Catholic Bishops and the Push for Immigration Reform

Though many Catholic bishops say their support of comprehensive immigration reform is due to their commitment to compassion toward poor immigrants and to social justice, their fervor actually raises a quagmire of issues for the Church.

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, one of the most vocal advocates of comprehensive immigration reform among the bishops in the United States, traveled himself as a youth back and forth across the border from his native home in Monterrey, Mexico to the home of his uncle in San Antonio. Gomez told the L.A. Times that he made the trip so frequently that “he hardly distinguished between Mexico and the United States.”

“It was easy to cross in those times,” said Gomez, 61, who became a U.S. citizen in his mid-40’s. “I guess my first impression was that people could live in both countries at the same time.”

Gomez referred to the U.S. immigration officials as migra and the border-crossing cards he used to visit his uncle as mica.

Though initially more reserved than his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, a controversial figure who likened the Arizona immigration bill to techniques used by “Nazis and Communists,” Gomez has now taken a firm, public stand advocating for illegal immigrants and for government policy that will create a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants estimated to be living in the United States illegally.

After publishing his book, Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation, a combination of his personal experiences as an immigrant and advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform, Gomez, who is chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, testified before a House subcommittee on July 23rd calling for passage of the DREAM Act.

“This population, most of whom came to the United States with their parents and not on their own volition, is particularly vulnerable, in great need of immigration relief, and is deserving of a chance to pursue the American dream,” Gomez said.

“I’m glad that he has added his voice to this dialogue,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “When he speaks, people will listen.”

Even Pope Francis tweeted what appeared to be a message in support of “embracing” immigrants earlier in July, stating that God will judge us based on how we treat them.

Christopher Manion, however, writing at Crisis Magazine, a longstanding publication whose concern is the radical spread of secularism in the culture and the Church, sees a problem when some Church leaders embrace immigration reform advocacy as they also throw actual Church doctrine issues under the bus.

In May, Manion wrote about Cardinal Mahony and his successor, Archbishop Gomez, on the issue of immigration:

Several prominent Catholic prelates at a conference in Napa, California, in 2011, limned their vision of “The Next America,” taking for granted that the old America was… over. Their comments focused on immigration: Cardinal Roger Mahony, the recently retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, reviewed various passages from Scripture and Catholic teaching to advocate amnesty for illegal aliens. Cardinal Mahony has made amnesty his principal political goal for years, to the point that, when he was asked about abortion and health care in 2009, he replied, “This is way beyond my field. My field is immigration.” When Obamacare finally passed in March 2010 (still including abortion) the Cardinal was ecstatic. “Now that a health care bill will help millions of uninsured people receive affordable medical care,” he rejoiced, “it’s time for the government to address the millions of people who are living in the shadows because they lack legal immigration status.”

Manion observed the difference between current Church leaders like Mahony and Gomez, who advocate for immigrants coming primarily from Mexico in the 21st century, and Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, who insisted in the late 19th century that German-American Catholics, who had long refused to give up use of their native language in churches, schools, and other public events, finally assimilate into American culture. When the German-American Catholics appealed to the Vatican, charging “discrimination,” the Vatican supported Gibbons.

Manion noted that Gomez, at the Napa conference, argued that Mexican immigration does not threaten American identity and culture, and that claims that it does are “nativist” and “easy to discredit.” Manion's response:

It is this culture that the overwhelming majority of Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, bring with them across the border into the United States. The character of that culture is so important because of the profound reality that Mahony’s successor—an American citizen born in Monterrey, Mexico—delicately avoids: Mexicans in America will not assimilate, and, this time around, America’s Catholic bishops don’t care.

He added:

Has any American bishop followed Cardinal Gibbons’ lead, and insisted that Mexicans in America speak English at Mass? That Hispanic Masses be celebrated only in English (or better, Latin), and that all homilies and formation be conducted in English? Quite the contrary. Most bishops are probably looking for more Spanish-speaking priests, just as our own parish has. Today, it is America that is expected to assimilate to its immigrants.

But are Church leaders advocating for illegal immigrants merely out of compassion and commitment to “social justice?”

Lauren Green, writing at Fox News Latino, observes that while about two-thirds of Latinos in the United States still identify as Roman Catholic, a “palpable shift” toward Evangelical Protestantism has taken place in younger generations. About 20 percent of Latinos now identify as Evangelicals, according to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Green writes:

The change poses the greatest concern for the Catholic Church — though many are leaving for evangelical churches, the volume of Catholics had remained steady primarily through immigration from Mexico and Central American countries.

Some believe that, with the election of a Latin American pope, the Catholic Church will halt the exodus of Hispanic Catholics. Pope Francis himself, during his recent visit to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, urged bishops to get out of their cathedrals to spread the gospel and serve those most in need.

“Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the periphery (of where we live), with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church,” Pope Francis said. “They, too, are invited to the table of the Lord.”

USA Today observed:

It was [a] message aimed at reviving an institution dating back centuries in Latin America, but one becoming less relevant in the region as people become culturally Catholic or leave the church all together — often for Evangelical congregations. Those congregations have often better identified basic needs in poor Brazilian neighbourhoods and addressed issues like domestic violence and alcohol abuse, instead of speaking about more global ideas like social justice, says Andrew Chesnut, religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of a book on Brazil’s Evangelicals.

Advocacy for illegal immigrants, a cause supported mainly by liberal politicians and organizations--who also support other liberal causes--has led to a challenge for one Catholic bishop who, unlike some of his contemporaries, is clearly demonstrating that his priority is Church doctrine.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has been sharply rebuked by a group of eight Catholic Democrats, who published an open letter in the Chicago Tribune Monday charging him with a threat to withhold charitable funding from an immigrant organization that also recently endorsed same-sex marriage. George responded that the letter’s signers were cynical and “intellectually and morally dishonest.”

LifeSiteNews reported Wednesday that the Chicago diocese’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) had been contributing between $25,000 and $30,000 per year to groups belonging to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) to aid humanitarian efforts in poor neighborhoods. However, since CCHD funding agreements are contingent on recipients not supporting agendas contrary to the teachings of the Catholic faith, George notified the groups that they would no longer be eligible for CCHD funds, unless they sever ties with the ICIRR and publicly renounce support for gay marriage.

In their letter, the Democrat signers accused George of using poor immigrants as “pawns in a political battle.”

Responding via his diocesan website, George stated:

Donors to the CCHD give to this anti-poverty organization with the understanding that their money will be passed on to organizations that respect the teachings of the Catholic faith. Organizations that apply for funds do so agreeing to this condition.

On May 23, the ICIRR board broke faith with its member organizations when it publicly supported so called ‘same-sex marriage.’ For its own political advantage, it introduced a matter extraneous to its own purpose and betrayed its own members, who were not consulted.

The CCHD had no choice but to respect the unilateral decision of the ICIRR board that effectively cut off funding from groups that remain affiliated with ICIRR…

The cardinal rebuked the Catholic Democrats who signed the letter criticizing his action, stating, “It is intellectually and morally dishonest to use the witness of the Church’s concern for the poor as an excuse to attack the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage.”

George added:

Those who signed the open letter in the Tribune proclaimed their adherence to the Catholic faith even as they cynically called upon others to reject the Church’s bishops. The Church is no one’s private club; she is the Body of Christ, who tells us he is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ Because the signers of the letters are Catholic, they know that in a few years, like each of us, they will stand before this same Christ to give an account of their stewardship. Jesus is merciful, but he is not stupid; he knows the difference between right and wrong. Manipulating both immigrants and the Church for political advantage is wrong.

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