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Washington’s 2013 effort at comprehensive immigration reform offers a chance at redemption to the United States bishops.
For what I judge all too long a time, the USCCB and its member bishops have projected opposition to the Obama presidency. Witness their rejection to the Affordable Care Act. Health care for all had been a celebrated cause of America’s Catholic bishops since the last century. But instead they departed from nearly a hundred years of Catholic advocacy, to officially oppose Obamacare. Their rejection was partly based on nit-picking Obama’s executive order prohibiting federal funding of abortions. Thankfully, key Catholic organization engaged in health care refused to follow the bishops in denying the greater good in search of perfection. Will this happen again as Washington prepares legislation on comprehensive immigration reform?
Since the 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,”the solid links between faith and action on this matter had placed Catholicism as a key ally in the cause of reform. But just when this decade long struggle is about to triumph, the bishops’ response was a mushy endorsement of a week-old plan of eight senators. Unmentioned by Archbishop José Gómez was the reform policy of President Obama, articulated frequently during the 2013 campaign. In fact, the president’s bold executive action in June of 2012 to forestall deportation of youths qualifying for the proposed DREAM Act, merited the same kind of muted response. In a 2012 interview, Cardinal Dolan urged Republicans to change their policies rather than congratulating the president for his.
To be clear, I laud the bishops for their stance on immigration reform. But when compared with their effort and expenditures for less compelling issues like same sex marriage or insurance plans covering contraception, the USCCB seems less eager to advocate for immigrants. The bishops orchestrated opposition to Obama’s reelection by foisting a highly visible campaign against what was described as the president’s attacks on religious liberty. Letters invoking threats to one’s salvation if voting for Obama were read from some pulpits. Such measures constituted a full court press of the USCCB for what it considers important. Immigration, in contrast, has merited far less. I am not in favor of “communion wars” denying the Eucharist to recalcitrant Catholic congressman like Lou Barletta (R-PA) who do not espouse this Catholic teaching. But at least the bishops can expend more energy on immigration.
As the saying goes, “You put your money where your mouth is,” and the bishops should demonstrate a fervor and zeal for immigration reform that matches their performance on these other causes. Otherwise, they will suffer once more in the court of public opinion as they have on so many other issues like the cover-up of clerical pedophilia and inquisitorial investigation of our beloved nuns. It was disappointing that Christian Latino ministers were featured at Obama’s second inauguration and its luncheon and not any Latino Catholic who has toiled long and hard on this issue. But in light of the bishops’ collective coldness to Obama, their absence was predictable.
Immigration’s case rests on solid pillars of Catholic teaching. First, separation of family members goes against the natural law. Second, the interests of nation-states are secondary to the primary needs of humankind. God made us in his image and likeness, while national boundaries are merely human constructions. Third, enforcement of legal requirements ought to respect human dignity, and in too many instances detection of who is and who is not without documents has violated church teachings in this regard. Fourth, the evangelical commission from Jesus to preach to all nations (Mt. ) is embodied in a pastoral obligation to educate Catholics about the priority we owe to the Gospel over and against partisan political loyalties.
While I hope for the best, I fear the worse. Some have suggested that the bishops will reject reform for not excluding same-sex couples, and they describe the president’s provision to allow a path to citizenship for gay and lesbian immigrants as a “poison pill.” Will the USCCB reject the entire bill for this one provision? Will they expose themselves again to small-mindedness? Let’s hope the bishops opt instead for redemption.