FRONT ROYAL, VA — Sound far-fetched? No, that is essentially what CNBC reported several weeks ago. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop in Seattle and Chairman of the National Bishop’s Committee on Migration, is quoted as saying, “We’ve been on record asking the Administration to do everything within its legitimate authority [my emphasis] to bring relief and justice to our immigrant brothers and sisters.”
Clearly, this chairman of a small committee in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has put the bishops on record as supporting the President’s interpretation of his immigration action as legal and constitutional when he says, “As pastors, we welcome any efforts within these limits [again my emphasis] that protect individuals and protect and reunite families and vulnerable children.…” He is clearly stating that the bishops accept the President’s reading of the Constitution that his executive decree is “within these limits,” that is “within [his] legitimate authority.”
There is a great danger that the Church is going to be perceived by many Americans as simply acting Jesuitically when it comes to the rule of law.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski confirmed this position when told the Catholic News Service, “He did everything possible within his legal authority.” If these two bishops represent the official position of the USCCB, then it is truly troubling for two reasons.
It would this place the USCCB in the position of supporting a political action that many Americans, including many Catholics, hold to be unconstitutional, reckless, and divisive. And it would undercut their own opposition to the insurance mandate on religious employers that the bishops argue is an unconstitutional regulation by the President. It looks like they simply affirm the constitutionality of his acts based on their agreement or disagreement with the end that the action achieves. If the action adversely affects their role as bishops and religious freedom, it is unconstitutional; if it achieves what they desire, it is constitutional.
Archbishop Wenski went further and insulted the intelligence and motivations of those in Congress who sincerely hold that this action is unconstitutional and creates a constitutional crisis. The archbishop’s comment was stunningly condescending, when he invoked a cliché to say that Congress “needs to take a deep breath and get control of themselves and enact comprehensive legislation.” Talk about breathtaking! Here we have a Catholic bishop treating U.S. Congressmen who disagree with the President on a clearly political issue like out-of-control children whose opposition is emotional and irrational. Does such a judgment also apply to a constitutional scholar like Jonathan Turley, a card-carrying liberal Democrat from the George Washington University Law School, who also holds that this immigration decree has truly created a constitutional crisis?
Imagine if a U.S. Congressman had issued this same advice to Pope Francis, that he should “take a deep breath, get control of himself, and then give his opinion on life imprisonment.” Would not the bishops be likely pounce on this language as insulting to the Pope and his office and as meddling in Church affairs? It is truly disturbing that no bishop has yet stepped up to make it clear that this position does not represent the thinking of all the bishops -- at least we hope it does not. These comments have placed the Church in a delicate situation where it appears to support one branch of government in a constitutional battle. Such a statement in the 19th century would have caused riots.
The bishops’ immigration representatives have long been coy about their complete position on illegal immigration. They do not even want to speak about it as “illegal,” and it seems clear that they favor general amnesty for the vast majority of illegal immigrants. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that this position has nothing to do with the fact that most of these illegals are Catholic. But the bishops must realize that the United States is still a majority Protestant country that has always had a deep suspicion of the Catholic Church and its shepherds’ motives. I honestly believe that the bishops’ primary motivation has to do with compassion for the poor and the real suffering in their native lands. But there is a great danger that the Church is going to be perceived by many Americans as simply acting Jesuitically when it comes to the rule of law.
I also truly believe that most Catholics, whether Republicans or Democrats, want to secure rational, comprehensive immigration reform. However, many Catholics also want to secure the borders as a prerequisite to any such reform. They desire this as much to fortify national security as to stop future waves of illegal immigration.
At least two bishops have crossed a line by inserting themselves, and perhaps the Church, into a serious political and legal struggle by taking sides with what appears to many Americans, including many Catholics, to be an outrageous political action by an out-of-control President.
Moreover, I am not convinced that all of our bishops approve of the way our President has acted, yet they are allowing two bishops to make it appear as if all the bishops agree. This is dangerous because there is a real possibility that the majority of this country, due to some future national security crisis, or to a further rise in the already staggering unemployment of American citizens, may well turn against this effort to create a new immigration policy that is so badly needed and blame the Church.
I would have expected that a responsible spokesman for the USCCB would have said something like this: while the bishops are in favor of finding a solution that grants legal status and a future and fair path to citizenship, they are also very concerned about the tremendously divisive result of the President acting alone rather than working with Congress. They have to know that the President completely ignored his “promise” on this issue when his party had control of both houses and that this new move on his part had to be for political reasons. They also have to know that the President himself said on 22 occasions that such an action would be unconstitutional. Now he has reversed himself and ignited a political and constitutional crisis, which, like the partisan jamming of his health care legislation through Congress, has further divided the country.
At least two bishops have crossed a line by inserting themselves, and perhaps the Church, into a serious political and legal struggle by taking sides with what appears to many Americans, including many Catholics, to be an outrageous political action by an out-of-control President. Moreover, there is a very good chance that this action will be struck down by the Supreme Court, which, by large majorities, has already declared other initiatives of this President to be unconstitutional. What will these bishops say then? That the majority of the Supreme Court justices who strike this down also need to take a deep breath?
Littlemore Tracts archives
Littlemore Tracts is copyright © 2014
by Rev. Mark A. Pilon and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information
Father Mark A. Pilon, STL, STD, has taught systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Christendom College, Catholic University of America, and at the Christian Commonwealth Institute, in El Escorial, Spain. He is presently teaching at Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He is an author of Magnum Mysterium: The Sacrament of Matrimony; and a translator of two major works of Fr. Candido Pozo, S.J.
See Fr. Pilon’s biographical sketch.
To get a three month free subscription to the FGF
The Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation needs your help to continue
making these columns available. To make a tax-deductible donation, click