The troubling, knee-jerk reactions to the recent presidential executive order temporarily suspending the issuance of visas to nationals of seven “countries of particular concern” seem to have preempted the steady moral reasoning that characterizes the best of Catholic analysis.
Unfortunately, members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy have played into the resulting hysteria, issuing foreboding declarations as if the President were setting up gulags or hustling Muslims into gas chambers rather than temporarily halting immigration from a few key countries that are hotbeds of Islamic terrorism.
Just two weeks ago, Pope Francis reiterated that “every country has the right to control its borders,” especially where the risk of terrorism exists.
In an extended interview with the Spanish daily El País, the Pope underscored traditional Catholic doctrine regarding immigration, namely, that sovereign nations have the basic right to maintain secure borders and to receive immigrants in an orderly and controlled fashion.
“Yes, every country has the right to control its borders, who comes and who goes,” Francis said, “and those countries at risk —from terrorism or such things— have even more right to control them more.”
Such control can take many forms, and certainly does not exclude actions such as we have seen in recent days.
Among the fevered pronouncements labeling the executive order “not rational” and an “unjust action” there wasn’t the slightest nod to the fact that a political measure like this is a prudential judgment, and not a black and white matter involving moral absolutes.
Saying this is a “dark moment in U.S. history” may play well in the Chicago Tribune, but it undermines the moral authority of the episcopate that should know better than to issue careless statements of the sort. Catholics, and indeed all citizens, deserve better.
No, a temporary ban on travelers from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen until vetting procedures can be reviewed doesn’t mean that suddenly America is not “an open and welcoming nation.” It doesn’t mean we have abandoned “Catholic and American values.” There is nothing intrinsically evil about temporarily denying entry visas to persons coming from territories where Al Shabaab, the Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda regularly commit acts of terror and have threatened to infiltrate migrant flows.
Reflecting on questions of immigration, the great saint and scholar Thomas Aquinas taught that every nation has the right to distinguish, even by country of origin, who can migrate to it and to institute the proper immigration policies that will carry this out.
In a remarkably apt passage of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas noted that the Jewish people of Old Testament times did not admit visitors from all nations equally, since those peoples closer to them were more quickly integrated into the population than those who were not as close.
Some hostile peoples were not admitted at all into Israel due to their historical antagonism toward the Jewish nation and the threat they posed to Israel’s security.
The Law “prescribed in respect of certain nations that had close relations with the Jews,” the scholar noted, such as the Egyptians and the Idumeans, “that they should be admitted to the fellowship of the people after the third generation.”
Citizens of other nations “with whom their relations had been hostile,” such as the Ammonites and Moabites, “were never to be admitted to citizenship.”
“The Amalekites, who were yet more hostile to them, and had no fellowship of kindred with them, were to be held as foes in perpetuity,” Aquinas observed.
For the Angelic Doctor, whose feast we celebrated just days ago, it seemed reasonable to treat nations differently, depending on the affinity of their cultures with that of Israel as well as their historic relations with the Jewish people.
Immigration policy can take a variety of forms, and Catholic teaching has never sought to canonize a particular arrangement as the best or only one. The underlying moral principles guiding such policies are an openness to the stranger and the foreigner, balanced by attention to the common good of the nation, its ability to fully integrate immigrants into its culture and in a special way the security and safety of its citizens.
Whether President Trump’s executive order is the best prudential decision in contemporary circumstances is a matter of legitimate debate. Should the number of temporarily banned nations be seven or five or twelve? Is a three-month moratorium the ideal time frame to get America’s leaky vetting procedures shipshape? These and many other questions can and should be asked and people of good will may disagree on the answers.
But this is a far cry from treating the executive order as an evil or reprehensible act. Such summary judgments have absolutely no basis in Catholic teaching and merely reinforce prejudices against Catholic prelates as too quick to make pronouncements that overextend their competence and expertise. They also risk appearing to proceed from personal or partisan concerns rather than the good of the nation.
The President’s first duty is to protect the citizens of the country. Doing so responsibly can entail sacrifices and demands courage and prudence. If Catholic leaders wish to disagree with the way President Trump carries this out, they should do so respectfully, appealing to principles of Catholic teaching and the natural law, and not through innuendo, accusation and insult.