— Danielle K. Lagunas (@DanielleLagunas) June 28, 2019
Watch the Diocese of El Paso’s news account of the event here.
“Standing here at the U.S.-Mexico border, how do we begin to diagnose the soul of our country?” said the bishop. “A government and society which view fleeing children and families as threats. A government which treats children in U.S. custody worse than animals. A government and society who turn their backs on pregnant mothers, babies and families and make them wait in Ciudad Juarez without a thought to the crushing consequences on this challenged city. … This government and this society are not well.”
Refusing to obey laws they regard as unjust is a longstanding Christian tradition. Here’s a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, in which he quotes St. Augustine:
“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
“Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
I admire religious leaders who are willing to defy unjust laws. But I gotta ask:
Are borders unjust?
Are laws forbidding foreigners to come into the United States the same thing, morally, as laws forbidding black people to eat at the same lunch counters as whites?
It seems clear that Bishop Seitz is saying yes to both questions, and not just saying it, but putting it into action by helping migrants break the law. I find this appalling, to be frank, because borders are just. These migrants do not have a moral right to cross over into the United States. That is not to say that they should not be allowed to cross, eventually; it is to say that they do not have a moral right to do so, as Bishop Seitz asserts, and that the higher good nullifies US law. I dispute that.
However, if you support what Bishop Seitz did, then explain why the laws establishing and defending borders are unjust. It is true that not all laws are morally just — but why is the law by which the people of the United States determine who can enter the country, and under what conditions, morally indefensible? Perhaps you agree that borders are just, but believe that in this particular crisis, they should be ignored for the greater good. Why? What is the limiting principle?
Thought experiment: if everyone in El Paso who is unhappy with where they live (because they are poor, because it is unsafe, etc.) showed up at the bishop’s residence with their bags, and moved in, why would that be wrong? If the bishop complained, and they told him that he was “not well,” why would they be wrong, according to the same logic that the bishop uses to justify opening the borders to migrants?
There’s no question that the bishop is operating in the spirit of Pope Francis, who earlier this year condemned “fear” of immigrants as “irrational”. In May, Francis said that people who oppose migration might be “racist.”
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s popular deputy prime minister, has openly clashed with the Pope over the pontiff’s open borders exhortations — and has won the support of many Italian Catholics. If the US Catholic bishops make an issue of personal lawbreaking to erase the border, Donald Trump would surely win the support of many American Catholics if he blasted the bishops, who don’t exactly have the full faith and confidence of their flocks these days.
I welcome your comments, both supportive and critical of the bishop, but I caution you that I will not publish comments that espouse anti-Catholic bigotry.
UPDATE: Some of you are saying that Bishop Seitz did not break the law. He simply escorted the family across the border to turn themselves in to US authorities and apply for asylum. But the US policy now is to make these potential asylees wait in Mexico to be processed. The bishop opposes this, so he defied the law. From the Catholic news site Crux:
As tensions at the U.S.-Mexico border continue to mount, El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz successfully shepherded a group of migrants who had previously been denied asylum in the United States across the border on Thursday, describing their plight as “an affront to human rights and human dignity.”
The bishop spoke to Crux just hours after he crossed the Laredo International Bridge into Mexico: First to accompany migrants who had been returned from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez as part of the Remain in Mexico program, then to make a return voyage with seven new individuals seeking asylum. Seitz recalled it as both one of the most “joyful” and “heart wrenching” experiences in his time as bishop.
Read the whole story. Some of those the bishop brought back into the US had been denied asylum. There was a tense moment when the bishop and his party confronted border officials, who eventually let them into the country (because, I guess, they didn’t want to get into an argument with a Catholic bishop). This is lawbreaking. You might think it’s morally justified, but don’t deny that the bishop is helping these migrants defy the law. If you read the Crux story, you’ll see that Bishop Seitz also called Americans who disagree with him racist:
“We suffer from a life-threatening case of hardening of the heart. In a day when we prefer to think that prejudice and intolerance are problems of the past, we have found a new acceptable group to treat as less than human, to look down upon and to fear. And should they speak another language or are brown or black, well, it is that much easier to stigmatize them,” he continued.
Seitz labeled the policies as that of a “heart-sick government and society” and decried the “hopelessness” of migrants who are forced to watch their children suffer.
“Would we rather they die on the banks of the Rio Grande than trouble us with their presence?” he asked.