By Jeanine Kraybill, PhD, California State University, Bakersfield
This past week in an interview with 60 Minutes, Steve Bannon, former Chief Strategist to the President and Executive Chairman of Breitbart, accused the American bishops of supporting undocumented immigrants because they need them to “fill the churches.” Bannon, who is Catholic, went on to say that the bishops’ position on immigration is not rooted in doctrine, but their opinion. However, an examination of Catholic Social Teaching, which is concerned with matters related to social, economic, and political justice, as well as respect for human rights and dignity, demonstrates that the American bishops (and the greater Catholic Church) have a long history of advocating for the rights of immigrants.
The Catholic Church, particularly in the United States, has long been referred to as an “immigrant Church.” This roots back to the Church in the early republic, where Catholics emigrating from England sought safe haven in Maryland, one of the few colonies accepting of Catholics. Moreover, as greater waves of immigrants arrived in the United States from Europe in the 1840s, the American Catholic Church became known for its acceptance of immigrants.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII, the founder of modern-day Catholic Social Teaching, issued an encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Though focusing on the rights and duties of capital and labor, the document emphasized human rights, the dignity of workers, and care for the poor and vulnerable, which has also become, in part, the basis for the Church’s support of immigrants. As a result of this encyclical, a corpus of Catholic social teaching from both the Vatican and recognized institutional authorities, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has evolved, including several articulations of Church positions on the treatment of immigrants.
The USCCB’s advocacy for immigrants stems back to their early formation and work as the National Catholic War Council and then National Catholic Welfare Council during and after World War I. In the aftermath of Vatican II (1962-65), the bishops reconfigured themselves under cannon law to establish a more formal national conference and began more openly commenting on issues of public policy and civil law. From this more permanent formation as a national conference, the bishops have been consistent in their calls for solidarity with immigrants and for policies that secure their human rights and protection. In the post-conciliar years, the bishops took heed to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, which among several items, advocates for the rights of immigrants and refugees, stating
Among man’s personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and—so far as the good of their community, rightly understood, permits—to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society.
This commitment to the Church’s position on immigrants can be further witnessed in pastorals and statements issued from the USCCB, such as “Economic Justice For All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” (1986), “Statement on Central America” (1987), “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity” (2000) and “Strangers No Longer” (2005), all of which are considered “foundational documents” on Catholic social teaching.
It is rooted in this long tradition of Church teaching that the USCCB criticized President Trump’s decision this past week to rescind the Deferred Action Program of Childhood Arrivals (DACA), calling the cancellation of the program “reprehensible.” Members of the clergy this past week echoed the statement of the 2000 pastoral, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity”, which not only emphasizes the bishops’ commitment to “advocacy for laws that respect the human rights of immigrants and preserve the unity of the immigrant family” but specifically calls for care and respect towards undocumented immigrants. For example, the pastoral states,
Undocumented immigrants face special hardships…they face discrimination in the workplace and on the streets…many have lived in the United States for years, establishing roots in their communities, building their families, paying taxes, and contributing to the economy…the Church supports the human rights of all people and offers them pastoral care…
Essentially, Bannon’s argument on why the bishops support less restrictive immigration policy is short-sighted. Yes, Church attendance among Catholics has been declining, as have the number of priests entering the seminary, but this is a complex issue. Among other things, the Church is a traditional institution trying to maintain some key conservative positions (e.g., its stance against same-sex marriage, its prolife position and lack of support for reproductive healthcare) in an increasingly pluralistic and non-religious society. For example, the United States has been witnessing a rise of religiously unaffiliated individuals, making up 23% of the population, with younger millennials more likely to not identify with a formal/organized religion.
Trying to maintain an immigrant population is not the reason for the Church’s position nor their strategy to keep their door open—as some parishes have been employing different models to cope with the decline, such as promoting lay-leaders to administrative positions, having some priest service more than one parish, blending churches, and evaluating and perhaps elevating the role of women in the institution (Kraybill 2016). Moreover, groups with a contemporary immigrant history who are most affected by the President’s action, such as Latinos , have been selecting different faiths than Catholicism for several years, with most joining Protestant churches. The point is, the American Catholic Church’s membership problem is a multi-faceted issue and the idea that they are solving it in part by taking positions that are favorable to immigrants as a way to lure them or keep them in the pews is not only overly simplistic, but it discounts the Church’s rich social teaching on immigration and misses a larger point of what is going on with regard to the weight of religious authority and influence in the United States.
Jeanine E. Kraybill is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Pre Law Advisor at California State University, Bakersfield. She studies religion and politics, political rhetoric and government institutions. Currently, she is working on a book for Temple University Press examining the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Catholic female leadership in the Church. She is the editor of a forthcoming volume for Lexington Books, titled, Unconventional, Partisan and Polarizing Rhetoric: How the 2016 Election Shaped the Way Candidates Strategize, Engage and Communicate, where she also contributes a chapter, “Tweeting Religion: The Impact of Religious Language and Rhetoric in the 2016 Presidential Election.”
Jeanine can be contact via Twitter or her personal website.
 O’Brien, David. 1989. Public Catholicism. New York, NY: Macmillian Publishing Company.
 Post-conciliar refers to the time period after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965.
 “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Accessed September 8, 2017.
 Kraybill, Jeanine. 2016. “Non-Ordained: Examining the Level of Female Religious Political Engagement & Social Policy Influence within the American Catholic Church.” Fieldwork in Religion, 11(2): 137-156.
 As noted recently in the Washington Post, though the majority of DACA applicants are from Mexico and other predominantly Latino countries, the population of recipients is a diverse group: “seven of the top 24 countries with the highest acceptance rate for DACA applicants are in Asia, Europe or the Caribbean. Tens of thousands of young people from South Korea, the Philippines, India, Jamaica, Tobago, Poland and Pakistan arrived in the United States as minors and have been protected from the threat of deportation since DACA was established in 2012.” Accessed September 11, 2017.