Applying the general principles of Catholic Social Teaching to any piece of legislation is a delicate exercise. This is especially true in the case of immigration legislation, for instance the UK Government’s 2020 Immigration Bill.
The Catechism states: “More prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” The first caveat is that the country must be in a position to welcome immigrants and do so to the extent that they are able to accommodate them. Relevant factors might include the supply of labour, housing, public services etc. Indeed, the Compendium of Social Teaching notes the importance of such considerations: “Regulating immigration according to criteria of equity and balance is one of the indispensable conditions for ensuring that immigrants are integrated into society with the guarantees required of their human dignity”. The second caveat is that the immigrants in question must be unable to find security or adequate means of a livelihood in their home country. In reality, this is a low hurdle as a developed country like the UK offers a better livelihood than might be found in many other counties.
The teaching of the Catechism represents a distillation of multiple papal pronouncements and encyclicals, which in response to prevailing challenges – such as industrialisation, warfare and globalisation — evince a gradual development in nuance and maturity. Among the numerous encyclicals concerning immigration, Pope Pius XII’s Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia (1952) is especially significant. It opens with a reminder that the Holy Family were refugees fleeing to Egypt, before recalling the Church’s long tradition of caring for migrants down the centuries. The second part of Pius XII’s document establishes a department for Migration Affairs “to foster and promote by every apt means [Catholic migrants’] welfare, especially spiritual”.
Pope Francis has extended the reach and increased the profile of this work so that “Migrants & Refugees” now forms a section within the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, led by Cardinal Turkson. This reflects the Pope’s personal concern for the welfare of migrants, a hallmark of his pontificate.
In a nutshell, the Church stands with migrants as brothers and sisters in need, and recognises their substantial contribution. It demands respect for their human dignity, irrespective of their motive or circumstance. This concern derives not only from the fact that many migrants are Catholic, but also from the Church’s broader pastoral mission to promote the common good of humanity.
The Church’s approach is often one of constructive criticism. The Holy See and many episcopal conferences were recently active in negotiations on the UN Global Compact for Migration, which aims to implement safe, orderly and regular migration in all parts of the world.
Ultimately, Catholic Social Teaching makes no objection to the principle of controlled immigration. Indeed, there may be good reasons to restrict the inflow of migrant workers: the Church is not blind to the challenges of settlement and integration, and does not seek to place unreasonable demands upon nation states, or advocate for open borders. Rather, it acknowledges the limits of governments even as it challenges them to go further in welcoming those in need.
Br Samuel Burke OP is Catholic Chaplain at the University of Edinburgh