MIGRANTS, REFUGEES AND THE SOCIAL TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH
A discussion paper from the Social Justice Group at Graceville-Corinda Catholic Parish
The Catholic Church, at an international and at a local level, strongly supports the rights of migrants and refugees. This is in accordance with the Gospel teaching “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) and “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me”(Matt 25:40) The Scriptures – There are many scriptural references to refugees and people forced to move. The Exodus story of the people of Israel also is a story of a refugee people. The bible gives us the ancient custom of welcoming “When a stranger stays with you in your land, do him no wrong. He shall be to you as the native among you. Love him as yourself for you have been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19 33-34)
The story of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt is a typical refugee story of escaping threatened persecution. (Matthew 2.13-14.) In 1952, Pope Pius XII issued “Exsul Familia Nazarethana” an Apostolic constitution which he introduced in these terms
“The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are……….. for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil…… In order that this example and these consoling thoughts would not grow dim but rather offer refugees and migrants a comfort in their trials, and foster Christian hope, the Church had to look after them with special care and unremitting aid.”
Catholic Social Teaching – Wars and other life-threatening situations have given birth to different types of refugees. Among these are persons persecuted because of race, religion, and membership in social or political groups. In the Catholic tradition there are many statements of Popes calling on people to support and help refugees. Pope John XXIII referred to the plight of refugees in Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth – 1963) where he expressed the ‘bitter anguish of spirit’ he felt about refugees
: “There are countless thousands of such refugees at the present time, and many are the sufferings – the incredible sufferings – to which they are constantly exposed.”
Pope John Paul 11, in an address at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp on 22 March 2000, said,
“The degrading conditions in which refugees often have to live; the continuation over long periods of situations that are barely tolerable in emergencies or for a brief time of transit; the fact that displaced persons are obliged to remain for years in settlement camps: these are the measure of the urgent need for a just solution to the underlying causes of the problem…… My appeal is for greater international solidarity and the political will to meet this challenge. I plead with all who are sincerely working for justice and peace not to lose heart. I appeal to political leaders to implement agreements already arrived at, and to go forward towards the peace for which all reasonable men and women yearn, to the justice to which they have an inalienable right.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church) notes : Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the world, the unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good. (1911) This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to “provide for the different needs of men; this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education, . . . and certain situations arising here and there, as for example . . . alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families. John XXIII “Pacem in Terris”
Again, every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of their own country, but this right is sometimes denied. When this happens, they must not be deprived of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in the universal society, and “Pacem in Terris” makes this point quite clearly:
105. For this reason, it is not irrelevant to draw the attention of the world to the fact that these refugees are persons and all their rights as persons must be recognized. Refugees cannot lose these rights simply because they are deprived of citizenship of their own States. 106. And among man’s personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and—so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits—to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society.
Australian Bishops’ Statements – Our own Australian Bishops have been vocal on the issue of refugees:
The following quotes on the subject are excerpts from “A MESSAGE FROM THE AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE MAY 2004”
1. The Australian Catholic Bishops wish to speak for refugees and asylum seekers and ask the Government and all Australians to respond with urgency to their needs. We plead the cause of refugees and asylum seekers again because the Gospel compels us to do so. We remain hopeful that hearts and minds will change so that the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia may be more humane, more respectful of human dignity. The nation’s response should be just, compassionate and consistent with our obligations under International Law and the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and other Conventions to which Australia is a signatory.
2. It is always unjustifiable to detain asylum seekers in order to deter future asylum seekers from coming to Australia. Prolonged detention is gravely injurious to those on whom it is inflicted: and the Catholic moral tradition has always insisted that it is morally wrong to use unacceptable means even for an arguably good end. 3. In receiving asylum seekers, it is appropriate to hold people until they have satisfied questions about their identity, health and security issues. But unless evidence is presented in particular cases to support continuing detention, they should not be detained further. Certainly, detention should be non-discriminatory. 4. At this time when few asylum seekers arrive by boat on our shores, Australia has the opportunity to implement a just and humane refugee policy. Australia has the chance to restore its reputation as an exemplary humanitarian country where refugees can rebuild their shattered lives and where, as a nation, we can sing without shame that “for those who come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share”.
International Bishops – The Australian Catholic Bishops are not alone in their pronouncements of what is a universally held church view. For example:
Great numbers of these foreign workers, both men and women, work in poor, substandard conditions without any protection whatever. They are not covered by health insurance nor are they eligible for other medical assistance. Thus, when their health is injured, they are not given even the opportunity of obtaining a cure. This is a grave and urgent situation which calls for legislation to give them access to National Health Insurance regardless of visa conditions or resident status and also to enable them to receive emergency medical assistance under the National Assistance Act. We are well aware that the problem is aggravated by the fact that majority of these workers belong in a so-called non-qualified category. Nevertheless, international rules concerning the equality of all mankind demand that, for humanitarian reasons, the government take immediate steps toward a fitting solution. (Catholic Bishops’ Conference Japan petition to Japanese Government 1/121997)
The New Testament often counsels that hospitality is a virtue necessary for all followers of Jesus. Many migrants, sensing rejection or indifference from Catholic communities, have sought solace outside the Church. They experience the sad fate of Jesus, recorded in St. John’s Gospel: “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11). The need to provide hospitality and create a sense of belonging pertains to the Church on every level, as Pope John Paul II said in his annual message on World Migration Day 1993: “The families of migrants . . . should be able to find a homeland everywhere in the Church.” (A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States 22/1/2003)
Our own Archdiocese – The Archdiocese of Brisbane has three central foci, Jesus, Communion and Mission. The above statement by the American Bishops which relates our treatment of refugees to our recognition of our communion with one another is therefore particularly relevant here in Brisbane. It is in our parish community that we must practice what Jesus taught: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). Our hospitality must also extend to include refugees. As the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in its paper on “Refugees :A Challenge to Solidarity” notes
“The responsibility to offer refugees hospitality, solidarity and assistance lies first of all with the local Church.”(26)
We as a parish and as an archdiocese must face up to our responsibilities as directed by Catholic Social Justice teaching. We are called on to live the demands of the Gospel and reach out without distinction towards refugees in their moment of need. Our task takes on various forms: personal contact; defence of the rights of individuals and groups; the denunciation of the injustices that are at the root of their plight, action for the adoption of laws that will guarantee their protection, education against xenophobia, the creation or support of groups of volunteers and of emergency funds and pastoral care. We should also be vociferous in opposing the current proposal to “commodify” and trade in, refugees between Australia and the USA.
What can we do? – There are opportunities to express our views to politicians through petitions and letters. In the coming election campaign these opportunities will probably arise more often. There are also opportunities to stand up for what is right and just in our discussions with our friends and colleagues. Do we have the courage to accept this responsibility given to us by God and reiterated by our Popes and Bishops?