Friday, April 07, 2006

"Immigration through a Catholic lens": CST or Catholic Political Correctness

We can't underestimate the importance of Catholic Social Teaching when we address issues such as immigration. The failure of the US Congress to seriously apply CST principles has helped create the current immigration mess, after all. That's why it's vital that those of us most well-versed in CST prudently and clearly present what it is.

Fr. Richard Benson, C.M. fails to make that case for CST in his viewpoint at The Tidings He begins well enough:
Some of the statements in the letters to the editors in both the secular and Catholic press about the immigration issue have caused me some concern as a moral theologian. Some of the comments in those letters have led me to believe that a review of some foundational aspects of Catholic social morality might be in order to help Catholics frame a just and loving response to the immigration issue. In fact, some of the letters made it clear that the adage that "the Church's social teaching is indeed its best kept secret" is, unfortunately, more true than not.

My goal here is certainly not to propose any legal solution to immigration reform. What I do propose is that for Catholics, there are theological foundations that are essential if we are going to approach immigration reform from our Catholic perspective. It is my hope that even this very brief review of these foundations may help some Catholics reorient their starting point in this debate.

I would suggest that there are at least three theological foundations that provide clear support to the Church's concerns about immigration reform.
Well and Good.

Unfortunately, he then begins to sacrifice prudence for the sake of rhetorical overkill and Kineval leaps of conclusion:
1. Every human being is created in the image of God and is both unique and equal. Some letters to editors refer to undocumented immigrants as "illegals." I find this appalling language. Apart from the fact that it is bad grammar, it is a type of objectification of others reminiscent of the worst kind of racial profiling. No human being is ever to be reduced to being totally or even primarily identified by the color of their skin, their country of origin, their legal status or any other external characteristic. Every human being is first and foremost a person.
He's right in decrying the catagorization of "illegal" as a short-hand for persons. Labels like that can to easily deny the humanity of those to whom it's applied. He also addresses a fair point about the nefarious intentions of some that may use that label. Only spinmeisters of the most dishonest sort would deny that no one objecting to illegal immigration has any prejudice towards Hispanics. Of course some do!

But to compare such a term to racial profiling? And the worst kind?

Racial profiling involves police activity and surveillance of presumably innocent people because they happen to be the same race as convicted perpetrators of specific crimes. An illegal alien, on the other hand, is an immigrant that has entered the United States illegally. Unless Fr. Benson is contradicting Catholic Social Teaching--and his own earlier assertion, he has no reasonable basis to compare racial profiling with the use of the term "illegal." No legitimate critic of illegal immigration, as far as I've read or heard, has ever denigrated the personhood of illegal aliens on the basis of their nationality, or even their legal status. They've certainly not "reduced or even primarily identified" to the concept of their legal status. They have condemned the dysfunctional immigration policy our nations employ. They rightly criticize those that have violated the US' sovereignty for the very act they've committed. They've also castigated our authorities for their poor enforcement of immigration law. None of these positions violate the human dignity of those people that have entered the US illegally.

He then ventures into the surreal:
2. Only the common good is the guarantee of the individual good (Gaudium et Spes, 32). A Catholic political conscience always asks, "What is best for my brothers and sisters?" prior to asking, "What is best for me?" Catholic morality has a deep-seated foundation in the "common good." In other words only when society is essentially concerned with the common good, the good of all its members can it truly guarantee the good of every individual.
Fr. Benson does a grave disservice to those that question the overwhelming presence of our nation's illegal immigrants if he presumes they don't consider the common good. Does it serve those migrants who enter the US illegally to live "in the shadows" as President Bush has said? Does it serve them to live in decrepit neighborhoods under deplorable conditions, lining up for day jobs with no benefits and reduced wages? Does it serve them to live in fear that they'll be discovered and deported? As for American-born citizens and legal resident aliens, does it serve their good to share limited Federal and State resources with people that violate US law? Does it serve communities' interests to have their education and healthcare institutions stretched to the breaking point? Does it serve their interests to have their hospital costs unreimbursed when illegal aliens received services for which they can't pay? Does it serve the interest of property-owners to have illegal aliens continuously intrude on their property? These questions can't be addressed apart from the consideration of the common good; they make up the common, after all!

Finally, Fr. Benson jumps the shark:
3. It would be immoral to knowingly and willingly enforce and follow immoral laws (Catechism, n. 2242). Some letter writers mentioned that they were astounded that some of our bishops might encourage us to dismiss laws that trample on the human rights of immigrants. Indeed, this can seem a startling statement when we live in a country that is known for being a place of justice, a place of law and order. The argument expounded in some of the letters was basically that when there is a U.S. law it is one's moral obligation to follow it. While this holds generally, it is not a universal norm.

The Church has constantly taught that God-given human rights trump laws that trample on those rights. The apartheid laws of South Africa were legal but immoral, as were all the Jim Crow laws that abounded in the U.S. that protected legal forms of discrimination. Abortion is legal but it certainly is not moral. Pornography is legally produced and sold and watched, but it can't be defended as a moral enterprise. No Catholic could try to defend participation in an abortion or producing pornography based on the fact that they were "legal" activities.

At the Nuremberg trials, captured Nazis were convicted of crimes against humanity even through they had not broken any German laws. They were convicted because they had broken the natural law. Natural laws are universal laws which acknowledge and protect inalienable human rights, always and everywhere.
Is he serious? Did he truly just compare deliberate campaigns to dehumanize and exterminate other human beings with a flawed House proposal to make illegal immigrants and their caregivers felons?

His unfortunate comparisons do not encourage serious thinkers on this issue to further consider his argument. US Immigration policyis a genuine problem. Illegal immigration is a pressing concern. No one has time to entertain overheated rhetoric that compares certain proposals for solving them to be the equivalent of crimes against humanity.

Fr. Benson is certainly right to uphold a Christians responsibility to disobey an unjust law. And no law that criminalizes the satisfaction of needy people's basic sustenance could survive the scrutiny of the law written in our hearts. Nevertheless, Fr. Benson's overblown didaticism in this graph actually obscures this legitimate point rather than reveal it.

He appears to be saying that the only responsible application of CST vis a vis immigrants is one in which all who enter the US are rendered legal. Of course, he explicitly denies this:
These three foundations are not meant to be either comprehensive or offer a simple solution to the very real and complex political challenges that are inherent in all attempts at the reform of immigration laws. Neither are they meant to suggest that immigration regulation is intrinsically immoral.
Nonetheless, his foundational principles do not lend themselves to discerning any responsible regulation of immigration.

In fact, his entire proposal sounds suspiciously like the rhetoric of I-ANSWER and other open border advocates. His approach reads more like a Catholicized politically correct tract on immigration than on the relevent principles of CST to the issue.

That's an unfortunate lost opportunity. Our society deserves to hear what CST has to say regarding immigration reform. Fr. Benson's current effort, regardless of his intention, only ensures that few of us will.