by Martin Newell
London Catholic Worker
Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, wanted Catholics to “blow the dynamite of Catholic Social Teaching”, instead of “putting it in a hermetically sealed container and sitting on the lid”.
Love the Stranger is a forthright, warm and strong new teaching document published by the Catholic Bishops in England and Wales published in February this year, in the middle of the debate about the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’. Read in our current context, it is a clear challenge to attitudes that seem to be ones of widespread hostility to migrants and refugees in this country right now, and to the policies of the UK government as reflected in the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’, which has since been passed by parliament. The Bishops have attempted to expose some of that well-hidden dynamite to the air, so as to help open some eyes and clear away some spiritual blindness.
“Love the Stranger” is a striking title. It is not the positive, practical but maybe a bit pragmatic “Welcome the Stranger”. But the warm, deeply felt, from the heart, “love” the Stranger. It is also a reference to texts from Deuteronomy and Leviticus
“Leviticus 19: 33-34 says “When an alien – or stranger – lives with you in your land, do not mistreat them. The alien – or stranger – living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. ”
This relates to the first and most basic of the 24 Principles the Bishops list “to guide our response to refugees and migrants”. I’m not going to go through all 24 principles in the document, but I will pick out some that seem to me to be of particular interest.
That first principle is simply that our response to migrants and refugees is rooted in the innate worth of each human person. That is, it is rooted in the basic dignity and respect that is due each and every person, no matter what. So this applies to everyone. We are all made in the image of God. We are all sisters and brothers in the one family of God. We are all children of the one God, under the one sky. We are not different to, or separate from, people who happen to have been born and live elsewhere.
The Bishops say that everything else in their document, is built on this principle. Which they also say is based on Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” . According to the Bishops, Fratelli Tutti “establishes the universal context which should underpin our response to migrants and refugees.” Which is that “it expresses the need to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.” The Bishops state that Pope Francis’s reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan is a call for us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbour, but rather to actively decide to become neighbours to all.
They say that this is a call to recognize the rights of all people, “even” those born beyond our own borders.
The second principle of the Bishops document recognises the long established principle of Catholic Social Teaching of the “universal destination of goods”. Specifically, this implies that “We in richer nations should not exclude others from the enjoyment of the riches available to us”, just because of where they were born.
The fourth principle importantly states that they “recognise the right of all people to flourish in their homeland”. They go on to state lots of things that flow from that: that the wealthy nations have a responsibility to promote the conditions in which people can “flourish in the homelands”: by, for example, fair trading relationships: by preventing companies and others based in our countries from engaging in corrupt practices and promoting the growth of corruption: by providing aid, and by tackling the climate emergency.
The other side of the coin from “the right of all people to flourish in their homeland” is the “right to migrate”, which is Principle 7. This right applies to not only by those fleeing threats to their safety, but also by those seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families. What the government likes to call “economic migrants”. This bears repeating: the Bishops say that economic migrants have a right to migrate, in order to build a better life for themselves and their families.
The Bishops do say, as we might expect Bishops to say, in Principle 8, that they “recognise that states have a right to control their borders”. However, they also say that “such measures cannot be based on economic factors alone”, nor can they only be based on what their own citizens want, or think is good for them. States also have “obligations to the wider world” – to people outside their boundaries. In fact, in my understanding, the principle from Catholic Social Teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor” also implies that border control policies have to consider the needs of the poorest first, rather than the privileges of those within our borders, in the case of the UK and similar wealthy countries.
Principle 9 of the document is “We encourage the extension of safe routes such as resettlement programmes, visa schemes and humanitarian corridors, so that people can exercise their right to migrate in a dignified and humane manner”. CSAN, the Catholic Social Action Network, an agency of the Bishops Conference, says perhaps more clearly, that “the Illegal Migration Bill… amounts to an asylum ban”.
Principle 13 states, “We call for the sanctity of life to be prioritised in all border security arrangements and reject measures that place people in danger or deny reasonable assistance to those in need”. This is in direct contradiction of the governments stated desire to “stop the small boats”, apparently at any price. It also contradicts any arrest or prosecution of those working to rescue people in flimsy boats trying to cross the Mediterranean or the English Channel or anywhere else.
Principle 14 states, “We call upon the government to avoid the use of immigration detention and arbitrary expulsion”. Again, this directly contradicts the government desire to deport people to Rwanda for not arriving ‘legally’. This is a form of arbitrary expulsion.
Principle 15. says “We urge the fulfilment of obligations under international frameworks protecting migrants and refugees, such as the Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”. So, if there is any talk of withdrawing from such things as the European Convention on Human Rights, or other international agreements such as in these, we know where the Bishops stand.
This principle is in accordance with the statement in Fratelli Tutti that international law is currently the best guide to morality in international relations, and in the behaviour of states. It is worth noting the impact that would have, in the light of, for example, the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, The Paris – and other – climate agreements – and the possibility of conducting wars.
Principle 18 states “We recognise that trafficking and slavery are exacerbated by a lack of accessible alternatives for migration or seeking sanctuary – efforts to tackle trafficking and slavery must therefore go beyond more active law enforcement; we also need to support people to flourish in their homelands, establish more safe routes for migrants and refugees, and work to eliminate the demand for those services that slave labour continues to meet”.
Principle 20 states “We support the simplification of routes to citizenship and opportunities for people to regularise their immigration status.” This is in direct opposition to what has happened in this country over the years. Having 25 years direct personal experience of the lives of asylum seekers and refugees, it is clear to me how successive governments have made it more and more difficult, lengthy, complicated and expensive for the people we know to find their way from an initial granting of ‘leave to remain’ to finally achieving Citizenship status.
And finally, Principle 23 states “We encourage policies that give migrants and refugees the right to work, to facilitate their contribution to the common good of our society”. I’m sure all our experience is that the vast majority of people want to work and contribute to society. And that includes those who have travelled here fleeing persecution, poverty or war. They want to work, to support themselves and their families, and contribute to whichever country they live in. Not least because they come from countries where it is necessary to work simply to survive, even at the most basic level.
Many of us would want to go beyond what our Catholic Bishops have said here. But even if we do not, we have much to say to our government, our politicians, our churches, our parishes, our neighbours, our world. Let us give thanks for that today, as we continue to pray for the victims, the crucified of our world, and for conversion of the head, and of the heart, of our nation, and the opening of our eyes.
Read the document here: Love the Stranger – Catholic Bishops’ Conference (cbcew.org.uk)
From the U.S. Catholic bishops: Immigration | USCCB
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.