Politics & Policy

The Bishops and The Laws

There is an unseemly fight brewing between the Catholic Church in America and the U.S. government. A searing division is underway centering on immigration policy. There are 11 million people residing in the United States illegally. Americans aren’t easily upset about people who take playful liberties with the law. As long as you pay your taxes, you can buy a joint of marijuana without going to jail, as, two generations ago, you could buy a shot of whisky. For years a Mexican who wished to live and work in the United States had only the problem of getting himself across the border. Eleven million people managed that problem. The rules have got stiffer, and to do it now requires a little ingenuity and exertion, and you might even have to hide in a truck full of oranges for an overnight ride into Arizona, or whatever. But even if, beginning at midnight, not a single extra soul got into the United States illegally from Mexico (the primary human exporter), you have the question of what to do with those who are already here.

It is a challenge that hits us at several levels. The first of course is economic. That problem has been providing for its own amelioration. American productive centers, big and small, opened up their doors discreetly to labor needed to accomplish missions the U.S. labor pool didn’t want to take on–for instance, agricultural work. And aliens seeking work agreed to reduced wages, making themselves economically attractive.

But of course a second element of the problem took shape. The illegals settled down, which meant creating family life, often bringing in family members from their native lands. Then came the problem of accommodating the illegals outside the workplace. Obviously their children had to be educated, and their health to be cared for. One-sixth of those who work in the state of Texas are illegals. Translate that figure into corresponding impositions on welfare, and examine concomitant pressures of a political character.

The situation has come to a boil. Immigration policy is the top concern of candidates running for office in the border states. In December, the House of Representatives passed a tough bill designed to tighten the border. It calls for criminal penalties for those Americans who collude with the illegal enterprise. A response came from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This body assails aspects of the House bill as excessively punitive and lobbies for a tenderer bill from the Senate, but it is not yet clear just what sort of provisions the Conference would endorse.

Meanwhile the nation has heard from Roger Mahony, who is the cardinal of Los Angeles. Cardinal Mahony has taken the extraordinary step of enjoining his flock simply to defy any congressional act that incorporates the features of the House bill–on the grounds that to comply would be to collaborate with injustice.

Now the good cardinal, whose motives we must as a matter of Christian forbearance accept as humanitarian, has got to be sharply rebuked by the Conference of Bishops. Begin with the basic question: The writing of the law is a democratic exercise. To call for disobedience to the law is acceptable behavior when such law transgresses upon the city of God. The laws that called for the annihilation of the Jewish race violated the city of God. Proposed laws that would punish citizens who deliberately help to defeat or to circumvent immigration laws aren’t inherently defiant of the prerogatives of a democratic community. Cardinal Mahony’s contumacy has to be rejected for what it is, never mind what the Senate ends up doing in the matter of formulating fresh rules to enforce policies which have not been enforced.

President Bush endorsed the House bill and asks the Senate to act on it. He hardly understands himself to be rejecting the canon of Christian behavior towards our fellow men by making the point that free and independent societies have the right to prescribe immigration codes, and need especially to reject such distortions of Christian dogma and practice as invite the wrong kind of attention to appropriate divisions between church and state.

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