When hundreds of Catholic bishops met last month in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from parents at the border loomed large over the proceedings. The Catholic hierarchy has consistently denounced Donald Trump’s nativist policies, and the president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, specifically framed immigration as a “pro-life” issue.
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” DiNardo said. One bishop even went so far as to suggest “canonical penalties,” which could include denial of communion for Catholics involved in implementing immigration policies the bishops’ conference calls “immoral.” While that proposal never gained traction, the fact that it was even raised in connection with an issue other than how to address pro-choice Catholic politicians is significant.
A few months before the bishops’ meeting, Pope Francis described the lives of migrants as “equally sacred” as the lives of the unborn in the womb. The pope didn’t stop there. Some Catholics, he said, view immigration as a “lesser issue” compared to “bioethical concerns” such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia. “That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable,” Francis said, “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.” That Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, and other Catholic Republicans—along with a network of well-funded activist religious organizations and media on the right—have spent the better part of the last fifteen years making the case for exactly the kind of false distinctions criticized by Pope Francis underscores how the political narrative around “life issues” has started to change in recent years.
While that shift began before the presidential election, the Trump administration’s unique cruelty, and crude instinct for demagoguery and dehumanization, serves as a perfect counterpoint to traditional Catholic social teaching about human life. “There are no single-issue saints,” Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez quipped at a recent conference on polarization at Georgetown University, making clear that respect for life can’t be reduced to opposing abortion. Gomez leads the largest and most diverse Roman Catholic archdiocese in the country. The archbishop is no fire-breathing liberal. In the realm of church politics, he’s a right-leaning moderate, comfortable at conservative gatherings with wealthy donors, a member of Opus Dei, and a vocal presence at anti-abortion events. Gomez’s challenges to the Trump administration’s immigration policies—“What is the public-policy purpose that is served by taking away some little girl’s dad?” he’s asked—can’t simply be dismissed by the right as exasperation in the Catholic Worker wing of the church.
For years, progressive people of faith have fumed over what they see as hypocrisy among pro-life activists and self-professed family-values politicians who rail against abortion and same-sex marriage yet won’t talk about how poverty, income inequality, and lack of quality health care threaten life and destabilize families. But those critiques were largely marginalized as conservative Catholic and evangelical leaders seized the media and political narratives. Pope Francis changes that dynamic most potently with the gravitas of his office, and a clarity of message that resonates in the contemporary media culture. He also speaks from the very heart of the church’s centuries-old teachings. Critics can challenge the pope, and many Catholic conservatives have done so with increasing contempt, but when you’re taking swipes at him for his commitment to orthodoxy, the impoverishment of your position is plain.