Christianity was born in the midst of some pretty serious resistance to the laws of state. As Tertullian’s oft-quoted line goes, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
The tradition of putting the Gospel ahead of fidelity to the laws of the state would soon involve churches becoming sanctuaries for refugees, locally persecuted people, and even the very people who previously criticized the sanctuary practice.
Today, however, most Western secular cultures do not recognize a legal concept of Church sanctuary, and providing it could therefore be a direct violation of secular law. But we have seen Catholic bishops explicitly call out unjust laws in the very recent past, and even prepare the faithful for possible civil disobedience when the moral issues were grave enough to warrant it.
For instance, in response to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that Catholic hospitals, universities, and other institutions violate their consciences, the U.S. Bishops said the following:
“An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”
When Obama was first elected there was fear that he would keep his campaign process of passing the “Freedom of Choice Act” (FOCA), a law which would have forced Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. Catholic bishops also said they would refuse to obey FOCA.
Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, VA, for example, used this strong language in his defiance of the law: “I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to close the hospital, you’re going to arrest me, go right ahead. You’ll have to drag me out, go right ahead. I’m not closing this hospital, we will not perform abortions, and you can go take a flying leap.’”
This is as it should be. Christians are called to believe “God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and let our actions reflect this belief.
Abortion is one issue which relates directly to our central Gospel mission of protecting and welcoming the vulnerable and marginalized, but there are many others — including those surrounding immigrants and refugees.
Pope Francis has rightly said that we have a solemn “moral responsibility” and “duty” to welcome and aid these populations. Perhaps aware of the concerns of political conservatives and populists, Francis’s argument conserves some of the oldest traditions of the Church and the views of his predecessors in the chair of St. Peter.
Think it is a categorical mistake to conflate “not participating in the killing of a vulnerable prenatal child” and “refusing to participate in the deportation of a vulnerable immigrant” as similarly grave rejections of the Gospel?
Enter Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas — a bishop on the Texas/Mexico border, who is confronted with the issues of immigration in ways that most of us are not. In an interview I did with him here at Crux, Flores made an explicit argument comparing the gravity of both issues:
“In some instances, particularly dealing with the Central American mothers and children, and deportations into some parts of Mexico, we are dealing with placing [undocumented immigrants] in proximate danger of death. I consider supporting the sending of an adult or child back to a place where he or she is marked for death, where there is lawlessness and societal collapse, to be formal cooperation with an intrinsic evil. Not unlike driving someone to an abortion clinic.”
The current administration has already kicked deportations up several notches. But now we have learned that via executive order, the United States has “expansive new deportation policies”—policies which apparently are designed to dramatically increase law enforcement’s ability to send undocumented persons back to the places from which they fled.
Other congregations have beat Catholics to the punch when it comes to providing sanctuary spaces for these vulnerable populations.
But Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the newly-named pastor of 1.5 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, has been saying what I suspect many faithful Catholics have suspected for some weeks now: the current policies of the administration toward immigrants and refugees is at odds with the clear command of the scriptures to welcome the vulnerable stranger.
It may become necessary, if Catholic churches are to live out the commands of the Gospel, to join the moment to provide sanctuary.
But let’s be clear about what this would mean. Jessica Vaughan, policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, reminds us that providing such sanctuary would be illegal, and could put a parish or diocese at risk for prosecution and fines.
“I hope it won’t come to that,” she said.
But if it does come to that, Catholics — and especially Catholic leaders — should be ready to suffer the consequences. Perhaps the current crisis will find Catholic bishops who, in response to possible legal threats to their protection of undocumented persons in their diocese, will say, “If you’re going to arrest us, go right ahead.”
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.