Our Religious Obligations to Refugees and Migrants

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies
Delivered at the Seminar on Migration and Religion
February 9-10, 2017 | Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Credit: UN Photo/Tobin Jones

Our Religious Obligations to Refugees and Migrants


When I was young, my family would watch sports events on television. If there was not a home team or some other obvious favorite playing, we would root for the team not favored to win, the “underdog.” And if, say, the Notre Dame football team had far larger, more skilled and highly recruited players than their opponents, we would have to pretend that they were the underdog, so we could cheer for them in good conscience. Of course, rooting for the underdog was not just a habit that applied to sports contests. You were supposed to pull for the underdogs in your family, school, and society as well.

In retrospect, it is not hard to locate the source of this habit. Catholics were, in fact, social underdogs for much of their history in the United States. We were taught that the poor would inherit the kingdom, and that we would ultimately be judged by how we treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Jesus himself fully identified with the marginal and never experienced worldly success. Throughout his public ministry, he lived off the kindness of his friends and disciples, never held public office, and consorted with the lowest and most despised elements of society.

The Gospel of Wealth and Exclusion

Do most Christians today believe in Jesus’ witness and teaching about the poor, the marginal and dispossessed? During an earlier era of large-scale migration to the United States, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie espoused what he called the “Gospel concerning Wealth,” which held that the very rich should administer their surplus wealth “for the common good” and for “public purposes, from which the masses [would] reap the principal benefit” (Carnegie 1889). Carnegie preached a patronizing, trickle-down gospel, but at least he recognized the responsibility of the rich to their communities and he endowed institutions dedicated to the common good that survive today.

Today’s gospel of wealth holds that the very rich create the jobs, generate the wealth, and pay excessive taxes. This gospel relegates the rest of us to the status of freeloaders, ingrates, and obstructionists. Persons who raise concerns related to income inequality can expect to be accused of class warfare or even (remarkably) elitism. In addition, a cottage industry of preachers, pastors and televangelists teach that if a person works hard and leads an upright life, God will reward him or her with material success and happiness. This teaching may be akin to Franz Hinkelammert’s “ethic of the elected by success,” cited by Professor Jorge Castillo. Yet if faith and hard work guaranteed material success, 95 percent of African women would be wealthy, which they are not.

Modern iterations of the gospel of wealth turn material success into what Scripture warns that it is always at risk of becoming, an idol. It also diminishes empathy with migrants, which is a defining imperative in the Judeo-Christian and broader Abrahamic faith traditions. To this gospel’s adherents, the poor are “losers” with nobody to blame but themselves or perhaps their pathological upbringing or communities.

On August 9, 1936, Dorothy Day wrote to a friend who was disappointed about the impact of her work and the seeming indifference of her fellow Catholics. Her words resonate today: “You sounded … so discouraged and you know as well as I do that discouragement is a temptation of the devil. Why should we try to see results? It is enough to keep on in the face of what looks to be defeat. We certainly have enough examples in the lives of the saints to help us. Not to speak of that greatest of failures (to the eyes of the world) of Christ on the cross. Why look for [a] response? After all, we can only do what lies in our power and leave all the rest to God, and God will attend to it (Day 2012).”

Pope Francis has regularly denounced, in Professor Castillo’s words, “a logic of exclusion based on materialism and a pattern of consumerism that places the needs and the lives of migrants at the lowest level on their value scale.” Both materialism and exclusion represent a turning away from others, particularly those in need. They are at work not just when a nation bars refugees or migrants from admission, but also when it benefits from their low-pay and exploitation, but refuses to extend full membership to them.

We do not contest this ethic nearly enough, and we tend to be embarrassed by those who do. Look at the abuse heaped on Pope Francis for making the incontrovertible point during the dismal US election season that a “person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” Candidate Trump replied that “for a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” Yet correcting moral error and prophetically speaking truth to power is a defining responsibility of a religious leader. Pope Francis subsequently identified hypocrisy as the “sin” that “Jesus condemns most” and said: “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help.”[1] More recently, he denounced the “scandal of saying one thing and doing another.”[2] Trump was wrong: the “disgrace” does not lie with Pope Francis, but with politicians (like him) who slander refugees and immigrants and who use them as political pawns, with their enablers, and with those of us who do not rise to the defense of our brothers and sisters.

Nationality and Sovereignty

A large body of academic literature treats the nation-state as an anachronism in our increasingly inter-connected world. Yet states seem to be in no hurry to exit the global stage and, in any event, it’s not clear what would replace them. At their best, states can protect their citizens from foreign domination and oppression. They can safeguard the right to self-determination of distinct political, social and cultural groups. They can contribute to a level of social cohesion and ordered liberty that promotes the common good. And they can honor the principle of subsidiarity (devolution) by placing decision-making in the hands of the communities that are most knowledgeable and affected by their own challenges.

Of course, states differ substantially in their aspirations and practices, and many do not make even a pretense of living up to their responsibility to safeguard rights and to promote the common good. Needless to say, there are stark differences between North Korea and Sweden, or, for that matter, between Donald Trump’s view of the United States and George W. Bush’s. Yet Catholic teaching provides little explicit guidance on the issue of nationality.[3]

This omission is odd given how the Catholic Church privileges human dignity, human rights and the common good; equates “social justice” with “participatory” and “contributive” justice; insists on solidarity with the marginalized; embraces unity in diversity; respects culture as a locus of fundamental values; calls for international responses to challenges that cannot be unilaterally addressed; and sees its mission as gathering together God’s scattered children (Kerwin 2009, 203-207). That the Church pre-dates the nation-state and has suffered abundant persecution over its long history gives it a special vantage point and incentive to speak more directly on the purpose and orientation of states.

The lack of strong moral teaching in this area may be due, in part, to the reliance by the universal Church on local churches to discern and address conditions on the ground. Whatever the reason, the under-development of Catholic thought on nationality presents a challenge to Catholics that seek to promote the full participation of immigrants and refugees in their communities and nation. Because citizenship and nationality are inextricably linked, debates on membership always beg the question: into what?

Responsibility Sharing

On September 19, 2016, the UN hosted a Summit on the Large Movements of Migrants and Refugees. Responsibility-sharing was a central theme. The resulting New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants calls for the development of global compacts on refugees and on “safe, orderly and regular migration.” Yet despite the Declaration’s adoption by all member states, many states reject its underlying vision. At the Summit, the President of Macedonia, for example, described refugees as a military threat, terrorist menace, and natural disaster in one sweeping statement, which received respectful applause. He concluded his remarks by making the empty point that “[t]olerance for diversity must be substituted with respect for diversity,” begging the question of how intolerance might translate into respect.

Liberal democracies have never been immune from nativism. Nativists believe that citizenship should be granted based on national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics that human beings cannot or should not be compelled to change. To them, these characteristics should determine membership – not the contributions of immigrants and refugees, not their potential, not what they have endured or overcome, not their good character, not their hard work, not their taxes, not their long tenure in the country, not their families, not their military service, none of it.

Under another view, membership should largely turn on a shared commitment to civic ideals like freedom, equality, rights, liberty, justice, and opportunity – and to the institutions that uphold those ideals, which have been under steady attack by the new US administration. Here is how one US president described the young nation: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

In a letter to a group of religious minorities, he wrote: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

In other words, citizenship should be determined by character and conduct, not wealth, religion, national origin, or ethnicity. The first quote comes from George Washington’s Address to the Members of the Volunteer Association and the Other Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Ireland Who Have Lately Arrived in the City of New York, December 2, 1783; the second from Washington’s well-known Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, August 21, 1790.

In his first inaugural address, George W. Bush referred to “the American story” as one of a “flawed and fallible people united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals.” “The grandest of these ideals,” he said, “is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born.” This vision disposes the nation to embrace refugees and immigrants and even to view them as emblematic of the national experience, not foreign, hostile or forever beyond the pale.

Faith communities have also ceded too readily the meaning of sovereignty, a concept closely related to nationality which is regularly evoked to support exclusionary citizenship policies and harsh immigration enforcement tactics, like the Trump administration’s current proposal to separate migrant children from their families at the border. The administration’s executive orders call for 100 percent secure borders (no illegal crossings) and a 2,000-mile impassable wall between two allied states, which has gone beyond political symbolism to become something of an idol. Its symbolic aspect is underscored by the fact that two-thirds of newly undocumented US immigrants overstay their visas: they do not illegally cross a border (Warren and Kerwin 2017). The wall would do nothing to stem this practice, and it will not end illegal crossings either.

Can we reclaim this concept of state sovereignty and put it in service of human dignity? The purpose of states is not just national defense or homeland security. Rather, sovereignty locates responsibility for safeguarding rights and promoting the common good. In certain circumstances — like genocide and refugee protection – states have assumed the legal responsibility to defend the rights of citizens of other states. Yet they also have broader ethical duties – both negative and positive — to forced migrants or others who have suffered grave rights violations (Hollenbach 2016). Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized the need for international cooperation to address challenges – like large-scale migration, the crisis in refugee protection, climate change, and security threats – that cannot be addressed unilaterally:

As things presently stand, there is no place for autonomous solutions pursued by individual states, since the consequences of the decisions made by each inevitably have repercussions on the entire international community. Indeed, migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world, and our response can only be the fruit of a common effort respectful of human dignity and the rights of persons (Francis 2016).


Integration is central to the success of migrants and refugees, their families, their new communities and even their communities of origin. In Pope Francis’ words, integration “is neither assimilation nor incorporation,” but it is “a two-way process, rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness: it is not the superimposing of one culture over another, nor mutual isolation, with the insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettoes (Francis 2017).”

Catholic teaching locates integration within a deeper vision of human flourishing and “communion” based on the core, shared values expressed imperfectly in diverse cultures. As Fr. Graziano Batistella, c.s. points out, cultural practices cannot be embraced that contravene either the “universal ethical values inherent in natural law or fundamental human rights.” These values, rights and beliefs form, in part, the substance of “communion.”

The openness of host communities to refugees and immigrants is fundamental to their ability to integrate. The Catholic and Jewish faiths have been mainstreamed in US society, a result which would have seemed inconceivable a century ago. The sociologist Nancy Foner argues that a few decades hence the United States could be viewed as an Abrahamic culture, but Trumpism will not take it there.

Fr. Batistella tells us that like the Good Samaritan, migrants and refugees are coming to the rescue of developed states, whether we recognize our need for them or not. Pope Francis describes migrants as an “an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community (Francis 2013).” Rather than a problem, migration can “open vistas for the growth of a new humanity foreshadowed in the paschal mystery: a humanity for which every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland is a foreign country (ibid.).”

Final Reflections

How do we bring our national laws, international systems, and hearts and minds into alignment with our moral obligations? We practice the law of reciprocity or the Golden Rule. Myron Cherry reminds of the teaching of Hillel, the Jewish scholar of the 1st century BC: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, the rest is explanation, go and learn.” Today’s Jewish people, as Mr. Cherry points out, are taught to see themselves as having personally escaped Egypt. This self-knowledge (born of radical empathy) carries with it the responsibility to treat strangers with kindness and love.

Refugees and immigrants, in turn, have a responsibility to contribute to their new society, which they overwhelmingly want to do. They also want it known that, despite their portrayal by some politicians and media figures, they are not takers, criminals or terrorists.

Fear of insecurity, the loss of community and identity can lead natives to embrace exclusionary nationalist ideologies. Demagogues cater to the sense of some natives that they have been displaced and no longer belong in their own communities. As it happens, these same concerns prompt many migrants to flee or otherwise uproot. Both groups – natives and newcomers – matter to persons of faith. Neither can be dismissed. Each “belongs to humanity and shares with all people, the hope of a better world” (Francis 2013).

Fr. Batistella asks whether it is “possible to share the same faith and have a different attitude toward migrants?” Some would restrict the Hebrew Scripture’s repeated demand to love the “stranger” (ger) to lawful permanent residents. Yet this is to impose a 21st century legal category on a different time, place and culture. And in any event, as Fr. Batistella argues, it is not so much the identity or legal status of migrants that matters, as why we are all called to love and protect them – because they do not possess sufficient sources of protection, because we have been in the same situation, because we love and honor our God, and because “they” are “us.” When human dignity is offended and rights violated, he says, our obligations to migrants become absolute. And these obligations do not turn on a migrant’s religion, nationality, ethnicity or immigration status, but on his or her person-hood and on our own. In the final analysis, that is, we are all citizens of the kingdom, and our sovereign is not the state.

[1] Cindy Wooden, Christians who reject all refugees are ‘hypocrites,’ Pope says, Catholic News Service, Oct. 13, 2016, at http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/christians-who-reject-all-refugees-are-hypocrites-pope-says.cfm.

[2] Julie Zauzmer, Pope Francis suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic, WASH POST, Feb. 23, 2017, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/02/23/pope-francis-praises-the-torah-and-suggests-its-better-to-be-an-atheist-than-a-bad-catholic/?utm_term=.1b4371e0c8ec.

[3] It provides more guidance on the kind of society it expects Christians and people of good will to build.



Carnegie, Andrew.1889. “Wealth.” The North American Review 148(391): 653-664. www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/rbannis1/AIH19th/Carnegie.html

Day, Dorothy. 2010. All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, Edited by Robert Ellsberg. New York, NY: Image Books.

Hollenbach, David. 2016. “Borders and Duties to the Displaced: Ethical Perspectives on the Refugee Protection System.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 4(3): 148-165. https://cmsny.org/publications/borders-and-duties-to-the-displaced/

Kerwin, Donald. 2009. “Toward a Catholic Vision of Nationality.” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 23(7): 197-207.

Pope Francis. 2017. Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Participants in the VI International Forum on Migration and Peace. http://jmsz.hu/reflection/address-of-his-holiness-pope-francis-to-participants-in-the-vi-international-forum-on-migration-and-peace-tuesday-20-february/

______. 2016. Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See for the Traditional Exchange of New Year Greetings. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2016/january/documents/papa-francesco_20160111_corpo-diplomatico.html

______. 2013. Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Migrants and Refugees: Towards a Better World (2014)http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20130805_world-migrants-day.html

Warren, Robert, and Donald Kerwin. 2017. “The 2,000 Mile Wall in Search of a Purpose: Since 2007 Visa Overstays Have Outnumbered Undocumented Border Crossers by a Half Million.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 5(1): 124-136. https://cmsny.org/publications/jmhs-visa-overstays-border-wall/.

* This post was also published on the Huffington Post on March 9, 2017, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58c16b67e4b0c3276fb781d6.