Prophetic, Priestly, & Kingly Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 21 March 2011

Deo volente, I will speak this afternoon at a panel sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic University of America about the Church’s role in immigration. The organizers of such events are well-intentioned and, contrary to what critics of the bishops’ conference think, often seek diverse voices.

They rarely hear them, however, because, except in pro-life discussions, social conservatives are typically token participants. And so avoid these events. It’s an uncomfortable and usually fruitless task, but someone has to do it.

I’ve written on immigration before, which is close to my daily life. My wife’s family, Catholic Slavs rounded up and taken to Nazi work camps, escaped and later immigrated – legally, and at considerable cost and trouble. She teaches in a Catholic school that is predominantly Hispanic, most of the families illegals.

Despite her experiences of being young in an alien culture and language, there’s a visceral reaction for her – and many other Americans – that it’s simply wrong to treat illegals lightly. And they believe that since the law has been broken, such immigrants are not “undocumented.” “Social justice” arguments cut the other way for them. How is it just to treat illegals like American citizens or legal immigrants or like people who have only transgressed some minor regulation, like a traffic violation? Or to give the children of illegal immigrants, blameless though they may be, full social benefits?    

All true, and at the same time, it’s clear that you cannot deport 10 or 20 million people. It’s never happened absent a Stalin or Mao. America is a nation of immigrants, and will never, despite the talk, go down that road. So we need to find a way – demanding, even somewhat harsh, forget “DREAM” acts – that will regularize those now here and deter others from breaking the law in the future.

The Church can help in the transition in three ways: prophetic, priestly, and kingly. I know it’s unusual to use Biblical categories rather than policy wonk approaches on public issues, but bear with me.


        We need to encourage citizenship and discourage illegality.

Prophetic: The Church is playing on its home field when it opposes un-Christian cultural elements. As Cardinal George has argued, all cultures have demonic and angelic aspects. About Hispanic immigration in particular – the real subject of immigration reform – the Church has to be careful, however, about being prophetic or countercultural, “be orator/ but with an accurate tongue,” as the poet Wallace Steven put it.

For instance, the Church has repeatedly warned us to “welcome the stranger among us.” But America already does, legally and in large numbers. Since 2000 we’ve averaged well over a million immigrants per year, illegal and not, and we’re annually granting permanent resident status to 1.25 million. Naturalization rates, according to Pew surveys, have risen sharply in recent decades. Hardly evidence of a xenophobic nation. So we should beware of the “prophet motive” and easy sermonizing about welcoming the stranger. Most Americans already agree, but don’t like being lectured about what they regard as an essentially legal issue.

Similarly, the Church should be wary of playing the race card. Is there anti-Hispanic prejudice in America? Of course. Is it a major factor in immigration controversies? Not really. The problem is mostly cultural; people dislike crime, disorder, exploiting the system, etc. by illegals. But the real tension involves the sheer numbers of new Hispanics. Ethnic tensions have appeared – and happily dissipated – in our past. But being prophetic about respecting people’s cultures should include recognizing that we have a culture, too. And Americans may justly feel threatened or disoriented by out-of-control challenges to a way of life.

Priestly: Which brings us to the priestly. Pastoral concern for all persons, something Catholics deeply understand, necessarily includes those already here. It’s telling that this even has to be said. No nation will go to Heaven or Hell. But there’s something sacred in historic human communities. We are bound by our laws, including rules about citizenship and crossing our borders. But we are also bound by a particular sense of belonging to one another. The Church has too long regarded nationality as a kind of disease, when in fact it’s a natural human thing to cluster around language and culture, and a real good, so long as we recognize that others are attached to their cultural forms. Prophets call the culture to account, but priests place a sacred canopy over it in ways helpful to national solidarity.

Kingly: Unlike some evangelicals, Catholics are a Church not a sect, i.e., Catholicism believes in engaging all of society. Being kingly, translated into modern idiom, means understanding the importance of the common good. And the keystone to the common good in a pluralistic society is the rule of law.

This may sound harsh to Church people who believe in the law of love, but love in a social framework is best served by the rule of law. Frankly, the Church is in a good position to teach Hispanic immigrants, who have often suffered under unjust systems, about a proper respect for and trust in institutions. Machine politics, unions, and Catholic parishes did that for earlier generations of immigrants. It’s a lesson worth retrieving. But to do it effectively, you have to value assimilation. And sadly, for good and bad reasons, that’s in some dispute now.

Since law is central to immigration questions, the Church needs to be shrewd in how it responds to legal developments. Cardinal Mahony – unwisely, I think – denounced Arizona’s immigration law as Nazism, for example, and called for civil disobedience – in other words, further breaking of the law. Popular in Los Angeles, perhaps, but the right move for a debatable question in Catholic social teaching? Abortions take human life, yet the hierarchy has not notably advocated widespread civil disobedience over that. Americans, Catholics and not, draw conclusions from such behavior.

Prophetic, priestly, kingly – demanding, but Christ never said it would be easy. And if Catholics don’t do it, who will?


Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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