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Recovering the context to “the right to migrate” in light of current crises

The foundations of the Church’s teaching on migration are more complex and qualified than contemporary calls for de facto open borders often suggest or assume.

The puppet Little Amal’s during a visit to the Vatican, Sept. 10, 2021. / Vatican Media.

On Friday September 10, an 11-foot-tall puppet named “Little Amal” was greeted Pope Francis at the Vatican. The encounter with the Holy Father was just one stop for Little Amal on her European tour from Syria to Manchester, England.

With a large percentage of migrants from Africa and Asia to Europe being young adult men, it is curious that Little Amal would serve as a representative of the millions of refugees who have come to Europe. Nonetheless, Little Amal was embraced in the Vatican. As Catholic News Agency reported, Little Amal was greeted by Cardinal Michael Czerny, under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development as well as an auxiliary bishop of Rome who is in charge of care for migrants.

The two Catholics prelates symbolically met Little Amal next to the sculpture “Angels Unawares,” which depicts a group of huddled migrants and was installed in Vatican Square in 2019. The images, for many, apparently symbolize Catholic social teaching on refugees and migrants.

But the roots of that teaching, found in twentieth-century papal documents and acts, is not well known by most. And a careful examination of traditional Catholic teaching on migration reveals that the foundations of the Church’s teaching on migration—first codified in Pope Pius XII’s 1952 Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana—are more complex and qualified than contemporary calls for de facto open borders often suggest or assume.

The roots of the Catholic understanding of migration are found in the desire for nineteenth-century popes to ensure the spiritual welfare of European immigrants to the New World.

The first modern pope to tackle the issue of migration was Leo XIII, who approved the Society of St. Raphael. The Society, established in the 1870s, was a lay organization meant provide aid to migrants. Leo XIII, in 1888, expressed concern for the spiritual and physical welfare of Italian immigrants in “Quam Aerumnosa,” his letter to the American Bishops.

These concerns, which were principally (but not exclusively) directed toward the spiritual welfare of Italian immigrants to the New World were echoed by Pope Pius X. Leo and Pius explicitly worried that Italian and other immigrants from Europe were going to be lured into “Protestantism, Socialism, and Free Masonry.”

Pius X’s successor, Benedict XV, likewise was principally concerned with Italian immigration as well as immigration within Europe and from Europe to the New World. He did, however, ask American Bishops to welcome Mexican clerics, religious, and laity who were fleeing the Mexican Civil War. Benedict XV also founded the College for Migrants, which was tasked with training priests to provide for the spiritual care of Catholic migrants.

Pope Pius XI likewise emphasized the spiritual and material care of Catholics, including those from Mexico, Russia, Italy, Armenia, and Germany. Again, the emphasis was upon spiritual care of primarily European (as well as Mexican) Catholic migrants who were fleeing genocide, destitute poverty, and war.

The first major papal document on the subject of migration, however, is Pius XII’s 1952 Exsul Familia Nazarethana. As even more liberal commentators admit, Exsul was written against the background of World War II and is principally focused on Christian European migrants moving to other Western countries. This is not to suggest Exsul excludes others in its assessment of the plight of migrants, but this background is important when reading the text.

The key idea from Exsul that is used today to justify what amounts to unlimited migration into Europe is Pius’s famous “right to migrate” concept. However, the “right to migrate” phrase as well as the wider message of Exsul Familia Nazarethana deserves a close reading, for throughout the Apostolic Constitution, we see that Pius XII’s understanding of immigration is nuanced and carefully developed.

The notion of the right to migrate is based upon Leo XIII’s teaching, articulated in Rerum Novarum, of a right of a man to be able to provide for his family. Indeed, Exsul itself is focused on the primarily on families needing to provide for themselves.

These families (and all immigrants), Pope Pius argues, resemble the Holy Family, which fled to Egypt:

The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.

There is no question that the Holy Father says “every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind…” is an icon of the Holy Family. However, Pius XII appears to be principally concerned with Catholic migrants, and insists that the Church try to “preserve intact in them the Faith of their fathers and a way of life that conformed to the moral law.”

Pius XII’s notion of the right to migrate, connected to the right to provide for one’s family, envisions a situation in which the world population is more evenly distributed throughout the world, “especially those “regions and living spaces now abandoned to wild natural vegetation and well suited to be cultivated by man to satisfy his needs and civil activities….”

Drawing from Rerum Novarum, Pius argues that “the right of the family to a living space is recognized. When this happens, migration attains its natural scope as experience often shows.”

Pius XII finally explains that this migration results in “the more favorable distribution of men on the earth’s surface suitable to colonies of agricultural workers; that surface which God created and prepared for the use of all.”

However, Pope Pius outlined some caveats on the right to migrate.

First of all, he apparently assumed that the host country must agree to allow the refugees in, describing a situation in which those “who agree to leave their native land and those who agree to admit the newcomers.”

He further described the process of migration as being mutually beneficial to the migrant and the host country—both of which will “profit” by the migration. The host country will specifically benefit from “industrious citizens” and will allow for the “increased welfare of man and the progress of human culture.”

In Exsul, Pius also quoted from a December 24, 1948 letter to the American Bishops in which he stated:

The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people. For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all.

However, the Holy Father further noted that the “sovereignty of the State” must be “respected” and migrants cannot be hindered “inadequate or unjustified reasons”; moreover, migration must not threaten the “public wealth” of the host country.

This belief that migration can be hindered or even stopped if the public wealth or common good of the host country is threatened is critical to the discussion on migration.

Indeed, in his 2013 message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated this point, noting that “every state has the right to regulate migration and to enact policies dictated by the general requirements of the common good, albeit always in safeguarding respect for the dignity of each human person.”

This extremely critical point, so often ignored or skirted in mainstream Catholic discourse, must be discussed in our own day. There needs to be an honest and open discourse in the Church on migration that is attuned to the Church’s broader tradition and that is animated by truth and charity, not politics, ideology, or sentimentalism. This discussion must be focused on not only the right to migrate, but also upon the common good of Western countries—many of whom are under severe economic and social strain.

A new and authentic Christendom will only be built on the foundation of this love—a love which recognizes the needs of others, but which recognizes in the tune of St. Thomas Aquains’s “order of charity” that true charity begins at home, and there is much in the West that we need to repair.


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About Jesse Russell 5 Articles
Jesse Russell is the author of a number of articles on twentieth-century Catholic political thought as well as works on the poetry of Edmund Spenser. He is assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University.

5 Comments

  1. I agree with every point made in this article. “Balance” is the key word in every area of life. Yes we have to welcome immigrants(those who want to better their lives and not any other agenda), (I am also immigrant) but it has to be done in legal way. The same way one should not give his whole paycheck to charity and leave one’s children hungry.
    God bless.

  2. In the Bible we have two other immigration stories. The first story is the book of Ruth. Several generations later in the same family the story is that of King Solomon and his foreign wives. Two stories, two radically different outcomes. Ruth’s story is one of her embracing Israel. She became King David’s great-grandmother. King Solomon’s story is that of the effects of faction which turned his heart away from God and fractured his kingdom. Identity politics is all about the creation and maintenance of factions. What spirit is motivating the immigration debate? Open borders proponents act like America has limitless resources. Like the government has the ability to perform the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. Like the government is god.

  3. This is a very solid contribution to the discussion. Immigration is a complex matter that requires prudential judgement. The simplistic representation of Church teaching on the subject by the USCCB and the Vatican shows no recognition of the many dimensions of the issue. Opening the gates to any and all who show up at the border and demand entry is a moral obligation, according to the Church hierarchy.

    Frankly, a national government’s primary and overriding duty is to protect and promote the best interests of its own people. Mass Third World immigration to the West is detrimental to the physical, moral, economic, and political well being of the native populations. A moratorium should have been declared decades ago.

  4. I many times have heard immigrants say they came here the legal way. In truth, there is no real legal way of entering this great United States of America. This nation rightfully belongs to the Native Americans. We took it away from them many times through savagery and then placed them in reservations. When I think of this the Nazi prisoner camps comes to mind.

    St. John Paul ll stressed that God created no part of this world for any particular race. He stated each human being has the right to live in any place in this world. In Laguna Seca, California, St. John Paul ll praised the people who’s Fathers came to this great Nation to seek a better life and found it. Then he blasted out that people from Mexico have the same right to do as their forefathers done. There is a problem though, when Mexicans come to this Nation it is for only one reason and that is to work and give their families a better life. Many condemn that Mexicans come and work and send “Our” money back to Mexico. Since when does a man work for his money and his money becomes our money. That is senseless talk. There is one type of immigration that I worry about and that is Islamic immigration to Europe. It’s not all the people but the fact that they go to Europe and little by little are imposing Islam on Europe and they admit to it. Christianity is dying in Europe, all European Nations should declare the Continent as Christian, and impose laws that show it, so as to influence Islamic conversion to Catholicism.

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