Human persons in Christianity and Catholic Social Doctrine | Who Are You? What is Your Faith?

The new law of love embraces the entire human family and knows no limits, since the proclamation of the salvation wrought by Christ extends to the ends of the earth (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace).[1]

The human person was proclaimed by God the Creator in Sacred Scripture as having been “made in our image, after our likeness” (Gn 1:26; cf 5:1–3; 9:6), so that s/he could live in communion with God the Holy Trinity and one another, while progressing on the path of deification (Saint Irenaeus, Adv. Haer.) and becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4; Pope Paul VI, 1965a; Saint Athanasius, De Inc.; Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol.). The human person is considered to be “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself” (Pope Paul VI, 1965a) and who was given the divine commission to:

“Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth. See, I give you every seed-bearing plant on all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the wild animals, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the earth, I give all the green plants for food” (Gn 1:28–30).

The human person is thus “not a lost atom in a random universe: he is God’s creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom He has always loved” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2009a). S/he has been granted a dignity and rights that are inviolable by any system in and of the world, because “his sovereignty within the cosmos, his capacity for social existence, and his knowledge and love of the Creator — all are rooted in man’s being made in the image of God” (International Theological Commission, 2004).

The Dignity of the Human Person

Constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations (Pope Paul VI).[2]

The inherent dignity of the human person has been described by Saint John Paul II (1988) as “manifested in all its radiance when the person’s origin and destiny are considered, created by God in His image and likeness as well as redeemed by the most precious Blood of Christ.” The Spirit had testified to this in the Old Testament through the psalmist who said, “You are gods, offspring of the Most High, all of you” (Ps 82:6) and “You have made man little less than the angels, you have crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:6). Jesus Christ witnessed to this in the New Testament with the words, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods?”’ (Jn 10:34). God, therefore,

“Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who ‘from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26). For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment . . . [and] love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor . . . because all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself (Pope Paul VI, 1965a).”

In consequence, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offense against the Creator of the individual” (Saint John Paul II, 1988). The saint continued,

“In virtue of a personal dignity, the human being is always a value as an individual, and as such demands being considered and treated as a person and never, on the contrary, considered and treated as an object to be used or as a means or as a thing.

“The dignity of the person constitutes the foundation of the equality of all people among themselves . . . All forms of discrimination are totally unacceptable especially those forms which unfortunately continue to divide and degrade the human family: from those based on race or economics to those social and cultural, from political to geographic. Each discrimination constitutes an absolutely intolerable injustice, not so much for the tensions and the conflicts that can be generated in the social sphere, as much as for the dishonor inflicted on the dignity of the person: not only to the dignity of the individual who is the victim of the injustice, but still more to the one who commits the injustice” (ibid.).

Fundamental human rights granted by God. A set of inviolable and fundamental human rights have been granted to all human persons by the divine will in virtue of the individual having been created in the image, and after the likeness, of God. These human rights include the right to:

  1. Live, from the moment of conception until natural death;
  2. Own private property for the shelter of oneself and one’s family, within the context of respect for the universal destination of goods;[3]
  3. Work for one’s integral development and the sustenance of both oneself and one’s family, in addition to the right to own the fruits of one’s work;
  4. Just remuneration for any work done;
  5. Rest; and
  6. Worship without any undue encumbrances.

Migrants and Refugees in the Social Doctrine of the Church

An irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored (Saint John Paul II).[4]

As part of the aforementioned set of fundamental human rights willed by the divine fiat, the Church has long recognized as part of her social doctrine that the human person has the right to migrate, to sustain his or her own life and that of the family (US Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB], 2017a).

Pope Pius XII on migration. For example, Pope Pius XII (1952) spoke with great clarity that this inherent right of the human person is “founded in the very nature of land.” He stated in a letter to the American bishops that:

“You know indeed how preoccupied we have been and with what anxiety we have followed those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger, to leave their homes and live in foreign lands.

“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. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.

“We have condemned severely the ideas of the totalitarian and the imperialistic state, as well as that of exaggerated nationalism. On one hand, in fact they arbitrarily restrict the natural rights of people to migrate or to colonize while on the other hand, they compel entire populations to migrate into other lands, deporting inhabitants against their wills, disgracefully tearing individuals from their families, their homes and their countries.”

Saint John XXIII and Pope Paul VI speak. Saint John XXIII (1963) declared that:

“When there are just reasons in favor of it, [the human person] must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common worldwide fellowship of man.

“Refugees are persons and all their rights as persons must be recognized. Refugees cannot lose these rights simply because they are deprived of citizenship of their own States. And among man’s personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and — so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits — to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993), “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” No fear of what may or can occur with regard to prevention is valid in terms of the above, despite a country having the right to regulate its borders and control immigration (USCCB, 2017a), because this latter right of the nation-State can only occur when carried out with both justice and mercy.

Pope Paul VI (1963) declared that migrants often tend to end up suffering from moral and spiritual trauma both peri- and post-translocation, because of the multi-dimensional effects of the migration process itself. He added that it is Christ Himself who is seen “negli Emigranti è sofferente, è pellegrino, è bisognoso [in migrants and is suffering, is a pilgrim, is in need]” (ibid.).

Saint John Paul II on migrants and refugees. Addressing the issue of forced migration due to untenable circumstances in the land of origin of the human person, Saint John Paul II (1979) stated, “Faccio appello alla coscienza dell’umanità, perché tutti assumano la loro parte di responsabilità, popoli e governanti, in nome di una solidarietà che oltrepassa le frontiere, le razze, le ideologie . . . ogni uomo, ogni donna, ogni bambino nel bisogno è nostro prossimo [I appeal to the conscience of humanity, so that everyone assumes their own part of responsibility, peoples and governments, in the name of a solidarity that transcends frontiers, races, and the ideologies . . . every man, every woman, every child in need is our neighbor].” He (1991a) added that:

“Migration always has two aspects, diversity and universality. The former comes from the meeting between diverse individuals and groups of people and involves inevitable tension, latent rejection and open polemics. The latter is constituted by the harmonious meeting of diverse social subjects who discover themselves in the patrimony that is common to every human being formed as it is by the values of humanity and fraternity. There is a mutual enrichment when diverse cultures come into contact.”

The saint (1991b) emphasized the need to “abandon a mentality in which the poor — as individuals and as peoples — are considered a burden as irksome intruders.”

In a joint statement the points of which still sound true in a hollow manner today, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (1992) declared that:

“Despite an increased awareness of interdependence among peoples and nations, some States, guided by their own ideologies and particular interests, arbitrarily determine the criteria for the application of international obligations . . . In countries which had in the past offered a generous reception to refugees, there is now a disturbingly similar trend of political decisions aimed at reducing the number of entries and discouraging new requests for asylum . . . respect for the fundamental right of asylum can never be denied when life is seriously threatened in one’s homeland.”

Speaking about the moral foundation of civil law, Saint John Paul II (1995) stated,

“[C]ivil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee . . . Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.”

The saint (1996) continued that it is:

“necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behavior, which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations . . . [it is] necessary to avoid recourse to the use of administrative regulations, meant to restrict the criterion of family membership which result in unjustifiably forcing into an illegal situation people whose right to live with their family cannot be denied by any law.”

Placing a burden on what issues of migration meant in practice for Christians and Catholics in particular, Saint John Paul II elaborated,

“For Christians, the migrant is not merely an individual to be respected in accordance with the norms established by law, but a person whose presence challenges them and whose needs become an obligation for their responsibility. ‘What have you done to your brother?’ (cf. Gn 4:9). The answer should not be limited to what is imposed by law, but should be made in the manner of solidarity. Man, particularly if he is weak, defenseless, driven to the margins of society, is a sacrament of Christ’s presence (cf. Mt 25:40, 45) . . . Today the illegal migrant comes before us like that ‘stranger’ in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is a duty of hospitality and fidelity to Christian identity itself” (ibid.).

Saint John Paul II (1997a) emphasized,

“It is non-Christians, increasingly numerous, who go to countries with a Christian tradition in search of work and better living conditions, and they frequently do so as illegal immigrants and refugees . . . the Church, like the Good Samaritan, feels it her duty to be close to the illegal immigrant and refugee, contemporary icon of the despoiled traveler, beaten and abandoned on side of the road to Jericho (cf. Lk 10:30) . . . the Christian evangelizes by words and deeds, both the fruit of faith in Christ. Actions, in fact, are his ‘active faith,’ while words are his ‘eloquent faith.’ Since there is no evangelization without, in consequence, charitable actions, there is no authentic charity without the spirit of the Gospel: they are two intimately linked aspects.”

He (1997b) continued,

“For the Christian, acceptance of and solidarity with the stranger are not only a human duty of hospitality, but a precise demand of fidelity itself to Christ’s teaching. For the believer, caring for migrants means striving to guarantee a place within the individual Christian community for his brothers and sisters coming from afar, and working so that every human being’s personal rights are recognized . . . Jesus’ demanding assertion: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35) retains its power in all circumstances and challenges the conscience of those who intend to follow in his footsteps . . . In this regard, in the words of Saint James, ‘What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’ (Jas 2:14–17).”

Saint John Paul II (1999a) declared,

“Charity, in its twofold reality as love of God and neighbor, is the summing up of the moral life of the believer. It has in God its source and its goal. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lv 19:18). In the Book of Leviticus this commandment occurs in a series of precepts which forbid injustice. One of them warns: ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’ (19:33–44) . . . For the Christian, every human being is a ‘neighbor’ to be loved. He should not ask himself whom he should love, because to ask who is my neighbor?’ is already to set limits and conditions. The reason, ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ which constantly accompanies the command to respect and love the migrant, is not only meant to remind the chosen people of their former condition; it also calls their attention to God’s action: on his own initiative, he generously delivered them from slavery and freely gave them a land. ‘You were a slave and God intervened to set you free; you have seen, then, how God treated migrants; you must treat them in the same way:’ this is the implicit thought underlying the precept . . . Catholicity is not only expressed in the fraternal communion of the baptized, but also in the hospitality extended to the stranger, whatever his religious belief, in the rejection of all racial exclusion or discrimination, in the recognition of the personal dignity of every man and woman and, consequently, in the commitment to furthering their inalienable rights.”

Speaking in a direct way and with great frankness about America, Saint John Paul II (1999b) emphasized,

“As for non-Christian religions, the Catholic Church rejects nothing in them which is true and holy. Hence, with regard to other religions Catholics intend to emphasize elements of truth wherever they are to be found, while at the same time firmly bearing witness to the newness of the revelation of Christ, preserved in its fullness by the Church. Consistent with this attitude, they reject as alien to the spirit of Christ any discrimination or persecution directed against persons on the basis of race, color, condition of life or religion. Difference of religion must never be a cause of violence or war. Instead, persons of different beliefs must feel themselves drawn, precisely because of these beliefs, to work together for peace and justice. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, call Abraham their father. Consequently, throughout America these three communities should live in harmony and work together for the common good.

“The Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.”

He (2000) continued,

“In many regions of the world today people live in tragic situations of instability and uncertainty. It does not come as a surprise that in such contexts the poor and the destitute make plans to escape, to seek a new land that can offer them bread, dignity and peace. This is the migration of the desperate: men and women, often young, who have no alternative than to leave their own country to venture into the unknown. Every day thousands of people take even critical risks in their attempts to escape from a life with no future. Unfortunately, the reality they find in host nations is frequently a source of further disappointment.

“At the same time, States with a relative abundance tend to tighten their borders under pressure from a public opinion disturbed by the inconveniences that accompany the phenomenon of immigration. Society finds itself having to deal with the ‘clandestine’ men and women in illegal situations, without any rights in a country that refuses to welcome them, victims of organized crime or of unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

“In Jesus, God came seeking human hospitality. This is why he makes the willingness to welcome others in love a characteristic virtue of believers. He chose to be born into a family that found no lodging in Bethlehem (cf. Lk 2: 7) and experienced exile in Egypt (cf. Mt 2: 14). Jesus, who ‘had nowhere to lay his head’ (Mt 8: 20), asked those he met for hospitality. To Zacchaeus he said: ‘I must stay at your house today’ (Lk 19: 5). He even compared himself to a foreigner in need of shelter: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25: 35). In sending his disciples out on mission, Jesus makes the hospitality they will enjoy an act that concerns him personally: ‘He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me’ (Mt 10: 40).

“How can the baptized claim to welcome Christ if they close the door to the foreigner who comes knocking? ‘If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?’ (1 Jn 3: 17) . . . In all the societies of the world the figure of the exile, the refugee, the deportee, the clandestine, the migrant and the ‘street people’ . . for believers becomes a call to change their mentality and their life, in accordance with Christ’s appeal: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’ (Mk 1:15). In its highest and most demanding motivation, this call to conversion certainly includes the effective recognition of the rights of migrants: ‘It is urgent in their regard that one know how to overcome a strictly nationalistic attitude to create a State which recognizes their right to emigration and encourages their integration . . . It is the duty of all — and especially Christians — to work energetically to establish the universal brotherhood which is the indispensable basis of true justice and a condition for lasting peace’ (Paul VI, Octogesima adveniens).”

Saint John Paul II (2001) declared,

“Although it is true that highly developed countries are not always able to assimilate all those who emigrate, nonetheless it should be pointed out that the criterion for determining the level that can be sustained cannot be based solely on protecting their own prosperity, while failing to take into consideration the needs of persons who are tragically forced to ask for hospitality.”

He (2002) added,

“The path to true acceptance of immigrants in their cultural diversity is actually a difficult one, in some cases a real Way of the Cross. That must not discourage us from pursuing the will of God . . . mixed cultural communities offer unique opportunities to deepen the gift of unity with other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities. Many of them in fact have worked within their own communities and with the Catholic Church to form societies in which the cultures of migrants and their special gifts are sincerely appreciated, and in which manifestations of racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism are prophetically opposed.”

The saint (2003) further stated,

“No one should be indifferent to the conditions of multitudes of immigrants! They are at the mercy of events, often with dramatic situations behind them . . . They are children, young people, adults and elderly persons with emaciated faces and sad, lonely eyes. The camps that take them in often impose on them serious restrictions . . . Nor is it possible not to denounce the trafficking practiced by unscrupulous exploiters who abandon at sea, on precarious crafts, people desperately seeking a more certain future. Anyone in critical conditions needs prompt and concrete assistance . . . I deeply hope that every Ecclesial Community, made up of migrants and refugees and those who receive them and drawing inspiration from the sources of grace, will untiringly engage in the construction of peace. May no one let injustice, difficulties or inconvenience be a discouragement!”

Pope Benedict XVI on voluntary and forced migration. Speaking at length about the difficult situations faced by migrants and refugees, Pope Benedict XVI (2007) elaborated,

“Shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph was forced to leave for Egypt by night, taking the child and his mother with him, in order to flee the persecution of king Herod (cf. Mt 2:13–15). Making a comment on this page of the Gospel, my venerable Predecessor, the Servant of God Pope Pius XII, wrote in 1952: ‘The family of Nazareth in exile, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, emigrants and taking refuge in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are the model, the example and the support of all emigrants and pilgrims of every age and every country, of all refugees of any condition who, compelled by persecution and need, are forced to abandon their homeland, their beloved relatives, their neighbors, their dear friends, and move to a foreign land’ (Exsul familia, AAS 44, 1952, 649).

“In this misfortune experienced by the Family of Nazareth, obliged to take refuge in Egypt, we can catch a glimpse of the painful condition in which all migrants live, especially refugees, exiles, evacuees, internally displaced persons, those who are persecuted. We can take a quick look at the difficulties that every migrant family lives through, the hardships and humiliations, the deprivation and fragility of millions and millions of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people.”

The Pope (2008) emphasized the need for the worldwide community of Christians to be conformed to Christ in this respect, because the more a:

“community is united to Christ, the more it cares for its neighbor, eschewing judgment, scorn and scandal, and opening itself to reciprocal acceptance (cf. Rm 14:1–3; 15:7). Conformed to Christ, believers feel they are ‘brothers’ in him, sons of the same Father (Rm 8:14–16; Gal 3:26; 4:6). This treasure of brotherhood makes them ‘practice hospitality’ (Rm 12:13), which is the firstborn daughter of agape (cf. 1 Tm 3:2, 5:10; Ti 1:8; Phlm 17).

“In this manner the Lord’s promise comes true: ‘then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters’ (2 Cor 6:17–18). If we are aware of this, how can we fail to take charge of all those, particularly refugees and displaced people, who are in conditions of difficulty or hardship? How can we fail to meet the needs of those who are de facto the weakest and most defenseless, marked by precariousness and insecurity, marginalized and often excluded by society? We should give our priority attention to them because, paraphrasing a well-known Pauline text, ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor 1:27).”

Pope Benedict XVI (2009b) added, “The migrant is a human person who possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance . . . [remember] the warning of Christ who at the Last Judgment will consider as directed to himself everything that has been done or denied ‘to one of the least of these’ (cf. Mt 25:40, 45). And how can one fail to consider migrant and refugee minors as also being among the ‘least’?” He (2010) continued to elaborate:

“‘All peoples are one community and have one origin, because God caused the whole human race to dwell on the face of the earth (cf. Acts 17:26); they also have one final end, God’ (Message for World Day of Peace, 2008, 1) . . . Thus, ‘We do not live alongside one another purely by chance; all of us are progressing along a common path as men and women, and thus as brothers and sisters’ (Message for the World Day of Peace, 2008, 6) . . . All, therefore, belong to one family, migrants and the local populations that welcome them, and all have the same right to enjoy the goods of the earth whose destination is universal, as the social doctrine of the Church teaches. It is here that solidarity and sharing are founded.

“In the case of those who are forced to migrate, solidarity is nourished by the ‘reserve’ of love that is born from considering ourselves a single human family and, for the Catholic faithful, members of the Mystical Body of Christ: in fact we find ourselves depending on each other, all responsible for our brothers and sisters in humanity and, for those who believe, in the faith . . . ‘Welcoming refugees and giving them hospitality is for everyone an imperative gesture of human solidarity, so that they may not feel isolated because of intolerance and disinterest’ (General Audience, 20 June 2007: Insegnamenti II, 1 [2007], 1158). This means that those who are forced to leave their homes or their country will be helped to find a place where they may live in peace and safety, where they may work and take on the rights and duties that exist in the country that welcomes them, contributing to the common good and without forgetting the religious dimension of life.”

Pope Benedict XVI (2011) emphasized that:

“Asylum seekers, who fled from persecution, violence and situations that put their life at risk, stand in need of our understanding and welcome, of respect for their human dignity and rights, as well as awareness of their duties. Their suffering pleads with individual states and the international community to adopt attitudes of reciprocal acceptance, overcoming fears and avoiding forms of discrimination, and to make provisions for concrete solidarity also through appropriate structures for hospitality and resettlement programs. All this entails mutual help between the suffering regions and those which, already for years, have accepted a large number of fleeing people, as well as a greater sharing of responsibilities among States.

“Christian communities are to pay special attention to migrant workers and their families by accompanying them with prayer, solidarity and Christian charity, by enhancing what is reciprocally enriching, as well as by fostering new political, economic and social planning that promotes respect for the dignity of every human person, the safeguarding of the family, access to dignified housing, to work and to welfare.”

He (2012) elaborated,

“Faith and hope are inseparable in the hearts of many migrants, who deeply desire a better life and not infrequently try to leave behind the ‘hopelessness’ of an unpromising future. During their journey, many of them are sustained by the deep trust that God never abandons his children; this certainty makes the pain of their uprooting and separation more tolerable and even gives them the hope of eventually returning to their country of origin. Faith and hope are often among the possessions which emigrants carry with them, knowing that with them, ‘we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey’ (Spe Salvi, 1).

“It is true that the experience of migration often begins in fear, especially when persecutions and violence are its cause, and in the trauma of having to leave behind family and possessions which had in some way ensured survival. But suffering, great losses and at times a sense of disorientation before an uncertain future do not destroy the dream of being able to build, with hope and courage, a new life in a new country. Indeed, migrants trust that they will encounter acceptance, solidarity and help, that they will meet people who sympathize with the distress and tragedy experienced by others, recognize the values and resources the latter have to offer, and are open to sharing humanly and materially with the needy and disadvantaged. It is important to realize that ‘the reality of human solidarity, which is a benefit for us, also imposes a duty’ (Caritas in Veritate, 43). Migrants and refugees can experience, along with difficulties, new, welcoming relationships which enable them to enrich their new countries with their professional skills, their social and cultural heritage and, not infrequently, their witness of faith.”

Pope Benedict XVI (2013) continued, “While it is true that migrations often reveal failures and shortcomings on the part of States and the international community, they also point to the aspiration of humanity to enjoy a unity marked by respect for differences, by attitudes of acceptance and hospitality which enable an equitable sharing of the world’s goods, and by the protection and the advancement of the dignity and centrality of each human being.” The Pope (2014) explained that:

“In an age of such vast movements of migration, large numbers of people are leaving their homelands, with a suitcase full of fears and desires, to undertake a hopeful and dangerous trip in search of more humane living conditions. Often, however, such migration gives rise to suspicion and hostility, even in ecclesial communities, prior to any knowledge of the migrants’ lives or their stories of persecution and destitution. In such cases, suspicion and prejudice conflict with the biblical commandment of welcoming with respect and solidarity the stranger in need.

“Solidarity with migrants and refugees must be accompanied by the courage and creativity necessary to develop, on a worldwide level, a more just and equitable financial and economic order, as well as an increasing commitment to peace, the indispensable condition for all authentic progress.”

Pope Francis on migrants and refugees. The current Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, in an hermeneutic of continuity with his predecessors, has been no less forthright about the need for Christians and Catholics to open their hearts to the brethren — baptized or non-baptized — who are migrants or refugees, while maintaining an eye on migration as the sign of these times.

Specifically, he (2013b) said,

“It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits . . . the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others. Migrants present a particular challenge . . I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis. How beautiful are those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favor the recognition of others!”

He (2013c) continued,

“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more. The sheer number of people migrating from one continent to another, or shifting places within their own countries and geographical areas, is striking. Contemporary movements of migration represent the largest movement of individuals, if not of peoples, in history.

“We cannot remain silent about the scandal of poverty in its various forms. Violence, exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, restrictive approaches to fundamental freedoms, whether of individuals or of groups: these are some of the chief elements of poverty which need to be overcome. Often these are precisely the elements which mark migratory movements, thus linking migration to poverty. Fleeing from situations of extreme poverty or persecution in the hope of a better future, or simply to save their own lives, millions of persons choose to migrate. Despite their hopes and expectations, they often encounter mistrust, rejection and exclusion, to say nothing of tragedies and disasters which offend their human dignity . . . Working together for a better world requires that countries help one another, in a spirit of willingness and trust, without raising insurmountable barriers.

“I would point to yet another element in building a better world, namely, the elimination of prejudices and presuppositions in the approach to migration. Not infrequently, the arrival of migrants, displaced persons, asylum-seekers and refugees gives rise to suspicion and hostility. There is a fear that society will become less secure, that identity and culture will be lost, that competition for jobs will become stiffer and even that criminal activity will increase . . . A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization — all typical of a throwaway culture — towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”

Pope Francis (2015) added, “God’s fatherly care extends to everyone, like the care of a shepherd for his flock, but it is particularly concerned for the needs of the sheep who are wounded, weary or ill.” He continued with plainspokenness and forcefulness:

“Refugees and people fleeing from their homes challenge individuals and communities, and their traditional ways of life; at times they upset the cultural and social horizons which they encounter. Increasingly, the victims of violence and poverty, leaving their homelands, are exploited by human traffickers during their journey towards the dream of a better future. If they survive the abuses and hardships of the journey, they then have to face latent suspicions and fear. In the end, they frequently encounter a lack of clear and practical policies regulating the acceptance of migrants and providing for short or long term programs of integration respectful of the rights and duties of all.

“Indifference and silence lead to complicity whenever we stand by as people are dying of suffocation, starvation, violence, and shipwreck. Large or small in scale, these are always tragedies, even when a single human life is lost . . . Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, exploitation and the unjust distribution of the planet’s resources which are meant to be equitably shared by all. Don’t we all want a better, more decent and prosperous life to share with our loved ones?

“How can we ensure that integration will become mutual enrichment, open up positive perspectives to communities, and prevent the danger of discrimination, racism, extreme nationalism or xenophobia? . . . Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open our doors to God, and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself . . . the voice of Jesus Christ [states] ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ (Rev 3:20). Yet there continue to be debates about the conditions and limits to be set for the reception of migrants.

“Each of us is responsible for his or her neighbor: we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they live. Concern for fostering good relationships with others and the ability to overcome prejudice and fear are essential ingredients for promoting the culture of encounter, in which we are not only prepared to give, but also to receive from others. Hospitality, in fact, grows from both giving and receiving. It is important to view migrants not only on the basis of their status as regular or irregular, but above all as people whose dignity is to be protected and who are capable of contributing to progress and the general welfare . . . Migrations cannot be reduced merely to their political and legislative aspects, their economic implications and the concrete coexistence of various cultures in one territory. All these complement the defense and promotion of the human person, the culture of encounter, and the unity of peoples, where the Gospel of mercy inspires and encourages ways of renewing and transforming the whole of humanity.”

The Pope (2016) elaborated,

“Migration today is not a phenomenon limited to some areas of the planet. It affects all continents and is growing into a tragic situation of global proportions. Not only does this concern those looking for dignified work or better living conditions, but also men and women, the elderly and children, who are forced to leave their homes in the hope of finding safety, peace and security. Children are the first among those to pay the heavy toll of migration, almost always caused by violence, poverty, environmental conditions, as well as the negative aspects of globalization.

“Among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group, because as they face the life ahead of them, they are invisible and voiceless: their precarious situation deprives them of documentation, hiding them from the world’s eyes; the absence of adults to accompany them prevents their voices from being raised and heard. In this way, migrant children easily end up at the lowest levels of human degradation, where illegality and violence destroy the future of too many innocents, while the network of child abuse is difficult to break up . . . the phenomenon of migration is not unrelated to salvation history, but rather a part of that history. One of God’s commandments is connected to it: ‘You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Ex 22:21); ‘Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’ (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion. While appreciating the issues, and often the suffering and tragedy of migration, as too the difficulties connected with the demands of offering a dignified welcome to these persons, the Church nevertheless encourages us to recognize God’s plan. She invites us to do this precisely amidst this phenomenon, with the certainty that no one is a stranger in the Christian community, which embraces ‘every nation, tribe, people and tongue’ (Rev 7:9). Each person is precious; persons are more important than things, and the worth of an institution is measured by the way it treats the life and dignity of human beings, particularly when they are vulnerable, as in the case of child migrants.”

In a blistering and impassioned speech given for the World Meeting of Popular Movements in February, Pope Francis (2017a) declared with great frankness that:

“The grave danger is to disown our neighbors. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realizing it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, the dehumanization. But here we also find an opportunity: that the light of the love of neighbor may illuminate the Earth with its stunning brightness like a lightning bolt in the dark; that it may wake us up and let true humanity burst through with authentic resistance, resilience and persistence.

“The question that the lawyer asked Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (10:25–37) echoes in our ears today: ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Who is that other whom we are to love as we love ourselves? Maybe the questioner expects a comfortable response, in order to carry on with his life: ‘My relatives? My compatriots? My co-religionists?’ Maybe he wants Jesus to excuse us from the obligation of loving pagans or foreigners who at that time were considered unclean. This man wants a clear rule that allows him to classify others as neighbor and non-neighbor, as those who can become neighbors and those who cannot become neighbors.

“Jesus responds with a parable which features two figures belonging to the elite of the day and a third figure, considered a foreigner, a pagan and unclean: the Samaritan. On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the priest and the Levite come upon a dying man, whom robbers have attacked, stripped, and abandoned. In such situations, the Law of the Lord imposes the duty to offer assistance, but both pass by without stopping. They were in a hurry. However, unlike these elite figures, the Samaritan stopped. Why him? As a Samaritan, he was looked down upon, no one would have counted on him, and in any case, he would have had his own commitments and things to do — yet when he saw the injured man, he did not pass by like the other two who were linked to the Temple, but ‘he saw him and had compassion on him’ (v. 33). The Samaritan acts with true mercy: he binds up the man’s wounds, transports him to an inn, personally takes care of him, and provides for his upkeep. All this teaches us that compassion, love, is not a vague sentiment, but rather means taking care of the other to the point of personally paying for him. It means committing oneself to take all the necessary steps, so as to draw near to the other, to the point of identifying with him: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is the Lord’s Commandment.

“Jesus teaches us a different path. Do not classify others, in order to see who is a neighbor and who is not. You can become neighbor to whomever you meet in need, and you will do so if you have compassion in your heart. That is to say, if you have that capacity to suffer with someone else. You must become a Samaritan. And then also become like the innkeeper at the end of the parable to whom the Samaritan entrusts the person who is suffering. Who is this innkeeper? It is the Church, the Christian community, people of compassion and solidarity, social organizations. It is us, it is you, to whom the Lord Jesus daily entrusts those who are afflicted in body and spirit, so that we can continue pouring out all of his immeasurable mercy and salvation upon them. Here are the roots of the authentic humanity that resists the dehumanization that wears the livery of indifference, hypocrisy, or intolerance.

“No people is criminal and no religion is terrorist. Christian terrorism does not exist, Jewish terrorism does not exist, and Muslim terrorism does not exist. They do not exist. No people is criminal or drug-trafficking or violent . . . There are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions — and with intolerant generalizations, they become stronger because they feed on hate and xenophobia. By confronting terror with love, we work for peace. I ask you for meekness and resolve to defend these principles. I ask you not to barter them lightly or apply them superficially. Like Saint Francis of Assisi, let us give everything of ourselves: where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, let us sow pardon; where there is discord, let us sow unity; where there is error, let us sow truth.”

The Vicar of Christ (2017b) elaborated that the moral and social obligations are “to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate” migrants and refugees. Pope Francis continued,

“Protecting is not enough. What is required is the promotion of an integral human development of migrants, exiles and refugees. This ‘takes place by attending to the inestimable goods of justice, peace, and the care of creation’ (Apostolic Letter Humanam Progressionem, 17 August 2016). Development, according to the social doctrine of the Church, is an undeniable right of every human being. As such, it must be guaranteed by ensuring the necessary conditions for its exercise, both in the individual and social context, providing fair access to fundamental goods for all people and offering the possibility of choice and growth.

“[There is] a duty of justice. We can no longer sustain unacceptable economic inequality, which prevents us from applying the principle of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. We are all called to undertake processes of apportionment which are respectful, responsible and inspired by the precepts of distributive justice. ‘We need, then, to find ways by which all may benefit from the fruits of the earth, not only to avoid the widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs, but above all because it is a question of justice, equality and respect for every human being’ (Message for the World Day of Peace, 8 December 2013, 9). One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources. We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs . . . This joint responsibility must be interpreted in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, ‘which grants freedom to develop the capabilities present at every level of society, while also demanding a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power’ (Laudato Si’, 196). Ensuring justice means also reconciling history with our present globalized situation, without perpetuating mindsets which exploit people and places, a consequence of the most cynical use of the market in order to increase the wellbeing of the few . . . For all this there must be redress.

“There is a duty of civility. Our commitment to migrants, exiles and refugees is an application of those principles and values of welcome and fraternity that constitute a common patrimony of humanity and wisdom which we draw from . . . Today more than ever, it is necessary to affirm the centrality of the human person, without allowing immediate and ancillary circumstances, or even the necessary fulfilment of bureaucratic and administrative requirements, to obscure this essential dignity . . . From the duty of civility is also regained the value of fraternity, which is founded on the innate relational constitution of the human person: ‘A lively awareness of our relatedness helps us to look upon and to treat each person as a true sister or brother; without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace’ (Message for the World Day of Peace, 8 December 2013, 1). Fraternity is the most civil way of relating with the reality of another person, which does not threaten us, but engages, reaffirms and enriches our individual identity (cf. Benedict XVI, Address to Participants in an Interacademic Conference on “The Changing Identity of the Individual”, 28 January 2008).

“There is a duty of solidarity. In the face of tragedies which take the lives of so many migrants and refugees — conflicts, persecutions, forms of abuse, violence, death — expressions of empathy and compassion cannot help but spontaneously well-up. ‘Where is your brother?’ (Gen 4:9): this question which God asks of man since his origins, involves us, especially today with regard to our brothers and sisters who are migrating: ‘This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us’ (Homily at the “Arena” Sports Camp, Salina Quarter, Lampedusa, 8 July 2013). Solidarity is born precisely from the capacity to understand the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and to take responsibility for these needs. Upon this, in short, is based the sacred value of hospitality, present in religious traditions. For us Christians, hospitality offered to the weary traveler is offered to Jesus Christ himself, through the newcomer: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35). The duty of solidarity is to counter the throwaway culture and give greater attention to those who are weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. Thus a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone” (ibid.).

In the meantime, on March 22, in a pastoral reflection titled Living as a People of God in Unsettled Times, the Administrative Committee of the USCCB (2017b) called for all Catholics in America to do what they could “to accompany migrants and refugees who seek a better life in the US.” The bishops declared,

“Behind every policy is the story of a person in search of a better life. They may be an immigrant or refugee family sacrificing so that their children might have a brighter future. As shepherds of a pilgrim Church, we will not tire in saying to families who have the courage to set out from their despair onto the road of hope: ‘We are with you.’ They may also be a family seeking security from an increased threat of extremist violence. It is necessary to safeguard the United States in a manner that does not cause us to lose our humanity.

“Intense debate is essential to healthy democracy, but the rhetoric of fear does not serve us well. When we look at one another do we see with the heart of Jesus? Within our diverse backgrounds are found common dreams for our children. Hope in the next generation is how the nation will realize its founding motto, ‘out of many, one.’ In doing so, we will also realize God’s hope for all His children: that we would see each other as valued sisters and brothers regardless of race, religion or national origin.

“How might we, as Catholics and in our own small way, bring our words of solidarity for migrants and refugees to life?

  1. Prayfor an end to the root causes of violent hatred that force mothers and fathers to flee the only home they may have known in search of economic and physical security for their children;
  2. Meetwith members of your parish who are newcomers, listen to their story and share your own. Hundreds of Catholic parishes across the country have programs for immigrants and refugees both to comfort them and to help them know their rights. It is also important to reach out in loving dialogue to those who may disagree with us. The more we come to understand each other’s concerns, the better we can serve one another. Together, we are one body in Christ;
  3. Call, write, or visit your elected representative and ask them to fix our broken immigration system in a way that safeguards both our security and our humanity through a generous opportunity for legal immigration.

“As Pope Francis said, ‘To migrate is the expression of that inherent desire for the happiness proper to every human being, a happiness that is to be sought and pursued. For us Christians, all human life is an itinerant journey towards our heavenly homeland’” (ibid.).

Migrants and Refugees in Sacred Scripture

Open the frontiers of states to His saving power, open the economic systems and the political systems, the vast realms of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid (Saint John Paul II).[5]

Here are some of the more well-known excerpts from Sacred Scripture, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament, in which it is manifested how God desires people to deal with their brethren who are migrants and refugees:

  1. “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:33–34);
  2. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt 10:18–19);
  3. “Cursed be anyone who deprives the resident alien, the orphan or the widow of justice!” (Dt 27:19);
  4. “There will be one law, for the native and for the alien residing among you . . . You shall have but one rule, for alien and native-born alike” (Ex 12:49; Lv 24:22);
  5. “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:20);
  6. “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God” (Lv 19:33–34);
  7. “You shall have the same law for the resident alien as for the native of the land” (Nb 9:14; 15:15–16).
  8. “Only if you no longer oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow after other gods to your own harm, only then will I let you continue to dwell in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors long ago and forever” (Jer 7:6–7);
  9. “I will draw near to you for judgment and I will be swift to bear witness against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, those who deprive a laborer of wages, oppress a widow or an orphan, or turn aside a resident alien without fearing me, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3:5);
  10. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . . Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me’” (Mt 25:35, 41–43);
  11. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hb 13:1).

None of the above tenets have ever been revoked. Thus, they hold true for our current times.

[1] In Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004).

[2] In Dignitatis Humanae (1965b).

[3] This includes the earth itself.

[4] In Message for World Day Migration (1995a).

[5] In Homily (1978).


Originally published at catholicsocialdoctrine.us on July 16, 2017.