Sunday, March 12, 2017

Abraham—and Immigration

(Second Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 12, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 12: 1-4.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2017]

Abraham was an immigrant.

That’s something to keep in mind in the midst of the controversy surrounding immigration that we're seeing in our country right now.

Abraham—our father in faith, our great spiritual ancestor—was an immigrant.

That’s clear from what we read in the Book of Genesis, beginning with the passage we heard today in our first reading, where Abraham is commanded by God to leave his native place—which was the city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia.  God says to him, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”

That land, of course, was the land of Canaan—a land “flowing with milk and honey”—also known to us as the Promised Land.

And it’s clear that, when he finally did make it to this land that God would someday give to his descendants, Abraham understood that he was, at that point, a foreigner.  For example, in Genesis 23, after his wife Sarah dies, Abraham goes to the Hittites and says to them, “Although I am a resident alien among you, sell me from your holdings a burial place, that I may bury my deceased wife.”

As Catholics, we are all spiritual descendants of a great and courageous immigrant of the ancient world—the patriarch Abraham.  In addition to that, most of us (if not all of us) are the natural descendants of immigrants from other countries in the modern world. 

Some of us might even be immigrants ourselves.

Because of that—because this issue of immigration is one which has touched us all in some way—I thought it would be good idea this morning to briefly review with you what the Catholic Church teaches on the subject.

That’s important for us to know.

Now let me be clear about something before I get into this: My purpose in my homily today is not to propose concrete solutions to the current problems involving legal and illegal immigrants in our country.  Quite frankly, I’m a priest and that’s not my role.  Hashing out those particulars is the job of the legislative and executive branches of our government.  And it’s not easy!

This is one reason why we constantly pray for our civil leaders in our Sunday prayers of the faithful; and it’s why we should remember our president, our governor, and our state and national legislators in our personal prayers every day!  Wisdom is needed to find the right answers to the many questions surrounding immigration and the securing of our borders—and wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

So our leaders need the Spirit’s help—whether they realize it or not!

But even though I won’t offer any specific solutions this morning, what I will do is share with you briefly the Church’s official moral teaching on how to deal with immigrants from other countries.  That, after all, is my role as a priest!  I do it because even here in our own state there’s been a lot of confusion lately about where Catholics should stand on these kinds of issues. 

No doubt one of the reasons for all the confusion is that the Church in her teaching doesn’t propose specific laws (nor should she!).  Rather, she merely sets forth the moral principles that should guide a given society in making its laws.  This means that good people can embrace the same guiding principles, and yet disagree on some of the particulars of a given law.  We’ll see some examples of that in a moment.

Now whenever we have a question on what the Church actually teaches on a specific subject, the first place we should look is the Catechism.  With that in mind listen to what the Catechism says in paragraph 2241:
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.  Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. 
Political authorities for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.  Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
The first point made there is that prosperous nations have a moral obligation before God to welcome at least some foreigners into their countries.  Well I think it’s safe to say that we are one of the more economically blessed nations on the face of the earth right now, so clearly this message applies to us.  Of course, it’s interesting, the Catechism immediately qualifies this principle by saying that we are obliged to welcome foreigners to the extent we are able to.  There, obviously, is one issue that good people can and will disagree on: Where do we draw the line in terms of numbers?  How many immigrants are too many?

Now the corollary to this first principle is that nations also have the right—as well as the duty—to secure their own borders!  Please hear this: The idea of people sneaking over national boundary lines whenever they feel like it is not a Catholic idea!  It’s not something the Catholic Church supports!  As the Catechism says, “Political authorities . . . may make the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions”—like passing through a border checkpoint, and having the proper government documentation!

Does this mean that a wall is needed on our southern border with Mexico?  No, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Here’s yet another example of an issue that good Catholics can disagree on.

Border security, however, is not negotiable!  In some form, that IS necessary according to Catholic teaching!

The Catechism goes on to say that those who are welcomed into another country should receive respect, appropriate help and legal protection.  That idea, along with every other principle of Catholic moral teaching, is rooted in the notion that every human being has a fundamental, God-given dignity—since every human being is made in the Lord’s image.

But notice that it’s not a one way street!  Immigrants are to be respected and helped and protected, yes—but according to Church teaching they also have duties and responsibilities to the citizens of the country that’s been good enough to take them in!  Among these are the responsibility to obey the country’s laws (including, I dare say, its immigration laws and its anti-terrorism laws) and “to assist in carrying civic burdens” (that includes paying taxes like the rest of us).  So it’s obviously a good idea to vet those who are seeking permanent residence in our country, to weed out potential criminals and terrorists and others who have no intention of fulfilling their duties and responsibilities as immigrants.

Our government has the obligation to do that for the safety of our citizens, and for the sake of the good people who want to come to the United States for a better life.

So there you have it, the basics of Catholic Church teaching on a very complicated—and a very controversial—subject.  Because of the complexities and strong emotions surrounding this issue right now, I think it would be good to close today with a prayer to our Blessed Mother—who is called “the seat of wisdom”: that our civil leaders will be given the wisdom to find a way to keep our citizens safe and, at the same time, welcome the “Abrahams” of our world into this “land flowing with milk and honey” that we’re all blessed to live in: the United States of America.

And so we pray: Hail Mary …