Am I the only one who feels patronised?


The 24th of September was the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2023 and boy did we know about it! The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales posted a series of 24 short videos on Twitter/X stating a series of principles. I can't remember them ever being so enthused about any other topic in history!

Diocesan social media buzzed with posts about this event. The Southwark Justice and Peace in Creation commission met for their Autumn Assembly, which was based around the theme of 'The Right to Stay: Free to Choose'. Ahead of the World Day of Prayer for Refugees and Migrants, Bishop Paul McAleenan, Member of the Department for International Affairs at the Bishops Conference for England and Wales, spoke on the principles of ‘Love the Stranger’. In addition Ben Bano of Seeking Sanctuary and Brother Johannes Maertens spoke on The Radical Spirituality of Welcome: The Life and Legacy of Mother Maria Skobtsova.

Pope Francis reminds us in his letter for the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees that everyone has the right to live in peace in a country free from poverty, plundering and persecution.

Cardinal Nichols, in a short video, said that "the innate dignity of every human person should be what we should use when we think about those who arrive as immigrants".

And what Catholic could disagree? It is, indeed, true. It is also banal and inoffensive pabulum. 

You never see the same level of episcopal verbosity regarding the right to life, the reception of the Eucharist ("the source and summit of our Christian faith", cc Vatican II: Lumen gentium #11, CCC 1324), the sanctity of Marriage or the importance of the family. You don't hear them enthuse like this about the Incarnation or Christ's Passion on the Cross.

If you are anything like me, this stark contrast coupled with the notable lack of interaction from the faithful on social media with any of these posts might make you wonder why? 

I have a theory. 

It could be that this is a deliberate strategy. This is what they are actually seeking to achieve. Why? Well,  it is uncontroversial, inoffensive, it doesn't engage with anyone and no one engages with it. 

They've been doing this for decades now and few Catholics can tell you even the basics of faith. There are fewer and fewer vocations, there is less and less money, but the dioceses are still asset rich, so as they run out of clergy to run parishes and parishioners to pay for Church buildings, the next part of the plan is to start selling off the assets.

Any perfunctory interaction with any of the mainstream diocesan contact points would leave one with the distinct impression that Catholicism was about saving migrants and the planet: Social work and ecological action. Absent is any metaphysical dimension or spiritual mission. Now who could possibly have a problem with that?

Despite the attempt to speak to a safe topic by the bishops on this (the huge numbers of immigrants in the English Catholic Church, particularly in the London dioceses practically guarantee that this is so), it is also pretty clear that this is weighing in on a certain side of the debate. This is particularly obvious in a week when the Home Secretary is in the news for giving a speech where she stated that uncontrolled migration constitutes an existential challenge to Western nations.

Given that this is such a public party political debate at the moment, is it right that the Catholic bishops of England and Wales should be giving such an unnuanced perspective on this topic? Is what they are saying authentic Catholic teaching? I think it leaves a lot to be desired.

The point is that it is simply not the teaching of the Church that “all will have the right and dignity to live in peace in their country of choice”. I do not have “the right and dignity” to live in peace in, for example, the Vatican City State simply because I choose to do so.

Furthermore, the right to migrate is not a human right. It is not part of the UN framework for human rights and neither Pope Francis not Cardinal Nichols can make it so. They cannot make it a binding part of Catholic teaching either. This is because the idea contradicts the teaching that countries are entitled to determine their own terms of residence. Regulating immigration according to criteria of equity and balance is one of the indispensable conditions for ensuring that immigrants are integrated into society with the guarantees required by recognition of their human dignity according to the Social Doctrine of the Church (see # 268 here). One has to wonder why the Cardinal and the bishops do not teach what the Church actually teaches? If they did, they might actually work to alleviate the concerns of ordinary people which surround this issue. The Church's teaching is based on three main principles:
  1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. 
  2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. 
  3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.
We cannot simply covet the goods of the Kingdom & exclude those who are strangers, or who we are afraid of. We have a duty & a responsibility to embrace the stranger in their humanity. Their right to peace & security are just as valid as our own and we must consider the reality that their situation is often the result of our politicians misguided interventions.

But it is important to note that reticence towards immigration can (and should) also proceed from a belief in the innate dignity and worth of human beings and a desire to help the stranger. 

On February 2, 2001, Pope John Paul II addressed the 87th World Day of Migration, where he made even more explicit the imperatives of justice regarding immigration:

"Highly developed countries are not always able to assimilate all those who emigrate and that while the church strongly affirms the right to emigrate certainly, the exercise of such a right is to be regulated, because practicing it indiscriminately may do harm and be detrimental to the common good of the community that receives the migrant."

Surely a development-focused immigration policy which aims to address the root causes of immigration by promoting economic and social development in the countries of origin is an option that provides a win for all involved?

The fact of the matter is that this is a matter for prudential judgement and not nearly as clear cut as the CBEW want us to believe it is. If the bishops want to take a stand on a prudential moral question, I don't have a problem with that - in theory, but it should be clear that when and if they do faithful Catholics are not bound to heed them. Also, if they do they cannot pretend to be outside of the political (and even party political) debate. This leaves me with the impression that they are simply engaged in political shilling: playing to the gallery…again.

The faithful should rely on the Church to untangle the tangled; to throw light on the darkness; to straighten the crooked. The Catholic Church should (and once would) shout truth which could be heard above the din of specious political inanities and reveal the sweet voice of charity and reason. The world is fallen, spinning out of control, yet the Church provides an anchor. In the document "The Vocation of the Theologian" the Church teaches about the prudential exercise of the Magisterium in situations subject to complex factors which might not be understood by bishops and their advisors. It warns that this may lead to a situation where some may conclude that the Church's Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. Perhaps this is sound advice for bishops who seek to engage in political issues such as this? Perhaps the best advice was from Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent”.

I was pleased that this discussion continued in an animated way in our Catholic Unscripted episode this weekend:


  1. Mark, I wrote a short piece on this on Catholic People today, don't know if you saw under "Hannah Jenkins" (two of my names) . It really annoys me. It's unfair.


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