The Catholic Church and Ethics of Migration

In the Gospel, Jesus compels us to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35). Welcome involves both an attitude and an action. Our attitude constantly needs to be assessed in light of the Gospel to ensure that we are carrying out the Lord's commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Once we have the right attitude, our actions should reflect and consolidate this.

Often the stranger turns up unexpectedly. It is normal that on these occasions we may feel anxious, mistrusting or fearful. It is therefore important that we invite God daily into our lives to be part of our encounter with the stranger. Whenever fear is present, it simultaneously provides an opportunity to be a powerful witness to the Christian faith. People will know that we are followers of Jesus when we place the dignity of people seeking asylum before our own needs and fears.

Every year, during the last week in August, the Catholic Church in Australia celebrates Migrant and Refugee Week, culminating on Migrant and Refugee Sunday. This is a time to celebrate the contribution of migrants and refugees in our communities, and to shed light on the issues they face. The theme chosen by Pope Francis for this year is "Church without frontiers, Mother to All".

The phenomenon of human mobility has consistently been at the centre of the Church’s pastoral care and concern. For over 100 years, the Vatican has proposed interventions to deepen the analysis and interpretation of this social reality and identify pastoral proposals which protect the Christian-human values of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees and foster a respectful and genuine ‘welcoming of the foreigner’ and their socio-cultural and religious heritage.

The year 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the first message by a pope which specifically addressed the plight of migrants fleeing from war-torn Europe. On 6 December 1914, Pope Benedict XV sent to the Italian Diocesan Bishops the circular letter Pain and Concerns, containing for the first time the request to establish an annual day of awareness of the millions of people migrating in, around and from Europe and noting the necessity for adequate pastoral care.

As part of the 100th anniversary of messages from the Church for migrants and refugees, the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) published a pamphlet aimed at making Catholic Social Teaching applied to migrants and refugees more available and known.

In the global scene today, it is estimated that 42,500 people are forced to leave their native country every day for fear of their lives. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has released its Global Trends 2014 statistics which saw the number of forced displaced persons reach 60 million. This is the highest number of forced displaced persons since World War II. This includes 19 million refugees, 38 million internally displaced persons and 1.8 million asylum seekers. The top country of origin for refugees was the Syrian Arab Republic, with 3.88 million refugees.

Catholic Social Teaching lays down the principles according to which all persons on the move for different reasons have rights that national and international communities must respect and protect. They are: the sacredness of human life; the dignity of the human person; the common good of the community; the principle of subsidiarity and the universal destination of goods, and the principle of solidarity.

The exiled ‘holy family’ of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are, for all times and places, protectors of every migrant, pilgrim and refugee who, compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave their native land, families and friends to seek foreign soil.

The ideal to be striven for is for all people to have the right to live a dignified life in their homeland, living in safety, prosperity and peace. Due to conflicts, war and economic hardship, many are forced to leave their homeland. For this reason, the Catholic Church seeks to look after and care for refugees and migrants in their trials and to welcome the stranger who knocks at our door seeking refuge.

The Catholic Church teaches that anyone whose life is threatened has the right to protection, whether that threat is a result of persecution, armed conflict, natural disaster or economic conditions. A person’s right to seek asylum is founded on the individual’s fear of persecution, danger or being forcibly displaced.

The Catholic Church has always taught that an individual’s dignity stems from being created in the image and likeness of God. Hence, any actions directed towards an individual reflect an attitude towards its Creator. For the Christian, therefore, it is important that one reaches out to assist those who are persecuted, because one is not just assisting an individual but Christ himself.

The Catholic Church teaches that all nations have a right to regulate migration across their borders. This right is coupled with the duty to protect and help innocent victims and those fleeing for their lives. The right of nations to regulate their borders is an extension of the right of all persons to live a dignified life in their community. Borders are for the protection of people, and not for the exclusion of those seeking protection.

Distributive justice, that is, the universal destination of goods, consists in the proportional distribution of what is common. That is, those with more ought to help out those with less. The most vulnerable people are not simply those who are in a needy situation to whom we kindly offer an act of solidarity, but are members of our family with whom we have a duty to share the resources we have. Solidarity towards migrants and refugees is inscribed in the common membership of the human family.

Asylum seekers who have been forced from their homeland have a duty to integrate into the host community. We must favour this integration by helping migrants to find a place where they may live in peace and safety, where they may work and take on the rights and duties that exist in the country that welcomes them. (Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, World Day of Migrants, 2011)

The document Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons states what should be the way of the Church in considering and treating the stranger. In the “strangers” the Church sees Christ who “pitches his tent among us” and “knocks at our door” [n. 22]. Western culture, more and more described as ‘the culture of the self’, protects itself by closing doors. The Gospel message, respectfully but unequivocally, proposes that the relationship with the stranger must come first. In the stranger, the Church hears the voice of Christ echoing within the very depth of our Christian identity: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

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Fr Maurizio Pettena Image
Fr Maurizio Pettena

Fr Maurizio Pettena is Director of the ACMRO.

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