dignity of work. It also has its roots in the Old Testament prescript: You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34) The teaching can be summarized as follows:

First, people have a right
not to emigrate from their home country due to a lack basic human needs such as peace, housing, food, religious freedom, work, education, and health care. Developed nations, by virtue of solidarity, have an obligation to assist poor countries so that these basic human needs are met.

Second, people have a right to migrate so that they can support and protect themselves and their families.

Third, nations have the right to regulate immigration according to “criteria of equity and balance.” Nations also have a duty to control immigration to prevent the loss of human life, illegal contraband, and human trafficking.

Fourth, host countries should prevent the exploitation of immigrant workers and ensure immigrants are not denied the “same rights enjoyed by nationals, rights that are guaranteed to all without discrimination.” (
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 298.) The Compendium adds, “Immigrants are to be received as persons and helped, together with their families, to become a part of societal life.”

Critics complain that neither Church teaching nor church leaders differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants, except when highlighting that undocumented immigrants should be treated with dignity. The charge is partly inaccurate. The fact that nations have a right to regulate immigration demonstrates that Catholic teaching does not condone illegal immigration. However, the Church’s primary concern is for the dignity and life of the human person. The sacredness of human life and the dignity of the human person does not disappear when a person enters the country through improper channels. To put it another way, there is usually no need for church leaders and the Church’s teaching to distinguish between documented and undocumented persons because the fundamental principles that should guide our policies are universally applicable to everyone, documented and undocumented, and even native-born citizens.

We should also consider that the Catholic Church in the United States is not only a historically immigrant church, but is today one of the largest, if not the largest provider of services to immigrants in the country. Some services, such as charitable care, church agencies provide to any immigrant. Pastoral care, of course, is mostly limited for Catholics, but a very large number of recent immigrants to the United States are Catholic. Their experience as pastors and caregivers to so many immigrants informs and shapes how church leaders view the immigration issue. For many in our church, those affected by immigration reform are not distant faces or mere economic numbers. Instead, they are real people, living in our neighborhoods and worshiping in our parishes.

Responses to the bishops’ concerns about immigration reform have ranged from the positive, to the cynical – such as charges that the bishops are only interested in filling the pews with newly arrived Catholics – to anti-Catholic diatribe, the likes of which some of us have not seen for decades. Some internet writers have accused the bishops of treason, lack of patriotism, criminal conspiracy, advocates of a one-world government, and worse.

Many, however, are responding positively to what rests at the heart of the bishops’ messages – we must reform immigration law, but we cannot do so in a way that denies justice or the basic human rights and needs that all of us deserve by virtue of our common humanity and as persons created in His image.