Resisting a Politics of Exclusion: Catholic Social Thought’s Counternarrative

Damaging politics of exclusion continue to hold sway across many regions of the globe. Whether in appeals to anxieties about rapid cultural and demographic changes or more overtly nativist or Islamophobic rhetoric, we revisit representations of the outsider as a social menace across diverse contexts. This general pattern evidences xenophobia’s productive function in a nation’s imagination. In the United States context, we have heard not only promises to build impenetrable border walls but menacing epithets characterizing immigrants’ motives and their character. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign has performed strongest among not only those who hold negative views on ethnic minorities, but among those who report that their ancestors are “American.”

Whereas its immigrant nation’s celebratory narrative underscores ideas like hospitality, liberty, and democracy (reflecting Emma Lazarus’ welcome to huddled masses yearning to breathe free), U.S. legislative debates about immigration have historically centered around issues of national security, economic instrumentalism and social costs rather than human rights. These operative lenses shaping its immigration debate can mask realities and become surrogates for other cultural and political concerns. Actual encounters with reluctant or desperate migrants alert us to significant dissonance between dominant political assumptions and the inhumane impact of many policies and practices. Catholic social thought (CST) provides resources for scrutinizing dominant rhetoric to uncover the interests and values that principally drive immigration policy. If fear and profit largely hold sway, de-humanizing newcomers according to dominant scripts of “lawbreakers” or “takers”—or more recently, “rapists”—the Christian tradition shapes a (counter)narrative of our common humanity. Such solidarity has crucial implications for a just immigration ethic that serves the global common good. Christian understandings of what it means to be human radically critique pervasive exploitation and prevailing exclusionary paradigms.

CST is grounded in a scriptural vision of the person as inherently sacred and made for community. Its principles of economic and migration ethics protect not only civil and political rights, but also more robust social and economic rights and responsibilities. These establish persons’ rights not to migrate (fulfill human rights in their homeland) and to migrate (if they cannot support themselves or their families in their country of origin). Once people do immigrate, the Catholic tradition profoundly critiques patterns wherein stable receiving countries accept the labor of millions without offering legal protections. Such “shadow” societies risk the creation of a permanent underclass, harming both human dignity and the common good. Hence the Catholic social tradition explicitly protects the basic human rights of undocumented migrants in host countries in light of longstanding teachings on human and workers’ rights, which do not depend on citizenship status. This vision is not fundamentally at odds with the (U.S.) national narrative at its best. As Network Social Justice Lobby’s Sr. Simone Campbell put it during her “Nuns on the Bus” tour, “fear is crippling us and promoting an unpatriotic lie of individualism…after all the Constitution begins ‘We the People,’ not ‘We who got here first,’ or ‘We the owners of businesses’ or even ‘We the citizens.’” She worried we would lose our democracy if we could not return to living in community.

Whereas a focus on willful lawbreakers and burdensome outsiders frequently prevails in the U.S. media, CST’s lens of the global common good contextualizes the individual acts of migrants or refugees and underscores social dimensions of justice and sinful complicity alike. As Pope Francis elaborates in Evangelii Gaudium, “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets … and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems...” Echoing the core understanding of justice in the Catholic social tradition as meaningful participation, the pope repeatedly underscores the impact of economies of exclusion and myriad forms of marginalization. Yet as U.S. Bishop Robert McElroy has lamented, the pope’s diagnosis has not been welcomed by many American Catholics who criticize it as radical, simplistic, or misplaced. The cultural assumptions fueling such resistance bid us to join economic analyses with sustained attention to the dynamics of social sin.

Such intersections with respect to the global economy have been of particular concern to Pope Francis. Warning that our “economy of exclusion and inequality kills,” he rightly challenges not only the reductive market ethos dominating trade and migration policies that cast migrants as “pawns on a chessboard,” but also their desensitizing effects: “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.” Idolatries focused on having over being can impede pursuit of the common good as much as ethnocentric or nationalistic ones: they shape loyalties, frame questions, inform votes and spending practices. The idea that the economy should serve the person raises serious concerns not only about the freedom of markets compared to people, but also about the significant financial stakes (even perverse economic incentives) in broken immigration systems—detained immigrants fill beds, deportations fill private buses. Various commitments to economic growth at all costs can become authentic bondage that contributes to scotosis.

In contrast to the reductive sound bites and fear mongering that dominate election year airwaves, pursuing justice in terms of the common good reorients contested political and social questions. Certainly the common good swims against significant cultural tides in western culture: moral privatism, libertarianism, relativism, polarizing ideological divisions—each of which hardens resistance to communitarian assumptions. The all-American credo that we pull up our bootstraps and make our own fate is perhaps as entrenched as it is incompatible with a solidaristic idea that we share each other’s fate. The Catholic conception of the common good radically challenges a culture that prioritizes economic efficiency over solidarity with the weak and marginalized, or narrow national interest over global concern. A culture in which “good fences make good neighbors” either due to isolationist fears or intellectual wariness significantly hinders deliberative engagement about common goods.

 Pope Francis offers an ongoing witness to encounter and solidarity that counter a politics of exclusion and invite our response in kind, whether in his prophetic repentance on Lampedusa or lived example returning from Lesbos (with refugee families). In his historic address to the U.S. Congress last fall, he summoned listeners to something seemingly far less radical than adopting migrant families or a praxis of subversive hospitality: the Golden Rule. Identifying as a fellow descendant of immigrants from a shared continent of foreigners, he asked the American people through their representatives to identify with the needs and dreams propelling the immigrants traveling north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, asking “Is this not what we want for our own children?” He pleaded with us not to give into a temptation to discard them as troublesome or fear and dehumanize them due to their numbers. Citing Matthew 7:12 he transformed what might seem a lower bar for ethics than those proposing a radical solidarity would promote into the ground of mutual understanding across difference. With characteristic directness and clarity he concluded, “In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” Pope Francis’ prophetic solidarity with immigrants throughout his papacy and his unwavering attention to ideologies that inhibit such kinship offer us a way forward beyond pervasive politics of exclusion.

Kristin E. Heyer is professor of theological ethics at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, MA (USA). Her recent books include Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration (Georgetown University Press, 2012) and the edited volume, Conscience and Catholicism: Rights, Responsibilities and Institutional Practices (Orbis Press, 2015).