American leadership in the Catholic church laid low during the presidential election but San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy is now making clear that if President-elect Donald Trump makes good on campaign promises of mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants, the church is prepared to take “massive action.”
“During the past months the specter of a massive deportation campaign aimed at ripping more than 10 million undocumented immigrants from their lives and families has realistically emerged as potential federal policy,” McElroy said.
“We must label this policy proposal for what it is — an act of injustice which would stain our national honor in the same manner as the progressive dispossessions of the Native American peoples of the United States and the interment of the Japanese” during World War II, he said.
There are an estimated 81 million self-identified Roman Catholics in the U.S., about 25 percent of the population. McElroy said mass deportations could remove more than 10 percent of parishioners from U.S. churches.
McElroy emphasized that he hopes Trump’s administration will take a more limited approach to immigration enforcement, and he said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is having conversations with the Trump transition team to that effect. Early pronouncements from the transition team have focused on criminal elements, not the broader unauthorized immigrant population.
McElroy said Trump’s decision on whether to preserve President Barack Obama’s executive action deferring deportation for childhood arrivals to the country will be an indicator for future immigration policies.
When asked how to calm the fears of unauthorized immigrants, McElroy said, “I have fear, too. I think that’s one of the problems. As we speak with the undocumented community, we can’t give a false sense of serenity. Our only hope is to say we’re going to stand together.”
McElroy would not say whether churches would act as sanctuaries, but said it would have to be considered.
The church’s positions on government policies do not align neatly with any political party. While the church is against abortion, which tends to be a platform of conservative candidates, the church also takes a more liberal stance on issues relating to the environment, poverty and immigration.
For Allan Figueroa Deck, a theological scholar from Loyola Marymount University, who presented at a recent forum on immigration at the University of San Diego, being against abortion and for immigration reform are not at odds with each other. He said immigration is a “pro-life issue.”
Deporting someone to a country where they might die because of the conditions there is “akin to driving someone to an abortion clinic,” Deck said.
He said the church should “push for inclusiveness and understanding over rigid rules” going forward.
Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church worldwide, made a splash in the U.S. campaign in February, when he told reporters, "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel."
Trump, who has pledged to make Mexico pay for a wall along the U.S. border, responded: “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith. They are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant.”
The day after the election, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement, “We will advocate for policies that offer opportunity to all people, of all faiths, in all walks of life. We are firm in our resolve that our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.”
It’s not the first time the Catholic church has become involved in U.S. immigration policy.
In 2003, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a policy statement calling for immigration reform that would include a path to legalization, a worker program, family reunification and actions to address issues such as poverty that create incentives for migrants.
In 2006, Los Angeles-based Cardinal Roger Mahony announced that if a bill passed Congress that made helping an unauthorized immigrant a crime, he would tell priests and parishioners to break the law.
As a non-profit organization, the Catholic church cannot endorse specific candidates, but it can push the executive branch, and to some extent the legislative branch, on policy decisions.
In San Diego and Tijuana, Catholic organizations work to help refugees and immigrants. Catholic Charities is one of four refugee resettlement agencies in the county. It also helps asylum seekers and other migrants with food and housing. The Casa del Migrante, run by the Rev. Patrick Murphy, is a shelter for the recently deported as well as migrants waiting their turn to enter the U.S.
At the University of San Diego’s immigration forum, one attendee questioned why the Catholic church had been mostly silent prior to the election and was speaking up now.
McElroy said the situation is different now that the church isn’t having to balance the competing political principles relating to abortion and immigration. He spoke strongly against mass deportations, likening the idea to the Trail of Tears for Native Americans in the 1830s.
“The church can never acquiesce in or cooperate with such a grave evil in our society,” McElroy said.
“All of the steps in the Civil Rights campaign will have to be enlisted if we’re facing a true massive deportation that tears apart families,” he said, referring to priests and nuns who joined activists in acts of civil disobedience. “I hope we won’t get back to those days. If that’s the decision, we’re going to have to entertain those modes of operation.”
Catholic priests and nuns marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, according to Jeffrey Burns, director of the Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture at University of San Diego.
“That was the most visual Catholic endorsement of the civil rights movement,” Burns said.
He said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops got involved in 1958 by releasing a statement in support of equal rights regardless of race.
"The issue was not just a social issue but a moral issue,” Burns said. “They redefined the whole struggle based on human rights and not just what was socially normative.”
He said the Catholic church was also heavily involved in the farm workers movement with César Chávez, and that some parishes had acted as sanctuaries for those who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War as well as for refugees from civil wars in Central America.
Not all Catholics were supportive of the different movements with which the church officially aligned, Burns said.
“On the highest level, you had support for it, but you could also have push back on the local level among the parishioners,” Burns explained. “Not everyone was on board with what the church was pushing. I think the same will be true now.”
The website Catholics4Trump encouraged Catholics to be supportive of Trump’s immigration proposals, and to oppose Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“This is the most critical presidential election in the history of the United States. Hillary Clinton, a corrupt, radical pro-abortion, anti-Christian career politician threatens to change the face of America forever,” the website says in its ‘About us’ section. “She will restrict religious speech and persecute Christians who refuse to support her radical social agenda. She will promote illegal immigration and allow millions of unvetted illegal immigrants into our country. The illegal population will vote Democrat far into the future so that no conservative can have a viable chance to be elected president. All Catholics have a moral obligation to vote for the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton in this election: Donald Trump.”
The website’s editor did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
Bulletins for Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Old Town contained similar warnings about Clinton.
During a question-and-answer session at the University of San Diego immigration forum, one woman who identified herself as a theologian worried about the Catholics who had voted for Trump. Since the Pope had declared it a sin to hurt the environment and contribute to climate change, she asked, didn’t that make it a sin to vote for Trump, especially when Trump’s stance on immigration was also factored in? She suggested requiring penance from Catholic Trump supporters.
“Pope Francis’s voice doesn’t seem to have mattered,” she said. “Nothing seems to have mattered.”