Do U.S. Catholics Have to Obey Bishops on Immigration Reform?

Do U.S. Catholics Have to Obey Bishops on Immigration Reform?

Of late, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has been very vocal in its support of the latest version of immigration reform moving through Congress. It is making a particular push this month, even urging pastors to speak to the issue from pulpits.

But are the Catholic faithful in America required to heed the bishops’ call and get behind the legislation?

No–and many believe the leadership of the USCCB, which doesn’t necessarily represent the views of every American bishop, has exceeded its teaching authority–its mandatum docendi–in supporting a specific piece of legislation, regardless of news reports to the contrary.

It appears that a Vatican document supports this contention.

According to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Apostolus Suos,” subtitled “On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences:”

23. The very nature of the teaching office of Bishops requires that, when they exercise it jointly through the Episcopal Conference, this be done in the plenary assembly. Smaller bodies–the permanent council, a commission or other offices–do not have the authority to carry out acts of authentic magisterium either in their own name or in the name of the Conference, and not even as a task assigned to them by the Conference.

So the leadership of the USCCB doesn’t have the authority, in itself, to speak for the whole Church. Also, the issue it is speaking out on is not one where it can supersede the individual choices of legislators or citizens.

Bishops–from local ones right up to the Bishop of Rome, a.k.a. the pope–do speak authoritatively to their flocks on all matters concerning faith and morals.

Therefore the bishops fight things considered intrinsic evils,such as abortion (where causing the death of the unborn child is thespecific aim of a medical procedure being performed), which conflictswith Catholic moral law and cannot be supported under any circumstances. 

But outside the scope of faith and morals, American bishops should also speak outagainst laws that would seek to infringe upon the constitutionallyguaranteed right to religious liberty, and/or coerce the Church or thefaithful to act in ways contrary to conscience and to the Faith.

So, starting last year, they vehemently opposed the HHS mandate,a provision of Obamacare that would force Church-affiliatedinstitutions and Catholic employers to provide contraceptives,abortifacients, and sterilization procedures as part of healthcare plans,in defiance of Church teaching.

Bishops also should urge those in the pews to view current events and hot-button issues through the lens of Catholic moral teaching.

However, many of these events and issues, while serious and having grave implications, do not fall into the category of intrinsic evils. While they may be addressed directly or indirectly in Church teaching, decisions about dealing with them are subject to the “contingent moral choices,” or the prudential judgment, of individual persons or governments.

For example, when Pope Francis declared Sept. 7 to be a day of prayer and fasting for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria, he did not declare his support for one faction or the other, nor did he attempt to shape specific policy or military decisions on behalf of the national leaders involved.

In his homily (click here for the full text), Francis said:

This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace! Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow and do not add to it, stay your hand, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter!

The pope called upon conscience in the cause of peace and decried the use of violence, but he did not lay out an exact prescription for resolution of the crisis. That, quite rightly, falls into the hands of national leaders and diplomats.

However, for whatever reason, the USCCB has chosen to back an actual bill, which is well beyond just discussing the issue in moral terms.

While the U.S. bishops are within their authority to comment on the various moral implications of individuals living in the country illegally–especially regarding the ways in which illegal immigrants interact with Catholic social services and charities–and support humane ways of dealing with the situation that are in line with the Catholic concept of the inherent dignity of the human person, ultimately the political choices will be up to the laity.

Unlike abortion, which all faithful Catholics are required to oppose, there are a variety of ways to deal with illegal immigration, and persons of good will, Catholic or otherwise, can disagree on what the solution should be.

While the bishops have outlined a detailed policy on illegal immigration, along with a specific plan, and wish to have both presented to the laity in strong positive terms, Catholic citizens are free to make up their own minds about whether or not they choose to support the bill currently up for consideration.

In related news, Pope Francis spoke earlier this week at the Centro Astalli, a Jesuit shelter in Rome for refugees and asylum seekers. The trip echoes an earlier one he made in July to the European island of Lampedusa, the destination of many refugees–about 20,000 of whom died en route there in recent years.

These are people leaving their homelands against their will to escape persecution or war, only to find hardships in the countries that take them in. 

To these people, Francis said:

How many times here, as in other places, so many people who have in writing “international protection” on their residence permit, are constrained to live in hard situations, sometimes degrading, without the possibility of beginning a fitting life, of thinking of a new future?

In the Syrian situation, Francis has also spoken of the people fleeing that bloody conflict into neighboring nations, even visiting with a Syrian family in Centro Astalli.

While on the surface, Francis’ actions may seem to dovetail the USCCB’s immigration reform campaign, the two issues are separate. Refugees are considered persons forced to leave their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution or bodily harm for such factors as race, religion or nationality.

The legal statutes governing refugees–and those legitimately seeking political asylum–are different from those that apply to immigrants, whether legal or illegal, who choose to leave their homeland in search of economic opportunity or to reunite with family members.

And again, while Francis spoke movingly of the plight of those fleeing hardship in search of a better life, he did not attempt to influence nations or individuals to back a particular legislative agenda.