Catholic bishops shouldn’t talk about politics, left-wing pundits say, except on the subject of illegal immigration. On that subject even the most ardent supporters of the separation of church and state are happy to hear the bishops opine. Liberals are cheering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for calling on churchgoers to harbor illegal immigrants in their homes to keep them safe from the U.S. Border Patrol.
On Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles instructed priests and churchgoers to disobey enforcement provisions of a House of Representatives immigration bill. Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said the scriptures justified aiding illegal immigrants. McCarrick said, “[How] many of us have not violated some laws, whatever they might have been—either they’re traffic laws or immigration laws or tax laws, something like that.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) recently said that immigration enforcement would make “Jesus himself” a criminal. She compared the plight of illegal immigrants to the Good Samaritan from the Gospels. However, her ham-handed attempts to co-opt religion for political gain has yielded conflicting results. She flatly rejects the position taken in the Bible on other social issues such as abortion and gay rights. She strangely remarked to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1997, “I have to confess that it’s crossed my mind that you could not be a Republican and a Christian.”
Politics does make strange bedfellows. The Democratic activists overlook their criticism of the church’s social conservatism. But if liberals embraced the entirety of the church’s influence, the American political landscape would be much different. Feminists would not take to the streets to tell the clergy to get their “rosary beads off my uterus.” Liberal lawmakers would have praised Catholics who spoke out against the death-by-starvation of Terri Schiavo. Senate Democrats would not question how the Catholic faith of Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Sam Alito might affect their judicial decisions. The left-leaning media wouldn’t defend pro-abortion Catholics when they were denied communion by Catholic bishops for breaking with Catholic doctrine on abortion. But we know better. Liberals will support the church when it’s only politically convenient.
This is a marriage of political convenience for the church as well. Liberal leaders and Catholic bishops are seeing their flocks dwindle and immigration presents an unprecedented recruiting opportunity. The church is looking for new members. The Democratic Party needs new voters, proven by its lack of electoral success since 1994.
Still, the synergy between these two recent foes creates a dilemma for each. The church is excusing criminal violations of immigration law, while attempting to explain their former intransigence during investigation into alleged pedophile priests. Democrats have a record of criticizing the church for entering into public affairs and they are trying to have it both ways. It might backfire. Both face further erosion of their base, in light of championing amnesty for lawbreakers.
No one is saying that the Catholic Church should not speak out when politics and morality overlap, such as on the death penalty and the plight of the poor. The church has long been one of the most effective voices for America’s most vulnerable.
But when the church condones the illegal harboring of immigrants, it invites criticism even from its friends. While the church has been accursed of blocking criminal investigations of their priests, it hardly the right time to call for wholesale lawbreaking in the name of immigration rights.
The use of the illegal immigration issue comes at a high price for each party. Catholics, many of whom are the children or grandchildren of legal immigrants, may lose respect for their church for excusing law breaking.
The church has a way out. Catholic bishops could amend their statements and come out in favor of increasing legal immigration. Parishes could sponsor immigrants seeking citizenship by providing civic education, living assistance and moral substance. If they choose not to take this track, churchgoers and other may well consider the bishops less as a beacon of moral authority and more as political actors. That would not be a step in the right direction.
The civil rights movement succeeded with the help of the church by encouraging the reform of laws, not breaking them. The bishops should do the same today—or they risk polarizing themselves in a nation increasingly divided over immigration.