Citizenship, Localism, and Catholicism

by James Matthew Wilson.


Devon, PA. For months now, I have been sitting on an incomplete draft of a series of essays on “Localism and the Universal Church,” wherein I seek to show that the commitment of myself and many Catholics to the small platoons of family, parish, and county derives directly from my commitment to the One, Holy, Apostolic — and Universal — Church.  It was a delightful project to undertake, and I am looking forward to seeing how some FPR readers greet its claims.  But . . .

But . . . it becomes awfully hard to make such a claim, and to make it persuasively, when the USCCB (the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) raises some its most vocal support in favor immigration and citizenship policies that trivialize a country’s sovereign right in these matters.  CatholicCulture.org reports,

The Justice for Immigrants campaign of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging priests across the nation to “incorporate petitions, prayers and homilies” into Sunday Masses on September 25 in support of passage of the DREAM Act. The bill, first introduced in 2001, would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

The Justice for Immigrants campaign has also issued an invitation to “plan a vigil or public event between Sept. 18 – Oct. 9 in support of our DREAM students and youth” and offers a “sample agenda and elements of a powerful event” to assist in planning.

The argument of the campaign is not implausible: many children are brought to the United States illegally by their illegal-immigrant parents.  Through no fault of their own, they have been raised in a foreign country in which they have no legal right to dwell.  In such cases, it may indeed be a matter of prudence to allow such children, as they enter adulthood, a path to remaining in the United States.  The DREAM Act provides such a path through college education or military service.  If it may be prudent, it is certainly not a matter of justice.  But Justice for Immigrants is the very name of the Bishops’ campaign.

As apostles of the Universal Church, Catholic bishops do indeed have a responsibility to provide pastoral care to every human being in their respective diocese; and, in many diocese, that includes a swelled and swelling number of illegal aliens.  As I wrote years ago, the threat of immigration laws that would make the demands of charity a crime are frankly unjust: a Christian has an obligation to the practice of charity, and priests and bishops in particular have a responsibility to see to the care of the souls of the strangers who walk among us; from ancient times, the Church has recognized this responsibility extends especially to the immigrant (See the quotation from St. Justin Martyr in Catechism of the Catholic Church 1351).  This basic obligation in charity in no way challenges the authority of states to control immigration or determine criteria for citizenship.

But programs like this patently encourage the continued growth of a demimonde of fragmented ethnic cultures and shadow citizenships.  In conflating a possibly prudent policy with their pastoral responsibilities in charity, the US Bishops seem to pervert the very meaning of justice in claiming it for the DREAM act and in implicitly suggesting that the upholding of present law, and the sovereign act of a state to protect borders and determine citizenship, is somehow unjust.  This appears in violation of Church teaching and the Bishops’ own past statements (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2241).   Just as the Church has an irreducible obligation to pastoral care in charity, any state has an obligation to control and delimit citizenship as part of its irreducible responsibility to establish justice.  Thus, the Bishops’ position sounds more like a childish tit-for-tat rather than an intelligible argument about the nature of justice.

Further, the Bishops seem to ignore the rather serious consequences to the cultural and economic integrity of American communities — communities that include Americans over whom they have primary pastoral responsibility (a bishop is the bishop of a particular diocese after all, not of the entire Church).  To paraphrase from lines of Scripture and past USCCB documents on immigration, it is true that, in charity, we must welcome the stranger among us; and it is true that, in the scales of reciprocal justice, we have certain intrinsic obligations to our fellow human beings qua human beings.  But to welcome the stranger is not necessarily to make him a citizen; moverover, violation of US immigration law is itself a violation of justice, and the response of justice should not be merely to ignore the fault (save, of course, should prudence so dictate  — but, in that case, we are no longer talking about principles of justice, which is just the arena into which the Bishops have errantly thrown these questions).

American Catholics have in their shared memory a peculiar history of immigration into this country, and it is one they ought to maintain, but which they and other Americans are inclined naively to sentimentalize.  It is idle sentiment to say, “we are a nation of immigrants.”  For it is not because of our varied and uneven origins, or the often sordid means by which we came to the United States, that we grew into a distinct nation (or nations).  Rather, these very actions retarded and, indeed, frustrated the course of the formation of a coherent American nation.  In consequence, quite happily, there is no American nation, but a number of smaller nations that share a taste for sports and the interstate highway system.  But, these smaller nations have their own integrity that is hard won and easily vulnerable.  Rather than pretending they do not exist, by defending a sprawling nation “of ideas,” or by pretending that only individual persons are real, we should be asking what kind of laws make the integrity of those small communities and small nationalities that exist within the various sovereign United States to flourish.

Rather than helping in that inquiry, under the auspices of a perverse theory of justice, the Bishops give the appearance of having joined up with the globalized elites who rule us in trying to dissolve the bonds that unite the members of a community.  I fail to see how this dissolution becomes more just or desirable when it is no longer done in the name of the global economy but in the name of a universal Christian charity.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Catholics appreciated how dangerous and dissolvant their own immigration experience had been, and they fought to preserve the integrity of the “ethnic” Catholic neighborhoods they had established despite the difficulties their own immigration had caused.  While the ghettos they created were often squalid places, they grew to prosperty precisely because of a cohesive national and religious ethos — and that cohesiveness was jealously guarded.  I am myself the descendent of Poles from a Chicago Polish neighborhood that quite vigorously policed its borders for decades.  A wise and prudent jealousy, that.

Having escaped the ghetto for the suburb, however, it would seem many descendents of those same Catholics retain only the partial, sentimentalized memory of immigration mentioned above.  They forget that the prosperity they have attained was necessarily won by building up an integral and delimited community upon the ruins of immigration.  They thus assume that a country without a culture, a State without coherent and cohesive communities, can get along just fine.  Thus, initiatives like this one regarding the DREAM Act seem to dissolve and devalue the cultural and communal bonds that we all need to live and live well.  In mounting this campaign under the moniker of justice, the Bishops act as if it were a violation of the State’s constitutive principles to seek to preserve those vital bonds, whereas in fact such preservation precedes and makes possible the establishment of justice in the first place (for family and friendship precede justice, just as the family precedes the State).

It is tempting to read the Bishops’ campaign as cynically motivated: they have seen that immigration built up the American Church, and demographically immigration from Latin America is keeping the pews full at a time when the dissolution of communal bonds, a suspicious individualism, and a frank philosophical materialism has led many American Catholics to join their former Protestant “brothers and sisters” in believing in not much of anything (except for a doctrine of “fairness” — but more on this another day).  But the cases do not seem analogous.  Some immigration from Latin America resembles that of the old Irish, Italian, Polish, Slovak, and German Catholic immigrants.  Most of it, however, is more ambiguous, leading to the creation of transient ghettos that never become cohesive communities and keep their financial and emotional ties to the home country.  Do the Bishops believe they will build the enduring parishes of tomorrow from such straw?  If so, theirs is a naivette wrought either by sentimentalism or cynicism.

To draw these reflections to a summary close, let me note, first, that the United States are too vast to constitute a single nation, but it is a country that flourishes, and flourishes because, within its borders, it has allowed a number of coherent and integral smaller nations to emerge.  It is a fact to be appreciated as unfortunate that those nations were in no small part the product of waves of immigration wrought by the unsettling of a “modernizing” and industrializing Europe.

But, second, if we consider the manner in which those immigrants established communities in the United States, we see that they did so in a manner that, to some extent, led to assimilation into the American cultural tradition, and, to some extent, led to the formation of jealously guarded, local communities that recognized what a Polish and German immigrant, say, had in common (the fact of their immigration) was less important than the deeper ethos Poles shared with Poles and Germans with Germans.  This coupling of assimilation with tribalism made possible the emergence of enduring communities that, on balance, have contributed to the growth and prosperity of the United States.  The harm that such waves might have caused was mitigated somewhat by restrictions on immigration and pressure to assimilate, and the descendents of those immigrations and emergent immigrant communities have thus been the beneficiaries of such restrictions and pressures rather than the victims.

Thirdly, present pro-immigration programs, including that of the Bishops, seem to ignore the necessity of assimilation and tribalism alike.  They thus give the appearance of indifference to the necessity of stable and enduring communities for the happiness of the individual person and for the intregrity of a nation.  In turn, this suggests a contempt, on the part of the Bishops, for the authority and responsibility of the United States to determine and mold their citizenry, and a selective memory regarding the processes that made the Catholic Church a vibrant presence in the United States in the first place.

Fourthly, and finally, all things by their nature seek to possess the good forever.  It is a sign of a flourishing community or nation that it should seek to realize itself as an entity and to perpetuate itself in the future.  Pope John Paul II articulated this most persuasively in including nations as a type of personhood, with rights, dignity, and authority of their own.  I view the Bishops’ program, and the indifferent, lax, or suspicious attitude of many Americans toward immigration policy as a sign that they do not see much in their cultural traditions and in the communities to which they belong worthy of preservation.  If they did, they would guard that good more jealously as did their ancestors (including their immigrant ancestors) rather than seeking its dissolution into a clientalist “multicultural” zoo, unfitted for self-government, and policable only by an impersonal administrative superstate.

For further reflections on the fragility and necessity of communities (and for an explanation for the picture accompanying this essay) see my “Fables of Fragility.”

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