Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas and a Catholic, has declared that the Lone Star State will not accept any new refugees in 2020. His announcement comes after President Trump signed an executive order last September saying that states and municipalities must give written consent to agencies before refugees can be resettled.
In the face of sharp criticism, the governor (pictured) has argued that aid groups working with refugees should instead prioritise other Texans in need, singling out the state’s homeless population.
That justification hasn’t mollified local bishops, who called the governor’s decision “discouraging and disheartening”. They said: “As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien.”
Increasingly around the world, Catholic social teaching is struggling to address the harsh realities engendered by global migration and displacement.
The moral theologian Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith says: “The Italian bishops and the Pope have talked about welcoming migrants, but without much thought of where the resources to do this are to come from.
“In Italy, migrants are well cared for thanks to EU funds, but the native poor are neglected. The result has been a surge in support, particularly among Catholics, for the Lega party, which is portrayed as xenophobic and racist.”
Such frictions over treatment of those from afar versus locals are increasingly felt in America. Beyond homelessness, US states are battling unemployment, drug addiction, despair and suicide. For the first time since the influenza pandemic at the end of World War I, life expectancy at birth for Americans declined (between 2015 and 2017).
“While it is true that helping refugees and helping native-born citizens need not compete, a politician can reasonably make a case about relative priorities,” says David Cloutier, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He adds, though, that “such a stance would be authentically Catholic only if it recognised that immigrants and refugees have a real claim on the common good, too. If it simply sought to exclude, reject or dehumanise them, it would be contrary to Catholic teaching.”
Fr Lucie-Smith notes that when it comes to managing the welfare and survival of a country, the US is a long way from the likes of Lebanon, which has the highest proportion of migrants in the world and has been “seriously destabilised by immigration”.
Furthermore, many refugee advocates note their overall economic benefit to host countries. “Migrants and refugees, generally speaking, are a net economic gain,” says Charles Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in New York City. “Following Christ’s command to welcome the stranger, overall and in the main, would actually grow wealth and create more tax revenue to help other vulnerable populations bearing the face of Christ.”
A 2015 study by New American Economy, an immigration research and advocacy organisation, concluded that refugees in Texas had a combined spending power of $4.6 billion and paid a total of $1.6 billion in taxes.
“Politicians face challenges in aiming at the common good,” says Cloutier. “There can be reasonable disagreements about what will actually promote the common good, and there are many different and competing areas of policy in which the common good can be pursued.”
He notes that, though Church teaching clearly maintains that Catholic politicians should not “check in their faith at the door”, there isn’t a corresponding expectation that they should somehow impose Catholic doctrine or teaching in an absolute manner.
“Between these extremes,” Cloutier says, “there is much room for one’s faith to shape one’s political decisions.”
Another issue dividing America is abortion. Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives, is vocal about her Catholic faith while being roundly criticised by Catholics for supporting abortion.
Cloutier notes that St Thomas Aquinas accepted that civil laws cannot perfectly be framed to reject all evils, but only the most damaging evils. This tradition, he explains, has developed an understanding of acceptable forms of “cooperation with evil” that can be tolerated for proportionately good reasons.
“What the Catholic politician must avoid is what is termed ‘formal cooperation with evil’, wherein one’s action shares the sinful intent of others, or does not make sufficiently clear that one is tolerating an evil rather than endorsing a good,” Cloutier says.
Catholicism and politics have long had a strained relationship in America – Camosy says that President John Kennedy’s declaration that his Catholic faith would not affect how he would be president “set us back on these questions” – and that is unlikely to change given the current climate.
Fr Lucie-Smith notes the amount of posturing over today’s myriad issues – hence the emergence of the notion of virtue signalling – and that “posturing is not Christian”.
“Everything comes back to morality in the end,” he says. “So possibly the biggest moral question is the old one of hypocrisy, where words alone seem to be taken as a substitute for deeds.”