Bishops' supporter sees misguided zeal in anti-immigrant push

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer escorting a man in handcuffs
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer escorting a man in handcuffs

.- A dispute between two Catholic authors on immigration is revealing deep divides within the U.S. Church. An advocate of the U.S. bishops' position says that anti-immigrant attitudes will weaken and divide both the Church and the pro-life movement.

“The strongest pro-life witness is love,” said Jack Smith, editor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph's Catholic Key newspaper. “Those who show their love to women in crisis pregnancies when no one else does are the people who change hearts and save lives. It certainly doesn't augment that witness of love to have the same people turn ugly on immigrants,” he told CNA on May 16.

Smith has taken a public stand for the bishops' position on immigration, against Crisis Magazine contributor John Zmirak. A writer in residence at Thomas More College, Zmirak opposes illegal immigrant workers being given the “path to citizenship” that the U.S. bishops support.

In a May 12 essay for Crisis Magazine, entitled “Amnesty Equals Abortion,” Zmirak complained that these workers, if granted citizenship, would vote for Democratic Party candidates and torpedo the pro-life movement. Elsewhere, Zmirak has dismissed Bl. John Paul II's comparison of illegal immigrants and unborn children as “absurd,” a “non sequitur,” and “not Pope John Paul's finest hour.”

Zmirak advocated what he considered a merciful compromise, which would give illegal immigrants “the right to reside here permanently and to work, but never to vote.” But he stated that “those who favor amnesty,” including full citizenship and voting rights, “are not, in cold fact, pro-life,” because of their willingness to grant citizenship to immigrants who would likely vote for Democrats.

Smith, editor for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph's newspaper, fired back against Zmirak's proposal in a May 13 blog post, taking particular issue with the Crisis contributor's statement that the U.S. bishops were “not, in cold fact, pro-life” because of their advocacy of a “path to citizenship” that could result in more registered Democrats.

“Mother Teresa would not meet Zmirak’s pro-life test,” Smith stated. Nor, he noted, would Cardinal Raymond Burke – who has advocated the denial of Holy Communion to political supporters of abortion, but has also supported immigration reform as a way to “obey the command of Our Lord” to “welcome the stranger” and thus “welcome Christ Himself.” 

Smith responded to several of Zmirak's other assertions in a May 16 interview with CNA. He outlined his reasons for supporting the bishops' judgment on immigration, and for seeing pro-life legislation and immigration reform as complimentary – not competing – goals.

“The admonition to welcome immigrants and to welcome the unborn is not simply a one-off casual statement of a single Holy Father,” Smith noted. “The Church's teaching on both issues has been repeated by numerous popes and bishops around the world, and neither teaching seeks optional adherence. It is not even unusual to couple them.”

Smith quoted Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who said in 2009 that “the Catholic commitment to the dignity of the immigrant comes from exactly the same roots as our commitment to the dignity of the unborn child." Archbishop Chaput also said that the pro-life movement must work to “make laws and social policies that will care for those people already born that no one will defend.” 

He also rejected Zmirak's claim that the United States owes immigrants nothing other than the “mere justice” of “immediate deportation,” noting that Zmirak's own pro-life position should cause him to rethink the simplistic equation of written laws with strict justice.

“Some laws, like our abortion laws, are themselves unjust and should be changed,” Smith said. He pointed out that the Catholic Church “has never taught that justice consists in slavish adherence to each and every positive law.” Moral theologians have often explained the kinds of exceptions that could allow for a starving person to commit theft, or a person in an emergency to violate traffic laws.

“Many of our immigration laws and regulations also result in unjust and inhuman applications,” he continued, “such as the case where a child brought to the United States illegally by her parents at a very young age faces the prospect many years later of deportation to a country they do not know.”

Smith also rejected Zmirak's description, offered in a February 2011 article in Chronicles Magazine, of bishops who advocate a path to citizenship as idealists who ignore political reality.

According to Smith, Zmirak and other Catholics who adopt anti-immigrant postures are the ones demonstrating political naivete – by advocating policies that will fail politically, while alienating Hispanics from the Catholic Church, the pro-life movement, and social conservatism as a whole.

“If you want to cast your political future on the hope we're going to deport millions of Hispanics and then expect that the millions more legal Hispanic citizens left are going to be happy with you, you've already given up,” Smith said. “You have no political future.”

Instead of embracing whatever means will produce the best electoral and demographic goals, Smith said the Church in the U.S. “needs to be the entity that welcomes their fellow Catholics into their communities.”

“Reaching out to, creating community for, and catechizing immigrant populations should be job one for local churches,” Smith said, advocating a vision that places baptismal identity above immigration status.

If this does not occur, he warned, droves of Catholics may abandon the Catholic Church for the non-denominational evangelical groups that are growing in Mexico and among U.S. Hispanics.

“Many immigrant groups are not well catechized,” Smith pointed out. “They will get their catechism where they're welcomed – and if the storefront sect does a better job that the local parish, we will be held accountable for the lost sheep.”

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