Week 3: Catholic Social Teaching and Immigration

September 24-28, 2007

Faculty: Todd Whitmore

Associate Professor of Theology, The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
Website: kroc.nd.edu

Listen to the podcast (MP3 format, total running time: 00:12:06)


Cardinal Roger Mahony, “Immigration, the American Economy and the Constitution,” Origins 37:3 (31 May 2007): 33-37 (text for annual John M. Templeton Jr. Lecture on Economic Liberties and the Constitution).

Available at http://www.archdiocese.la/news/pdf/news_884_TempletonFinalMay_8_07%20_2_.pdf

Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2003), esp. chapter 2 “Reflections in the Light of the Word of God and Catholic Social Teaching,” #22-39 and chapter 4 “Public Policy Challenges and Responses,” #56-100.

Available at http://www.usccb.org/mrs/stranger.shtml


Todd Whitmore [photo]

Todd Whitmore is Associate Professor of Theology and is Director of the Program in Catholic Social Tradition. [http://www.nd.edu/~cstprog/]

He specializes in moral theology, particularly social ethics, and his areas of interest include Catholic social teaching. His research focuses on the ways in which theological language promotes, masks, and sometimes curbs the use of violence.

He is co-editor of the book series, Catholic Social Tradition, published by the University of Notre Dame Press. He edited and wrote the introductory essay for Ethics in the Nuclear Age: Strategy, Religious Studies, and the Churches (Southern Methodist University 1989); co-edited The Challenge of Global Stewardship: Roman Catholic Responses (Notre Dame 1997); and previously edited the volumes The Growing End: Retrieving and Renewing the Project of John Courtney Murray, and Ethics in the Nuclear Age: Strategy, Religious Studies, and the Churches (Southern Methodist University Press, 1989).

Whitmore has published articles in The Journal of Religion and Ethics. His work has also appeared in the Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, Theological Studies, the Journal of Religion, The Christian Century, America, and Commonweal.

The Reinhold Niebuhr Award (which recognizes a faculty member, student or administrator whose life and teachings exemplify the concerns of Niebuhr, the late Protestant theologian and author) was presented to Whitmore in 2006 because he has served “as the driving force behind the Notre Dame Task Force on Anti-sweatshop Initiatives.” He also pioneered the Program in Catholic Social Tradition as an interdisciplinary academic minor.

For more information: http://al.nd.edu/about-arts-and-letters/student-centered-learning/technology-enhances-theology-course/

Online Discussion

Ask a Question

Submit your question to Associate Professor of Theology, Todd Whitmore. Questions will be answered throughout the week.

Previous Questions

Dr. Whitmore,

Catholic Social Teaching, as I read it, is so broad and comprehensive that it almost cannot be applied to immigrants alone without being applied simultaneously to a whole population, which means bigger, more complicated and controversial policy initiatives that are doomed never to advance toward implementation. For example, we're supposed to care for the poor and disadvantaged in our land, whether they are immigrants or they are native workers whose salaries might be slightly suppressed by the presence of cheap immigrant labor. We're supposed to engage in subsidiarity while at the same time turning to national governemnts and globalization processes for solutions to problems of migration. How can we use such a broad set of teachings, beautiful and rational in its seamlessness, to address immigration problems bit by bit and to make everybody -- the little guy and the big guy -- feel like they're cared about?

Bill Gerards


This is an excellent question, and one that can be applied to any specific issue, not just immigration. Catholic social teaching presents a comprehensive approach to society; how, then, can we bring it to bear on specific issues? In addressing this question, I will apply it to immigration.

I think that the best way to understand Catholic social teaching is that it provides us with a grammar for framing and addressing social issues. Key words in that grammar include the common good, solidarity, human rights, and the option for the poor, among others. Bringing these terms to bear on social issues helps highlight aspects of the problem in question that might otherwise go unnoticed. The terms do not generate undebatable policy prescriptions like some computer program, but they do help us begin to address problems and even make some policy recommendations.

Let's take immigration as an example. The Catholic understanding of the common good is that it is a universal common good. That is to say, we ought to take the good of everyone in mind in addressing social issues, including those people who are not U.S. citizens. That much said, Catholic social teaching does emphasize the good of local or even national communities through what is called the "principle of subsidiarity." This principle holds

  1. that local communities have the primary right and responsibility to address its own issues,
  2. that the larger or more distant communities are to provide support (the latin root of subsidiarity. "subsidere," means to support or help, and
  3. in extreme situations of need, the more distant communities can intervene directly to help.

So what does the common good and subisdiarity highlight on the issue of immigration? First, people in the United States do have an obligation to help ("subsidere") even those people who are not U.S. citizens. Second, people and the government in the United States do have a legitimate concern for their own well being. Third, the first step that is required to address immigration in a way that respects both of the first two points is to develop economic relations with other countries, particularly Mexico, so as to enable/help Mexico develop economically, making immigration to the United States less necessary. Fourth, the situation of illiegal immigration is an "extreme" one, meriting direct intervention to help those in need. Fifth, also following subsidiarity, the first responsibility to help these people in need is not the U.S. government, but people in the workplaces and churches who encounter them face-to-face. The question arises here as to whether one should help someone who is in the United States illegally. The tradition is clear on this matter: if the law forbidding their presence is an unjust law, then civil disobedience is allowed and may even be required. Cardinal Mahoney argued that it became a federal offense to offer support/help for illegal immigrants, then Catholics will have to disobey the law.

So we see that even though Catholic social teaching provides a comprehensive approach to society, it does provide also some definite directions on specific issues like immigration.

Thanks for your e-mail.

Todd Whitmore

I have two questions. What are the differences and similarities between the CST lens and the Protestant lens when viewing immigration? How much of an impact, realistically, can Catholics make regarding influencing this country with our viewpoint on immigration when most of the country is Protestant?

Chris Saqui


This is an excellent question, and it requires answers on a number of levels.

First, Protestants are quite diverse theologically and socially, and so do not provide a unified response to immigration. Second, given this diversity, it is not possible to set out any single set of points of agreement between Catholic teaching and the Protestant faithful. Moreover, some social scientists argue that there is a further development in United States political culture where religious identity no longer defines Americans in the way that it did before; the lines are less Protestant-Catholic-Jew, as the author Will Herberg wrote in the 1960s, but rather liberal/progressive versus conservative. James Davison Hunter in his book "Culture Wars" makes this argument.

So what does all of this mean for Catholics looking for allies in the debate on immigration? First of all, it means that Catholics themselves will be in disagreement not only on the particulars of policy, but even on the larger questions that frame the issue. Truth be told, not many Catholics know Catholic social teaching, and even fewer follow it. The U.S. Bishops acknowledge as much in their document, "Sharing Catholic Social Teaching." Secondly, however, the diversity of U.S. citizens also means that Catholics wanting to follow Catholic social teaching can find allies in unexpected places. A few years ago, I received a grant to help develop programs in Catholic social teaching at twelve Catholic colleges and universities, and one of the most supportive administrators at one college was an Orthodox Jew.

In terms of making an impact on the issue of immigration, I think it is important to highlight the full range of possible activity. To be sure, Catholics following Catholic social teaching should try to affect policy.

However, Catholic social teaching also emphasizes the role of "intermediate associations" from churches to neighborhood associations and more. In assessing effectiveness, be sure to attend to all levels of social activity.

That is when we will have the greatest impact.

Thanks for the question.


I am glad that the USA was founded by Protestants. Every time I hear or read about "Catholic Social Justice" it seems like a buzzword for Socialism. In contrast, by expecting people to make good choices and take responsibility for their actions, we all get better. Shouldn't charity be the way we provide for the less fortunate instead of making the government, and therefore all of us, do so? In the context of the forum, anyone can give an illegal alien a job, a place to rent, etc. Why are people like Cardinal Mahony trying to use religion to force his political opinion on us?

Benedict J. Lucchese


Thank you for your response, and for its frankness. I can do it justice only by exhibiting the same candor.

The notion that Catholic social teaching, with its recognition of a positive role for the state in public affairs, constitutes a form of socialism is a common and mistaken one. This is why it is important that more of our schools and seminaries teach Catholic social teaching.

Catholic social teaching refers to the importance of economic initiative and the freedom that that initiative implies repeatedly.

Leo XIII argues in Rerum Novarum (1891) that the ability to reason and so creatively consider the future is what distinguishes humans from other animals.

Through work, a person, "leaves, as it were, the impress of his own personality" on nature. Under socialism, "the sources of wealth would themselves run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry." Pius XI, in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), critiques Mussolini's corporatism, arguing that, "the state is substituting itself in the place of private initiative, instead of limiting itself to necessary and sufficient help and assistance." Pius articulates the principle of subsidiarity as a way to regulate the interaction between the state on the one hand and initiative in the economic and other social spheres on the other. Pius writes: "It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them. The state authorities should leave to other bodies the care and expediting of business and activities of lesser moment. Pius follows, in the 1937 document Divini redemptoris, with the claim that states can intervene in the lives of persons, but only "supposing always the necessary respect for liberty and private initiative."

John XXIII is noteworthy for the number of times and the force with which he discusses human initiative in the economic sphere. This is particularly the case in Mater et Magistra (1961), which nonetheless came under particular attack from economic neo-liberals. In the section on private initiative and state intervention in economic life, John writes, "At the outset it should be affirmed that in economic affairs first place be given to the private initiative of individual men who, either working by themselves, or with others in one fashion or another, pursue their common interests." The Pope then cites Pius on the principle of subsidiarity. John writes, "Experience, in fact shows that where private initiative of individuals is lacking, political tyranny prevails. Moreover, much stagnation occurs in various sectors of the economy, and hence all sorts of consumer goods and services, closely connected with the needs of the body and more especially the spirit, are in short supply.

Beyond doubt, the attainment of such goods and services provides remarkable opportunity and stimulus for individuals to exercise initiative and industry." Such "experience," particularly when coupled with the principle of subsidiarity,yields a directive for state activity. "For this principle must always be retained: that State activity in the economic field, no matter what its breadth or depth may be, ought not be exercised in such a way as to curtail an individual's freedom of personal initiative. Rather it should work to expand that freedom as much as possible by the effective protection of the essential personal rights of each and every individual." References to personal economic initiative are scattered throughout the rest of the document.

In Pacem in Terris (1963), John quotes himself in Mater et magistra with regard to personal freedom and the consequent limits on state activity. Pacem in terris proceeds to ground these points in an understanding of human dignity that gives rise to the right of a person to "act chiefly on his own initiative."

There is no drop in the accent on personal initiative and the reasons for it in the writings of Paul VI. In Populorum Progressio (1967), he is unblinking. "The introduction of industry is a necessity for economic growth and human progress; it is also a sign of development and contributes to it. By persistant work and use of his intelligence man gradually wrests nature's secrets from her and finds a better application for her riches. As his self-mastery increases, he develops a taste for research and discovery, an ability to take a calculated risk, boldness in enterprises." Octogesima Adveniens (1971) continues the themes when it states, "In no other age has the appeal to the imagination of society been so explicit. To this should be devoted enterprises of invention and capital as important as those invested for armaments or technological achievements." Single-party Marxism fails in this regard because, if installed, it "would deprive individuals and other groups of any possibility of initiative and choice."

It is clear, then, that recognition of independent economic initiative and its import for the production of wealth is longstanding in Catholic social teaching.

There is one key difference between neo-liberal economics and Catholic social teaching in the appeal to initiative. In Catholic social teaching, the appeal refers to everyone in the economic sphere; in neo-liberalism it is limited to entrepreneurs and the owners of capital. John Paul II is on pointin Laborem Exercens (1981)when he notes that much of Catholic social teaching since Rerum Novarum has been in response to an economic system that has denied the initiative of workers. "This state of affairs was favored by the liberal socio-political system, which in accordance with its 'economistic' premises, strengthened and safeguarded economic initiative by the possessors of capital alone, but did not pay sufficient attention to the rights of workers, on the grounds that human work is solely an instrument of production, and that capital is the basis, efficient factor, and purpose of production." This oversight on the part of economistic capitalism has led to repeated emphasis in Catholic social teaching on the right of the non-owning worker to exercise initiative in the workplace through participation indecision-making and even by becoming owners in co-operative arrangements with other workers. References to initiative on the part of non-owning workers or to worker-owned co-operatives are virtually non-existent in the work of Catholic economic neo-liberals like Michael Novak and are never discussed in a positive manner. Therefore, if anything is to be said, it is that the neo-liberal reference to initiative is narrower than that in Catholic social teaching. The Catholic view of economic initiative is more capacious.

This point applies to the immigration issue. It is interesting to note that it tends to be economic neo-liberals who are calling most for state intervention in the immigration issue, to the point where there is a call to spend massive amounts of public money (tax dollars) to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. It would seem that a pure free-trade perspective would allow for the free flow of labor across boundaries. Yet economic neo-liberals allow only for the free flow of capital, not labor. Why is that?

It cannot be jobs for the American worker (a complaint often made against immigration) because the free flow of capital allows the export of production (factories) to other countries,leading to job loss in the U.S. Could it be that the neo-liberal approach is not primarily about freedom and free flow, but rather about freedom for those already with significant capital so that they can gain more capital? From a true free-trade perspective, if a hard-working Mexican wants to come to the United States on his or her own initiative to work, there is no reason to bar him or her; the market will correct any imbalances.

I do not think that calling for restrictions on immigration constitutes socialism, but if any act on the part of the state to serve a group of people at the public expense (taxes) of other people counts as socialism, then even the building of the wall would have to be deemed socialism. It is important to make every effort to be as accurate as possible in describing the various positions as issues as important as that of immigration.

For Catholics, this process begins by learning what John Paul II was clear in calling not just teaching, but Catholic social "doctrine."

Thanks again for your e-mail,


Todd Whitmore