Steve Bannon, the Catholic Church, and Immigration

by Andrew Stuttaford

If there’s one thing that you can say about Steve Bannon is that he’s not afraid to go there.

The Washington Post:

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, lashed out at leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States who condemned the president’s recent decision to phase out an Obama-era program that has allowed nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to gain temporary legal status. Bannon, who is Catholic, accused the church of wanting a steady flow of illegal immigrants coming into the country to fill its church pews and make money.

“Unable to really to come to grips with the problems in the Church, they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches,” Bannon said in an interview with Charlie Rose that will air on “60 Minutes” on CBS on Sunday. “It’s obvious on the face of it.”

Bannon added: “They have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”

. . . “As much as I respect Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan and the bishops on doc­trine, this is not doctrine,” Bannon responded. “This is not doctrine at all. I totally respect the pope and I to­tal­ly respect the Catholic bishops and car­di­nals on doctrine. This is not about doctrine. This is about the sov­er­eign­ty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.”

Three things:

The idea that the Catholic church is looking to fill its pews with illegal aliens and is doing so, at least partly, for the mammon strikes me (to put it mildly) as unlikely.

Contrary to what Bannon seems to say, Catholic doctrine can have quite a bit to say about national sovereignty. To be sure, you can root around in the sayings of various senior Catholic clergy over the years and find commentary stressing the sovereignty of the nation state. But there is rather more to be read there about the brotherhood of man, the universality of God’s law and all the rest, not to speak of the legacy of the ancient idea of a united Christendom (a Catholic “Ummah,” to use a naughty comparison) or something of even wider application today.

Christianity may be a wildly syncretic religion, but “love thy neighbor” is a pretty consistent theme throughout its different varieties, and it is entirely reasonable to assume that America’s Catholic leaders say what they say about immigration (this, I should say, is a broader discussion than the rights and wrongs of DACA, something of a special case) out of respect for that obligation.

But it may not be the only reason that they take the tack that they do. As I noted back in this Corner in 2013:

Secular fellow that I am, I’ll admit that I think that part of the explanation [for the Catholic church’s stance on immigration] is to be found in the realities of this world. Numbers mean clout. Always have. Always will.

Now look at this from Salon in 2015 (there are plenty of other sources that report the same thing):

[T]here are 3 million fewer people calling themselves Catholic today than in 2007, the last time Pew conducted their extensive poll. As a result, the share of the U.S. population that identifies as Catholic dropped from approximately 24 percent to 21 percent…. it appears that the Catholic Church is in a demographic free-fall, as it sheds adherents faster than any faith other than the mainline Protestant denominations, which have been in decline for decades.

Why is the Catholic Church suddenly crashing? The reality is that the Catholic Church has been shedding adherents for a long time. But it was gaining new parishioners just as fast, thanks to the dramatic increase in Hispanic migration to the U.S. The influx of Hispanics, who are overwhelming Catholic, helped make up for the departing white, native-born parishioners and masked their continued defection from the church. As a result, one-third of Catholics in the pews today are Hispanic.

But now the Hispanic influx into the church has slowed, largely as a result of a decline in Hispanic migration to the U.S., which since hitting a peak in 2007 has dropped as a result of the recession. And Hispanics too are increasingly abandoning the Catholic faith. The Pew survey found the percentage of Hispanics calling themselves Catholic dropped below 50 percent for the first time, from 58 percent in 2007 to 48 percent today.

Or there’s Michael J. O’Loughlin’s article from the Jesuit America magazine yesterday. After citing a report that showed that “immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America means new Catholic populations are settling in the Southwest”, he noted:

Back in 1991, close to nine in 10 Catholics in the United States were white. Today, that number is down to 55 percent—and that percentage will continue to drop. A majority of Catholics under 30, or 52 percent, are Hispanic. Plus, Hispanic Catholics have larger families with younger children than their white counterparts.

Whatever it may have originally sprung from, the Catholic church, like all churches, is an institution of this world too and, as such, it plays this world’s games — including the political games. Some two thousand years of history would suggest that it has done so pretty well. Under the circumstances, it is not too much of a leap of faithlessness to think that some (and only some) of what motivates the American Catholic church’s pronouncements on immigration is an attempt to appeal to (and keep) the changed congregations it now has — and to shape immigration policies in a way that will swell their numbers still further.

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