Immigration is controversial today in many parts of the world, including Europe and the Americas.
The Church’s teaching on the topic is summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens (2241).
This seeks to balance the needs of the citizens of the receiving countries with the needs of the immigrants, and it recognizes obligations on both. Citizens of more prosperous countries are not given the option of a “no immigrants allowed” policy, and immigrants are not guaranteed automatic access.
The latter point is reflected in the Catechism’s acknowledgement that nations are obliged to accept immigrants “to the extent they are able” and that they “may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical considerations.”
What happens when political authorities determine “for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible” that they cannot accept more immigrants, or when immigrants do not abide by the juridical considerations the state requires?
One solution—which many regard as preferable to imprisonment—is to return immigrants to their country of origin or to another country willing to receive them. In other words, deportation.
However, some Catholics argue that deportation is intrinsically evil, citing John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which stated:
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (80).
The encyclical then quotes Vatican II’s document Gaudium et Spes to provide examples:
Whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children . . . all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator (GS 27).
Since deportations are listed among the acts “offensive to human dignity,” the argument goes, they are intrinsically evil, and thus the state could never legitimately deport anyone.
Is this so? Evaluating this argument reveals several principles that are important for reading Church documents.
Principle 1: Checking the Original
A starting point for interpreting any document is figuring out what its authors have in mind.
This is done principally by examining the words they use, and here we must employ some caution. Words can have meanings that are not obvious, especially when translations of technical documents—like those of the Magisterium—are involved.
It can be important to check the original language and see what meaning a word has in theological discourse.
The Latin word used by Gaudium et Spes is deportatio, and a check of competent dictionaries reveals it has the same basic meaning it does in English. Leo F. Stelten’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin reveals that it means “deportation, banishment,” and the Oxford Latin Dictionary reveals that it means “conveyance to a place of exile, deportation.”
Based on this, Gaudium et Spes might have in mind any and all deportations, but our work is not done, because brief dictionary definitions don’t tell us everything we need to know.
Principle 2: Checking the Historical Context
Documents are written at particular moments in history, and this affects the issues they address. They generally address issues being discussed in their own day, not ones from the past or the future.
This means we need to ask what kind of deportations Vatican II had in mind. When Gaudium et Spes was released in 1965, what kind of deportations would those have been?
Immigration was not a major, controversial issue then, but there was a kind of deportation that was very much on the European mind: the deportations that occurred during World War II.
In fact, in October of 1943—as part of the Nazi Holocaust—much of the Jewish population of Rome was deported, with many sent to Auschwitz. The memory of this event still lives, and in 2013 Pope Francis sent a message to the chief rabbi of Rome deploring it.
This was one of many deportations during World War II, and it raises the possibility that Gaudium et Spes doesn’t have any and all deportations in mind but those in which Jews or others are forcibly relocated from lands in which they have long dwelled as part of the process of “ethnic cleansing” (a term coined in 1941).
Principle 3: Checking for Counter-Examples
Whenever we consider a possible interpretation of a document, it is important to cross-examine it by looking for potential counter-examples. So, can we think of any situations where the Holy See would accept the compulsory removal of people from a place?
Catholic moral theology would hold that it’s legitimate to remove people from individual dwellings in some situations. If a person has broken into your home, for instance, it’s legitimate to remove him. Similarly, landlords can evict tenants who don’t pay their rent or when their lease expires.
The Holy See even has an agreement with the state of Italy providing for the extradition of those accused of crimes. Article 22 of the 1929 Lateran Pact provides:
The Holy See shall hand over to the Italian state all persons who may have taken refuge within the Vatican City, when accused of acts committed within Italian territory which are considered to be criminal by the law of both states.
The Holy See thus acknowledges the existence of situations in which it is legitimate to remove a person or group of people from a particular place, even unwillingly, even across national lines (as in the case of extradition from Vatican City).
This suggests that the deportation of immigrants could also be legitimate in some cases.
Principle 4: Reading in Harmony
A final principle that needs to be applied when reading Church documents is the presumption that they should be read in harmony with each other. Pope Benedict XVI referred to this as the “hermeneutic of continuity.”
Applying it in this case, we should assume that the Catechism’s teaching regarding limits on immigration does not contradict the teachings found in Veritatis Splendor and Gaudium et Spes regarding deportations.
Given the other things we are aware of—including the historical deportations Vatican II likely had in mind and the potential legitimacy of removing people from places, as in the Lateran Pact—it is most natural to understand the Holy See as condemning mass “ethnic cleansing” deportations of people who have long lived in a country, but not every individual case of deportation.
This does not tell us how best to resolve thorny immigration questions of our own day, but it does illustrate the principles we need to use when reading Church documents if we want to understand their meaning correctly.
For more info on how to read and interpret Church documents, keep an eye peeled for Jimmy’s new book on the subject, Teaching with Authority, coming this fall from Catholic Answers Press.