On his first trip outside of Rome, in 2013, Pope Francis traveled to Lampedusa, the island off the coast of southern Italy where African migrants and refugees, many of them Muslims, first enter Europe. There the pope evoked a central theme within the Judeo-Christian story, the practice of hospitality and welcoming God in the presence of strangers (Heb 13:2). Speaking as a child of Italian immigrants to Argentina, the pope named and rejected one of the salient experiences of our times: the globalization of human indifference. He called upon nations to practice hospitality toward refugees and immigrants, as he pointed to the tragedy of human bodies lost at sea “in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death.”
In the United States, the practice of welcoming “strangers” does not simply offer Catholics a way to keep Lady Liberty’s promise to accept “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Catholics also welcome these persons as a fundamental expression of Christian faith. As the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples stated in 2004 (“Erga migrantes caritas Christi”), “In migrants the Church has always contemplated the image of Christ who said, ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’” (Mt 25:35). In refugees and immigrants, Catholics encounter the dislocated and displaced body of Jesus Christ.
But recent executive orders and policy changes at the federal level with respect to refugees and immigrants, including this week’s new ban on migrants from several predominantly Muslim nations, have torn thousands of families apart. In particular, President Donald J. Trump’s plans to increase deportations will deepen the human suffering of undocumented persons whose primary reason for coming to this country was mere human survival. For Catholics, the issue cannot just be about resisting, repealing and replacing these unjust immigration approaches with just, humane and comprehensive immigration reform. The signs of the times also call for a shift from cultural wars to cultural encounters. Far too many Catholics have signaled approval or remained silent when they hear others undermine the dignity and rights of persons, especially with respect to refugees and immigrants. These conversations construct “walls” that keep people from encountering one another. The human cost of these ideological walls far outweighs the material cost for the concrete wall the president wants to build with our southern neighbor—and no one should be willing to pay the toll of either. Instead, we must build bridges with our neighbors. The bridge-building principle that Catholic tradition offers is not an “alternative fact” open to interpretation. Rather, it represents the cornerstone of Christian belief and practice: The body of Christ knows and has no borders.
Americans critical of this fundamental Catholic teaching, including some Catholic leaders and politicians, may argue that securing the U.S. border should take precedence over issues related to faith and the security of the body of Christ. For American Catholics who share this perspective, the words of John Courtney Murray, S.J., in We Hold These Truths are worth considering: “The Body of Christ is really a-building here in time. And its growth is that of a Body, not simply a soul. There must be no Platonism, which would make man only a soul. The res sacra which grace would achieve is likewise a res humana in the full sense.”
We build bridges with our neighbors because this grace-filled way of relating to others is what will ultimately ensure the greatness of our nation. During this time of growing human indifference in our country and the building of ideological and concrete walls, the words of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, issued in his 2008 speech at Berlin, remain ever so pressing: “The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”