Immigration, moral authority, and the “order of love”

The question of immigration is complicated enough under the best circumstances. But the problem of mass migration, much of it illegal, in a globalized world of radical diversity, is thorny indeed.

A U.S. Border Patrol truck drives along the border fence with Mexico and passes the Christo Rey Statue on Mt. Chirsto in Sunland Park, N.M., June 18. (CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

In recent days, scathing critiques of the Trump administration’s immigration policies have emanated from the Catholic episcopacy. It seems prudent, at this moment of maximum rhetoric, to step back from the fray and delineate certain first principles that can frame and guide a rational dialogue about immigration, particularly illegal immigration, from a Catholic perspective.

It is worth recognizing from the start that the Church is a truly cosmopolitan society. Its concern is all mankind, considered especially under the aspect of its common origin and end: that is, God. Unsurprisingly, its sensibilities are distinctly, even reflexively, universalist.

This tendency is only magnified by the Church’s great antiquity, which engenders a marked indifference to the fate of nations. Over the course of twenty centuries, she has watched many states come and go, many governments rise and fall.  Indeed, her perspective is ultimately eternal, and the splendor of eternity, which reveals permanent truths, can sometimes obscure the exigencies of the temporal order.

None of this is meant to call into question the moral authority of the Church as voiced by the bishops: their persons should be reverenced, their opinions respected. It is rather meant to offer a clear-eyed assessment of the inclinations of the Catholic mind.

Can we then dismiss the Church’s approach to immigration as the mere epiphenomenon of its universalist prejudices? Of course not.

Its judgments are informed first by Scripture, which emphasizes the importance of hospitality to strangers. The Law and the Prophets both exhort love of the foreigner, extending to him the rights of the native Israelite, up to and including a stake in the Promised Land (cf. Lev. 19:34, Ez. 47:22-23). Such commandments probably reflect the fact that Israel was from the start a “mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38), yet they undeniably demonstrate a genuine spirit of xenophilia, predicated at base upon the expansive providential care of God for his image-bearers (cf. Deut. 10:18, Ps. 146:9).

The Church, in her teaching regarding immigration, draws also upon the insights of philosophy, especially the natural law tradition, as illumined by revelation. Here two truths are really pertinent. First, the earth is the common, pre-political inheritance of mankind. This fact, once admitted, effectively denies that the state possesses absolute dominion over its territory: thus it cannot justifiably exclude any and all sojourners without consideration of, and appeal to, other serious factors. Second, and relatedly, man is not only the citizen of a “particular State,” but also a citizen of the “world-wide fellowship of men” (Pacem in Terris, 25). He must therefore enjoy, to some degree, freedom of movement within this commonwealth of which he is a part by virtue of his nature.

From time to time, Catholics speak as if the aforementioned points represent all the relevant facts. Yet the Church also understands that the state “corresponds” to man’s nature: it is “necessary to him” (Catechism, 1882), for man’s flourishing requires peace, which the state secures by providing for the common defense and welfare. It therefore has the “right to regulate migration flows and to defend [its] own frontiers” (‘One Human Family,’ Benedict XVI).

In all her thinking on this matter, the Church links the state’s regulatory authority with its responsibilities for those already under its care (cf. Catechism, 2241). But why this default preference for the native over the alien? The answer is contained in a truth of inestimable importance: nature ordains, as it were, an order of love.

It is fitting that we should love some more than others, for we are closer to some than others, insofar as we share more or greater goods in common with some than others. For instance, with some men we share only a nature, while with others we share a nature and a city, while with yet others we share a nature, a city, and a family.

Where there is love, there is community. Where there is community, there is obligation: the obligation to cultivate the goods proper to that particular bond. We are therefore compelled to consider the social, political, and economic interests of our countrymen before considering those of outsiders with whom we have no civic friendship.

Note that although we consider first the interests of our countrymen, we do not consider their interests exclusively, without any concern for the interests of foreigners, who are at very least our fellow men. Note also that the interests of our countrymen are given priority only insofar as they are civic interests: interests conditioned by, arising from, or dependent upon membership in the commonwealth. Obviously, the nature of these interests may be broadly or narrowly construed, depending on ideological orientation. There is also the question of who exactly qualifies as a “countryman”: this, too, is subject to broad or narrow construal.

The question of immigration is complicated enough under the best circumstances. But the problem of mass migration, much of it illegal, in a globalized world of radical diversity, is thorny indeed. In the case of illegal immigration, a decision that is properly bilateral is made unilaterally, with the guest trampling upon the prerogatives of the host.

Recognizing the considerable economic and social strains induced by this phenomenon, St. John Paul II taught that “illegal immigration should be prevented,” ideally by solving the issue at its root through international development (‘The Church and Illegal Immigration,’ 2). In the same document, he concedes that sometimes, the best option for illegal immigrants is to “seek acceptance in other countries, or to return to their own country” (4). That said, he judiciously remarks that for deeply-embedded illegal immigrants, “returning to their country of origin would be tantamount to … reverse emigration,” a comment worthy of reflection as we reflect upon appropriate criteria for amnesty—and deportation.

What do these principles mean for the hot button policies currently dominating American political discourse? An honest observer must admit that it is not altogether clear at first blush. Plainly, a number of extreme positions, both liberal and conservative, are automatically excluded, but as for specific solutions, they need be teased out through careful deliberation.

The important thing is that these general precepts be identified and elucidated so that they can set the parameters of intelligent discourse and, once absorbed, yield firm conclusions that help achieve a balance between solidarity and sovereignty, attending to the dignity of the desperate without compromising the peace, prosperity, and cohesion of the American nation.

In the final analysis, what are we doing but weighing and measuring and arranging our various loves? Given the nature of this labor, we should hardly expect an easy task.

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About Philip Primeau 3 Articles
Philip Primeau writes from Rhode Island. He holds a BA in Theology from Providence College and currently serves as a lay family minister at a Catholic parish. He can be contacted at


  1. Also complicated by the all additional things going on with these immigrants.
    Adults posing as children to get preferential treatment
    Persons claiming custody of children that are not their children to get preferential treatment
    Parents sending children, with or without adult of rather dubious character, on a long dangerous journey so that they can gain admittance to the US and then be joined by parents under US law
    Immigrants being used by drug smugglers as mules
    Terrorist posing as a immigrants to gain entry to nations they want to attack
    Foreign governments encouraging emigration of their own minorities and lower class individuals.

    There’s others as well I’m sure. It is just not so simple that all immigrants are good, decent people seeking “a better life”. That’s just naive.

  2. But…but Mr. Primeau, how dare you write a rational article and not throw in crying children and how it’s all the selfish cruel US’s fault for not throwing open our borders to everyone everywhere?

  3. Exalting reasoning from moral theology (even if cloaked in an appeal to papal encyclicals) as being equivalent to precepts from Natural Law is erroneous. The article is correct in assuming the order of charity, which is a most probable opinion in moral theology, even it has not been established as being of Sacred Tradition. All other considerations do not yield the conclusions of the USCCB regarding proposed reforms.

    In rights language:
    1. There is a right (or to at least ask for permission) to move across territory of a political community to an unoccupied territory.
    2. There is a right to ask for hospitality or “sanctuary” from another political community. There is no right to such hospitality as such.
    3. There is no right of admittance to a political community for an outsider to that community.
    4. There is no right to citizenship in a political community for an outsider.

    Get rid of ius soli and automatic citizenship for anchor babies and this wouldn’t be a problem.

  4. OK, I would simply like to duplicate the immigration laws of Mexico, line for line, as the new US immigration law.
    Thanks Mexico.

  5. “nature ordains, as it were, an order of love.” Very insightful and helpful to form the Catholic conscience on this difficult issue. I wish some Bishops would provide thoughtful statements like this so the Faithful can truly understand how to approach such matters.

  6. Despite leaving out discussion of the natural right of self-defense, this is a very thoughtful, helpful, clarifying homily on a morally complicated and emotionally confusing crisis both for the incoming, ongoing flood of illegals and for the generous, xenophilic people of the United States, the world’s oldest, largest and longest-standing immigrant nation. Despite the chaos and ambiguity with which we are confronted, the homily’s guidance is obvious and the necessary and appropriate legal and humanitarian actions become clear: 1)all illegal immigration must be stopped with all deliberate speed through law enforcement and physical barriers, 2) Congress must impose (and widely publicize) a temporary cessation even of refugee applications by illegals pending Congressional resolution of how to address the definition of “refugee” and matter of child care for refugee applicants, 3) our immigration laws must be reformed immediately so as a) to base all lawful immigration solely on merit, the absence of a criminal record or threat, economic-security and value of the applicant to the U.S. economy b) to facilitate the arrest and immediate deportation of future illegal immigrants, c) to end immediately the absurdities of the lottery, ius soli, anchor babies and chain migration, d) to address the illegal Obama DACA policy by immediately terminating all further DACA applications and resolving the status of current DACA-aliens, e) to address the status of non-criminal illegal aliens now in the country, f) to outlaw sanctuary jurisdictions and punish recalcitrant entities and officials f) to accelerate the law-enforcement necessary to capture and deport criminal illegal aliens.

  7. While Mr. Primeau offers an eloquent essay of the dilemma facing nations with mass immigration at their borders, he offers mo remedy or way forward. He cites St. John Paul’s long term and at leisure solution of addressing and trying to at least mitigate the oppression, poverty and wrongs in the countries from which these people are fleeing, he offers no concrete, practical advice on what to do RIGHT NOW with crying children on our doorstep.

    • @Kathleen Fretheim–that is because there is no easy, immediate answer, and that is why Philip Primeau writes about the starting point for a calm, intelligent debate. That is to say, we must step outside of the emotional realm which is often manipulative and obscures clear discussion. Yes, we must consider the children and take care of them in a humane way. There is no “one right answer” as to the “remedy” that the U.S. should choose. I think this article is a good starting point. Discuss, with all urgency, what needs to be done now. If each of us who has read this article goes out and starts a respectful and honest conversation with others who are not necessarily like-minded, that is the beginning.

      • I’m horrified by the hysteria and emotionalism of the commentary that I see about this issue: “Families should *never* be separated!!!” No? When parents are arrested for committing robbery, or murder, or fraud, endangering the welfare of their children, or any of a host of other crimes, they are separated from their children, and often the children end up in foster care. Children are often removed from their parents’ custody for neglect or abuse.

        How many of the parents jailed and separated from their children are from the very poorest Americans; those whose job prospects are dimmed and whose earning power is lowered by illegal immigration?

        I would also like to know how many of the Hollywood-type people who are having squalling fits about this matter have divorced, divorced, and divorced again, separating their children from at least one parent.

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful, nuanced articulation of the problem. I’m not sure, however, that the idea of an “order of love” is actually what Jesus taught. His message was about loving the enemy and the stranger as yourself, consistently pushing people to move beyond the comfort-zone of the human order of love for a love more profound, one that did not expect to receive anything in return for the gifts it gives. The quotes from popes rejecting illegal immigration are important when it comes to conquering lands, taking over other cultures, or carelessly ignoring rules. But as you acknowledge in your article, that only applies to a small number right now. This mass migration is a matter of life and death. We should absolutely work to stabilize their home countries, as you say, because it is a human right to live in peace and freedom in your own culture. But until we are able to do that, I firmly believe the Christian obligation is to welcome them and give them safety here.

    • “This mass migration is a matter of life and death.”

      The reason that we investigate immigrants’ claims is to make sure that this is the case. The ones who don’t go to the border crossing points and obey the law but instead try to sneak in may or may not fit that description; they may be gang members, they may be would-be terrorists, they may be anything. What they are is demonstrating that they care nothing for our country’s laws and welfare. We can’t give *anybody* safety, including our own citizens and legal residents to whom we owe our primary loyalty, if we can’t keep criminals and terrorists out of our country. If a father didn’t bother to maintain his house so that it had walls and doors to keep out wild animals and malefactors, thus endangering his family, he would be shamefully and I think sinfully negligent. The same applies to leaders of countries.

      Incidentally, are you saying that we are the only country in the Americas, or in the world, that is capable of providing a safe home for people? Because many of them are going through several countries to get to the US.

    • While it may not have been formally defined in a council or by a pope, the order of charity is a probable opinion in Roman Catholic moral theology — see, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Alphonsus Liguori. While Christ commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, He did not command that we treat all equally or render to each equally. We should render to each what is owed in justice but we are not obligated in matters beyond justice, to render to each the same thing. This should have been explained in the article.

    • Beth,
      Think…..Jesus required a thank you from the ten lepers he cured and when only one returned, he let all history know….” were not ten lepers cured, where are the other nine.” On the order of love, Christ entrusts only his mom to the care of John the beloved disciple and him to her. He did not take care of 12 other widows by entrusting them to the apostles. If you are praying equally for strangers as you do for your family, you err. Christ prayed for the apostles in a special way…” those whom you gave me I guarded and not one of them perished except the son of perdition”.
      John 17
      9 I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.
      10 And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.

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