Catholic Social Teaching Foundations on Immigration

Gospel Foundations

Both the Old and New Testament communicate compelling stories of refugees forced to flee because of oppression. Exodus tells us the story of the Chosen People, Israel, who were victims of slavery in Egypt. They were utterly helpless by themselves, but with God’s powerful intervention they were able to escape and take refuge in the desert. For forty years they lived as wanderers with no homeland of their own. Finally, God fulfilled his ancient promise and settled them on the land that they could finally call home. The Israelites’ experience was so painful and frightening that God ordered His people for all time to have special care for the stranger: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

One need not look further than the life and words of Jesus to understand that people on the move — migrants, immigrants and refugees — are special in the eyes of God. The New Testament begins with Matthew’s story of Joseph and Mary fleeing into Egypt with their newborn son, Jesus. Our Savior Himself lived as a refugee because His own land was not safe. In His public ministry, Jesus Himself was an itinerant man, moving from place to place, “with nowhere to lay His Head.” (Matthew 8:20)

Jesus reiterates the Old Testament command to love and care for the stranger, a criterion by which we will be judged: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt 25:35) The Apostle Paul asserts the absolute equality of all people before God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek. . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) In Christ, the human race is one before God, equal in dignity and rights.

When we welcome our immigrant sisters and brothers, we welcome Christ Himself; for in the face of our neighbors, we see the face of Christ. This is made clear in the Gospel of Luke when the disciples, on the road to Emmaus, (Luke 24: 13-15) become witnesses to the Truth by welcoming the stranger: Christ.

Papal Teaching Highlights

In the encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) Pope Leo XIII established that people have a right to work to survive and to support their families. Pope Pius XII in the apostolic constitution Exsul familia nazarethana (1952) reaffirms that migrants have a right to a life with dignity and, therefore, a right to migrate toward that end: “Then, according to the teachings of Rerum novarum, the right of the family to a life worthy of human dignity is recognized. When this happens, migration attains its natural scope.”

In the encyclical Pacem in terris (1963). Pope John XXIII clearly articulates both the right to migrate and the right not to migrate: “Every human being has the right to the freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of their country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate and take up residence elsewhere.” Blessed Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this basic teaching in an address to the New World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Immigrants in 1985: “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to migrate to other countries and to take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership to the human family, nor of citizenship in the universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.”

In the 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate Pope Benedict XVI looked at the relationship between mass migration and authentic human development. He highlights the “significant contribution” that migrants give to their host countries through their labor and warns against treating migrant people as commodities. All human beings are endowed with basic human rights. The Holy Father notes the important relationship among poverty, unemployment and the dignity of work.  Any authentic form of development should focus on creating conditions that enable people to both find work in their community and provide educational opportunities for their children.

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