Pope Francis greets a group of young migrants from Florence during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 11. The sign is Italian says “No one is a foreigner.” (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The gospel reading for Sunday, October 30, 2016 was about a tax collector moved by  Jesus to give half of his possessions to the poor. But in place of a homily on that reading, churchgoers in many of the one hundred and thirty three parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre on New York’s Long Island heard a letter from their bishop that, by any reasonable reading, said they had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump for president when they went to the polls nine days later.

Bishop William Murphy, since retired, didn’t use Trump’s name, of course, nor did he name any political party. He denies he was endorsing a candidate. But he endorsed an issue that Trump campaigned on: “above all and over all, the number one issue more fundamental and crucial than any other is abortion—that is the direct taking of innocent life, which is financed by government funds.” He added that “support of abortion…is reason sufficient unto itself to disqualify any and every such candidate from receiving our vote,” a statement he repeated for emphasis.

The bishop thus subordinated many other concerns of Catholic social teaching—and signaled to Catholic voters in the two suburban counties on Long Island to do the same. (Murphy was not available for comment in a phone call to his residence.) It was no small matter, given that Catholics are a majority within the diocese’s borders, that polling shows nearly nine in ten of them say religion is “very important” in their lives, and that many are the sort of moderate suburban voters who swing close elections in New York state.

In his apostolic exhortation Rejoice and be glad, Pope Francis warns against elevating any single social issue, including abortion, above all others. He includes this in a passage that assails two “ideologies striking at the heart of the Gospel.” The first is seen in those who elevate the quest for social justice over faith, over openness to grace. The second is found in those who see social engagement as “superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” he wrote. “Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.” He continues:

Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him?

The document reflects the life experience of a pope who came of age in the political cauldron of 1970s Argentina. Appointed as the Jesuit superior at age thirty-six, he was caught between conflicting ideologies as activist, leftist priests battled the right-wing military dictatorship’s reign of terror. His early experience with “ideologies,” with one-eyed activism, and with politicians’ murderous abuse of power echoes in his thoughts on holiness. He wants to prevent the faith from being shaped to suit political ideology. His solution is to call for an Ignatian combination of contemplation and holistic social engagement, rooted in what he sometimes refers to as the transcendent “centrality of the human person,” a phrase that Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II often used.

If American Catholics took Francis’s vision of holiness seriously, American politics would be transformed.

There’s been a defensive reaction from some pro-life activists, but there shouldn’t be; Francis is essentially telling those who share his concern about immigrants and the poor that they need also to be part of the church’s passionate “defense of the innocent unborn.” He’s consistent with the “culture of life” that John Paul II preached. If American Catholics took Francis’s vision of holiness seriously, American politics would be transformed.

Francis’s approach differs stylistically from his predecessors’ but it is based on a similar anthropological understanding of what it means to be human. It’s also timely. In using immigration as his example, he is highlighting an issue at the heart of current ideological-political divisions in many Western countries, including Italy and the United States. He’s taken the same humanistic message that previous popes have focused on and re-stated it according to the signs of our times—a condemnation of politicians who trash the human dignity of immigrants to advance an authoritarian ideology. This is, and has been, part of the church’s defense of the dignity of all human life.

In the encyclical Centesimus annus, John Paul II similarly rooted Catholic social teaching in its salvific mission, in the call to holiness. “In this light, and only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else: the human rights of the individual, and in particular of the `working class,’ the family and education, the duties of the State, the ordering of national and international society, economic life, culture, war and peace, and respect for life from the moment of conception until death,” he wrote.

Elsewhere, in his encyclical Laborem exercens, on work, John Paul II portrayed immigration as a human right: "this right to migrate, which is incumbent on both countries of origin and countries of destination, supports the basic human freedom and the dignity of the person,” he wrote.

Francis and his predecessors did not endorse any particular legislative solution to immigration controversies, nor did they deny governments a right to control their borders. Rather, Francis is asking for open hearts, a prerequisite to open minds and good judgment.

“I think there’s a minority of Catholics that have said for a long time that immigrant and refugee issues are issues of prudential judgment,” Don Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, said in a phone interview. “That they’re issues on which Catholics of good faith can disagree. I think that what the Holy Father is pointing out is that they’re really kind of confining them to a second tier in the hierarchy of church teaching. He’s saying that’s not appropriate … that these are issues that implicate life.”  

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.