.- Underlying an effort by U.S. bishops to coordinate messages on the need for comprehensive immigration reform is a profound sense of pastoral care, said an official at the bishops’ conference.
“Sometimes (the bishops) are criticized that they're encouraging lawbreaking, but the fact is, these folks are here, and their families are getting separated, and what the bishops are trying to do is change the law so they can help them,” said Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' migration policy and public affairs office.
“It's not only a public policy of national interest – for the Church, it's a pastoral policy as well,” he told CNA Aug. 28. “It's a way of trying to help…ensure that their families are kept together.”
The U.S. Senate has passed a bipartisan-backed bill for comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country, as well as a new worker visa program and border security enhancements.
The plan of numerous dioceses to coordinate their messages on immigration comes as the Republican-controlled House returns to Washington and will consider the Senate bill, or their own, more piecemeal approaches to immigration reform.
House GOP leaders have indicated they are unlikely to support the Senate's bill, and may focus on border security measures ahead of the legalization of undocumented migrants.
Appleby said that the bishop conference's suggestion of an early September push – centered on Sunday Masses on Sept. 8 – was for “practical reasons” more than anything else, as Congress will just be returning to Washington and “more attention would be paid to the issue” so that coordinated efforts might then “have the biggest impact.”
In particular, the bishops' conference is hoping to encourage Catholics, having let their faith inform their decisions, to contact their Congressmen in support of comprehensive immigration reform.
Appleby described a “disconnect between the polling – which has overwhelming support among Catholics for a comprehensive bill with a path to citizenship – and action.”
“We've had a hard time transitioning from 'I support the bishops on this issue,' to people picking up the phone, sending an email, writing a letter, being active on it…With this push we're trying to change that a bit, we'll hopefully get more Catholics to speak up, and say, 'we want this done.'”
The dioceses of Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, San Antonio, Saint Louis, and Saint Paul and Minneapolis have all agreed to encourage their faithful to speak up about immigration reform in coming weeks. Several more bishops and dioceses are considering how to participate in the push.
“It's coming in a lot of different forms,” Appleby said, with some dioceses holding Masses or forums, or encouraging pastors to address immigration in their homilies, or passing out bulletin inserts.
He explained that it is important for Catholics to read Church documents, and the writings and homilies of bishops on the issues. While “we can sit here and have an argument over whether something is a prudential judgment…versus a doctrinal issue,” he said, it is important to remember that a bishop’s teaching, even on matters of prudential judgment, “calls for careful consideration by Catholics.”
To disregard – refusing to even consider – the bishops' position on immigration reform because it is a matter of prudential judgment is a “disconnect,” Appleby explained.
“Even under a prudential judgment analysis, someone is required to at least consider the arguments being put forth by the Church, to take them into consideration…there is a responsibility to at least consider what the Church is saying, and then incorporate it into their position to the degree that they can.”
He added that the tendency of Catholics in America to put their party affiliation, be it Republican or Democrat, ahead of their faith, means that “there's a lot of education to be done.”
Catholics need to be reminded, he said, that religious or faith interests are not incompatible with political interests.
The bishops' concern about immigration reform, Appleby said, is part of their duty in caring for the people “who are in their parishes” and social service programs.
Kim Daniels, spokesperson for the U.S. bishops' conference president, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, echoed that statement.
“We support immigration reform as a response to Pope Francis' call to resist indifference and to regain a sense of 'fraternal responsibility' regarding the suffering of immigrants,” she told CNA Aug. 27.
“Many Catholics support immigration reform as a response to the serious humanitarian problems caused by our current broken system. Our parishes and social service ministries encounter these problems every day, seeing families divided, workers exploited, and migrants dying in the desert.”
The fundamental principles of “solidarity, human dignity, and family unity,” she said, “transcend party politics.”
“At this important moment Catholics can help bridge partisan differences, bringing attention to the human face of immigration reform, and answering our faith's call to serve those most in need.”
While the bishops' conference itself does not have a “mandate of teaching,” individual bishops do exercise the teaching authority of the Magisterium, and many U.S. bishops have been teaching about the importance of comprehensive immigration reform in this country.
In a July 21 homily, Archbishop José Gomez taught that “God comes to us in the person of the stranger,” that hospitality is a “sacred duty,” and that immigration is “not only a matter of politics,” but is “a matter of our relationship with God.”
Archbishop Gomez has been joined in his support of comprehensive immigration reform by numerous bishops, including Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami.