When bishops speak on moral issues, Catholics are compelled to listen

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Even in political matters, it's within the Church's mission to pass moral judgment 

Condemnation of a U.S. policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border, including from the U.S. bishops, preceded a move by President Donald Trump June 20 to end the policy.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, for example, issued a statement that said he understands the need to have secure borders, "but to forcibly separate children from their parents is inhumane, morally unacceptable and ineffective to the goal of deterrence and safety."

The U.S. bishops' statements that moral principles must be observed in immigration policy "have a claim on any Catholic," said Larry Welch, professor of systematic theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

Catholics can't dismiss the bishops when they are teaching with regard to the moral law, including when it applies to governmental laws and public policies, Welch said. "It's something they're bound to conform their conscience to," he said.

Those teachings, he said, are grounded in the teachings of Jesus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such ways that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ" (CCC 862). The catechism adds that it is a part of the Church's mission to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics (CCC 2246).

"Hopefully people of good will, too, can see the point they're making," Welch said of the bishops.

Welch referred to the statement from Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was approved by bishops attending their June 13-14 spring assembly, and other bishops' remarks on the issue. Among other things, Cardinal DiNardo's statement condemned the continued use of family separation at the U.S.-Mexican border as an implementation of the U.S. administration's zero tolerance policy.

Welch related that "the bishops are saying that there needs to be basic moral principles at the heart of policies or laws that protect human life and keep families together. That's their job — to point out that there's moral principles that have to be observed."

Cardinal DiNardo "wasn't trying to prescribe exactly what an immigration policy should look like or exactly what an asylum policy should look like," but stuck to the point that moral principles have to be at the base of laws and policy, Welch added.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced the policy, cited a Bible passage about God's authority and the law — what Sessions said was Paul's "command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." But, Welch said, "we shouldn't uphold laws or policies that are unjust. The bishops have said that through many years in the United States, particularly in regard to segregation and civil rights."

Daniel L. Smith, assistant professor of the New Testament at Saint Louis University, said the passage in Paul's letter to the Romans that Sessions referred to is considered "an occasional letter," written on a specific occasion to a specific audience. He was writing to Christians in Rome, the heart of the empire, to encourage them to avoid making trouble with the government and attracting unnecessary attention, Smith said.

Another passage, Acts 5, is the classic text the Christian tradition returns to when there are Christians in power who want Christians to obey them and point to Romans 13, Smith said. In Acts, the apostles are preaching in Jerusalem and the local authorities tell them to stop teaching about Jesus. But, Smith said, Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

Insofar as the government encourages people to cross at a crosswalk and pay taxes to support local fire and rescue services, "absolutely," Smith said. "But when those authorities clash with the directions from God, then Christians have a very clear choice."

Also in the New Testament, Smith said, are examples of Jesus obeying the will of God rather than political authorities.

Arindam Kar, an attorney with Bryan Cave who is a board member of the International Institute in St. Louis, said that the zero tolerance policy change in April called for the prosecution of anyone who crosses the border illegally. In addition, the separation of parents from children was implemented, he said. People who arrive at the border have a legal right to seek asylum, he said, but those children also were separated under the policy.

Kris Walentik, an attorney with Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, recently returned from a week in Dilley, Texas, providing free legal services to mothers and children in detention, helping with their asylum process. The family separation policy wasn't in place at the time, Walentik said.

The people she worked with express a fear of returning to their home countries, Walentik said. She finds the separation "appalling. They're coming here for valid reasons and we're not supporting them, following our laws to give them a chance to fight to be here," she said.

Sara John, program coordinator of the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America and parishioner at Most Sacred Heart in Eureka, said the new policy and rhetoric is "shocking but not surprising." Prevention Through Deterrence along the border has been a formal U.S. policy since the early 1990s, and in her opinion, it hasn't worked. Prevention Through Deterrence included tight security measures such as a heightened presence and barriers at recognized crossing areas and urban ports of entry. But it did not include separating families who seek asylum.

It's a consequence of a policy implementing "a fundamentally, flawed and broken system that is out of date," she said.

While standing with families affected, John said, it's also necessary to work toward a solution whereby families can stay in their communities of origin and live lives with dignity. The U.S. has intervened in Latin America, creating or facilitating unrest, she said.

John agreed with Walentik that the vast majority of people who are fleeing their home countries are trying to escape violence. Regarding the U.S. policies, she said, "as communities of faith and people of goodwill, we should reject that kind of disrespect. We're called to love, and we're called to love a lot better than we're doing right now." 

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