Why Catholic bishops stay quiet about immigrants
When the Obama administration proposed to require nearly all employers, including religiously affiliated institutions, to offer health insurance plans that covered contraception, American bishops reacted as if the White House had declared war on Christmas.
Yet we’ve heard little from the bishops about the Trump administration policy on immigrants.
Even after the White House softened its policy to ensure that no religious institution would have to pay for the new health coverage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops assailed the compromise.
The bishops called the requirement a “grave moral concern” that constituted “needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions.” Thirteen dioceses joined major Catholic institutions in lawsuits to block the regulation.
In 2012, the bishops launched a “Fortnight for Freedom,” an annual two-week period of prayer and preaching that assailed the contraceptive mandate as a palpable threat to religious liberty.
The bishops’ website still brims with press releases, statements, testimony, action alerts, and prayer vigils tied to this one issue. (The fortnight was discontinued in 2018, replaced by a “religious freedom” week.)
Fast-forward to the Trump administration’s increasingly draconian policies concerning immigrants. Catholic moral teaching is pretty clear: The Gospels tell us to welcome the poor and needy, and to care for the strangers in our midst. Indeed, the conference of bishops runs programs to help refugees and immigrants, supported in part by federal funds.
When the administration barred immigrants from Muslim countries, ruled that the victims of domestic violence did not qualify for asylum, jeopardized the status of “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children) and separated families at the border, the bishops issued statements of opposition. But while a few
individual bishops and cardinals have spoken out more sharply, the conference of bishops’ rhetoric has been softer, expressing mostly “disappointment,” “concern” or sometimes “deep concern.”
Last June, when young children were torn from their mothers by border agents, the leader of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donahue, offered strong words: “[T]his is not who we are and it must end now.” But all the outrage the bishops could muster in their official statements was to call the government directive “contrary to our Catholic values” and “immoral.”
On July 2, as thousands of children remained separated from their parents even after the policy had been rescinded, a delegation of bishops visited a detention center for boys in Brownsville, Texas.
The bishops said that reunification was an “urgent” problem but stressed that the visit was pastoral. “I’m not on a visit to indict,” conference head Cardinal Daniel DiNardo told the Catholic News Service.
Why is there no “Fortnight for Justice” for immigrants?
Why isn’t a delegation of bishops in Tijuana right now, sounding the alarm on the growing humanitarian crisis, as the face-off between U.S. troops and largely nonviolent asylum seekers becomes more and more dangerous? Why haven’t the bishops done more to educate, inform and engage Catholics about the plight of immigrants?
In part, it is because of their own loss of moral authority. This year, church leaders’ reputations have been sullied as the sex abuse crisis tarred a number of dioceses and even reached the ranks of U.S. cardinals. Many American Catholics are calling on all bishops to resign. Indeed, the sex abuse scandal sidelined immigration during last month’s annual fall meeting of bishops.
Also, these bishops rose to power because they fell in line with the 1968 encyclical, “Humane Vitae,” which affirmed the church’s opposition to artificial birth control. The controversial decision split the U.S. church, silenced dissenters and made agreement with the birth control ban a “litmus test” for moving up in the church hierarchy. So this issue was personal to the men in charge.
And finally, there’s the political box the bishops created for themselves. In 2016, the bishops made a political calculation: They largely remained silent when presidential candidate Donald Trump demonized immigrants and promised to build a wall to keep them out, behavior that contradicted their own history of advocacy for immigrants.
After all, Trump also promised to nominate antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court and expand “religious liberty.” Perhaps they thought candidate Trump was kidding when he expressed, time and time again, his hostility to immigrants. The bishops’ silence likely influenced the results; 52 percent of Catholics voted for Trump.
Three days after the election, the chair of the bishops’ committee on migration felt it necessary to offer “migrant and refugee families ... our solidarity and continued accompaniment as you work for a better life.” The bishops pledged to “promote humane policies that protect refugee and immigrants’ inherent dignity, keep families together, and honor and respect the laws of this nation.”
The bishops got the Supreme Court of their dreams, and a new Trump rule that essentially ends that vexing contraceptive mandate in Obamacare.
They now know that Trump intends to keep all his pledges. Are the bishops troubled enough by the consequences?