Washington - Catholic bishops and priests from major dioceses across the country will preach a coordinated message next month backing changes in immigration policy, with some using Sunday Masses on Sept. 8 to urge Congressional passage of a legislative overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
The decision to embrace political action from the pulpit is part of a broader effort by the Roman Catholic Church and other faith groups that support President Obama’s call for new immigration laws. It includes advertising and phone calls directed at 60 Catholic Republican lawmakers and “prayerful marches” in Congressional districts where the issue has become a divisive topic.
“We want to try to pull out all the stops,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said the immigration issue was at a now-or-never moment. “They have to hear the message that we want this done, and if you’re not successful during the summer, you’re not going to win by the end of the year.”
Catholic leaders, who have tried to wield their clout against Mr. Obama on issues like abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage, are betting that their congregations will be able to exert pressure on reluctant Republicans and wavering Democrats to support the president on immigration. They say they are motivated by the Bible’s teachings and by the reality that many Latino immigrants are Catholics and represent a critical demographic for the church.
The political campaign by Catholic priests is certain to catch the attention of Catholic members of Congress. Catholics are the largest single religious group in Congress, making up just over 30 percent of the members, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. The current House has 136 Catholic members, including Speaker John A. Boehner and 60 other Republicans, according to Pew.
For some Republican members, vocal support by local priests and bishops could provide the religious rationale they need to support an overhaul in the face of criticism from conservatives. “The connection between a pastor and their congregation is really like nothing else in society,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
White House officials said they were counting on Catholics and members of other religious groups to help pass an immigration overhaul through a Republican-controlled House that is filled with members fighting against one. Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said Catholic leaders had participated in outreach meetings at the White House.
“It’s pretty rare for the Catholics to take on an issue like this straight to the pews,” said Ms. Muñoz, who is leading Mr. Obama’s immigration effort. She said Catholics had long been advocates for an immigration overhaul, but were now more organized. “This is actually a much more across-the-church effort, and it shows.”
Last year, Catholic activism pushed Mr. Obama to compromise on a plan to require religious employers to provide contraception health coverage. The Catholic Church often plays an outsize role in the political debate over abortion and marriage. But it remains unclear how much the Catholic campaign on immigration can change the minds of lawmakers who view the president’s proposals as amnesty for lawbreakers.
Representative Steve King, a Catholic Republican from Iowa and a leading opponent of the immigration overhaul, said the campaign may help persuade some colleagues who are already under political pressure to pass an immigration bill.
“If the church puts out a unified message, there will be some Catholic legislators who will want to accept that guidance, because they want to get there anyway,” Mr. King said. “It gives them cover.”
Representative Daniel Lipinski, a Catholic Democrat from Illinois, said he had listened to the bishops and priests from his district. But he said he viewed their opinions on immigration as less binding than the church’s positions on social issues.
“There are some issues that the church speaks authoritatively on, such as abortion, in protecting life,” said Mr. Lipinski, who remains skeptical about promises of increased border security. “And then there are prudential judgments that are made, informed by Catholic theology, but it’s not something that Catholics are required to follow.”
The effort by Catholics started last Thursday — the day of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary — and it will continue through mid-October, when House members are expected to vote on immigration legislation. Already, nearly a dozen major dioceses and archdioceses, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Brooklyn and San Antonio, have committed to holding Masses and events on or around Sept. 8, and the Archdiocese of New York is considering how it might participate as well.
Not all priests plan to deliver homilies. But the church is calling on bishops across the country to meet with, phone or write their members of Congress in support of an overhaul. Though the Senate passed an immigration overhaul in June, the legislation has stalled in the House, where some conservative members have denounced any broad bill as “amnesty,” and others prefer a piecemeal approach.
“We’ve seen on other issues where the Catholic Church leans into an issue, like health care or abortion, people listen,” said Angela Kelley, the vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “The same could be said for immigration reform.”
Many religious organizations have played a substantial role in helping to rally support for an immigration overhaul. On Tuesday, the Evangelical Immigration Table started a more than $400,000 radio ad campaign on Christian and talk radio, which will be heard in 56 Congressional districts across 14 states. But the Catholic Church, in particular, is throwing its full might behind an immigration overhaul.
“If a representative gets contacted by their bishop and the representative is Catholic, they listen and they strongly take into consideration the views of the church,” Mr. Appleby said.
One major pilgrimage is already under way in California. Marchers have departed from Sacramento and San Ysidro, on the border with Mexico, with plans to convene for a rally on Sept. 2 in Bakersfield, where organizers expect thousands to descend on the district of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 House Republican.
“We’ve identified him as the linchpin,” said the Rev. Jon Pedigo of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in San Jose, who is the director of the Catholic bishops’ Justice for Immigrants campaign.
Another pilgrimage in September is to pass through the Virginia districts of two Republican congressmen, Eric Cantor, the majority leader, and Robert W. Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. (At a town hall-style meeting in Virginia on Monday, Mr. Goodlatte rejected what he called a “special” pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already in the country.)
Representative David Valadao, a Catholic Republican from central California, said he supported an immigration overhaul and citizenship for some illegal immigrants, a sizable number of whom live in his largely agricultural district.
“It would be good to have the conversation and help them understand that this is important for a lot of different reasons,” Mr. Valadao said. “Having your priests talk about it in front of your constituents is always beneficial.”