Few weeks pass for me without receiving a communication asking me why the American bishops do not punish politicians who identify themselves as Catholics but tolerate, or even abet, legislation not in accord with Catholic teaching.
If I replied that any such action would be inappropriate, regardless of the particulars, because it would mean that the bishops thereby would be entering a political discussion, I would satisfy no one and antagonize many.
The ultimate question is in the particulars. Is this or that action or proposal possessing, or seeking, political authority an affront of Catholic morality, of which bishops are the teachers? Catholics may be led into cooperating in something that is wrong. Bishops have the duty to guide them.
Pope Francis upset some people, some Catholics in fact, when he said that any politician who proposes building a wall to keep immigrants out of any country is not a Christian.
He never mentioned a name, but every report presumed that he was referring at least unintentionally to the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Again, the point is the treatment of human beings, and whether or not actual or proposed treatment is consistent with Catholic understandings of morality.
We sail into very dangerous waters whenever we say that morality does not apply to this or that human activity. For that matter, this is what is occurring in many of the abortions that happen every day. Given the statistics regarding religious affiliation in America, many who procure abortions, or who urge someone to obtain an abortion, have some religious background and indeed a regard for religious principles.
They believe, however, that certain circumstances diminish or altogether veto the force of principles, so for whatever reason, their religious thinking notwithstanding, they choose something contrary to traditional Christian morality.
Much of the disapproval raised by the papal statement on the plane came because of the pope’s admittedly strong indictment that anyone who suggests that harsh treatment of immigrants is not a Christian. It was blunt. I admit it.
Defining a Christian is equally crisp. What is a Christian? Someone who signs a list at a church? Church identification is important, I would be the first to insist, but being Christian means walking the walk. It means bringing into action the compassion of Jesus.
Immigration into this country has been an issue throughout history. In the 1920s, the government established quotas, tightly regulating immigration on the basis of national origin, but actually because of religion or ethnicity. The bishops protested. Many, many Catholics were outraged.
When life at home is hellish, people immigrate. In Mexico, the pope surely challenged authorities to make life better for all Mexicans.
American politicians will not be able to do much in other countries, but they, and all of us, can be compassionate and open as people come to our borders simply in pursuit of peace and a decent life. Not everyone is a good person, but neither is everyone, or even are most, threats. This does not suggest forsaking careful entry processes to pinpoint people with ulterior motives, but it suggests that we should be open to the desperate.
Finally, I would laugh were it not so silly, the thing about the medieval Vatican wall! Get real. Every security expert, at least whose comments I have seen, and any visitor to Rome, such as myself in recent weeks, see very clearly that the Vatican wall is about as ornamental and porous as it can be.
What would Jesus do?
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.