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U.S., Mexican bishops join voices on migration


Despite four days of intense focusing on sex abuse and a possible war in Iraq, the U. S. Catholic bishops approved an array of documents on migration, on poverty, Hispanic affairs, domestic violence, education, stewardship and liturgy, as well as a pro-life statement.

All of the documents and statements won approval from the overwhelming majority of the 260 voting bishops attending the meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here.

For the first time in its history, the U.S. conference worked with another episcopal body to produce a joint statement. The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration collaborated with the Mexican Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care for People on the Move. Bishop Carlos Talavera Ramirez of Coatzacoalcos in the state of Vera Cruz, a member of the commission, attended the U.S. bishops’ meeting while Auxiliary Bishop John Manz of Chicago represented the U.S. bishops at the Mexican bishops’ gathering on migration held concurrently in Mexico City.

In preparing their joint statement, the two bodies heard testimony from academics, politicians, pastoral agents, bishops -- especially those on either side of the border -- and migrants themselves. The original draft of the joint pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, was drafted by the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio. The center brought long experience and expertise on cross-border issues and was familiar with the regular links between the Texas and Mexico bishops, who initiated the project. Fr. Anthony McGuire, director of pastoral care for the bishops’ Migrant and Refugee Services, and Kevin Appleby, head of policy for that group, revised the statement.

The document is “timely,” Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told NCR, coming on the eve of talks between Washington and Mexico City set for January.

The bishops believe that the magnitude of migrants and the record amount of cross-border investment during the past decade also contribute to its significance. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million legal border crossings occur each year between Mexico and the United States. Some 150,000 to 200,000 Mexicans enter as legal permanent residents, accounting for one-fifth of all legal permanent residents admitted annually. Roughly two-thirds of the Mexicans here are in the country as legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens. A sizeable number of Americans also work and retire south of the border.

‘Diocese without borders’

The dangers associated with migration have meant that as many as 300 people die each year attempting to cross the U.S. border. This summer, 167 migrants perished in Arizona. The tragedy underscores the need to “educate our people to open their hearts to our brothers and sisters south of the border,” said Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien.

On Nov. 21, O’Brien and representatives of ministries in the Arizona dioceses will partner with those in the Hermosillo archdiocese in Nogales, Mexico, to create “a diocese without borders. We want to erase the line that has been created by governments, the border that separates us, to truly become one church body under God,” O’Brien said.

In the light of a common history and theology and of church teaching on the rights of workers, families and migrants, the joint statement affirms that people have a right to find work in their homeland and to migrate when opportunities at home are insufficient to support their livelihood. It further recognizes that nations have the right to control their borders, and that refugees and asylum seekers need their dignity and human rights protected.

Manz favors having Mexican seminarians and priests “accompany” migrants to the United States just as European priests and nuns did for new immigrants to this country in generations past.

Even in a weakened economy, “we still need these people for jobs our people aren’t willing to do,” Manz said. Moreover, the dollars immigrants remit to their families -- estimated at $8-9 billion annually -- constitute Mexico’s third-highest revenue source after oil and tourism.

McGuire hopes the document will “help get the word out that we need a controlled kind of immigration that allows our economy to benefit from Mexican workers’ labor and allows them to have a stable family life.” Currently permanent residents can wait up to six years to obtain a visa for family members. The U.S. cap on Mexican immigration forces many to enter illegally to join loved ones. “This is an unacceptable choice” -- one that “encourages undocumented migration,” the bishops of both lands stated.

Immigration difficulties are but one concern of Hispanics who account for 71 percent of the growth in the U.S. Catholic church since 1960. Hispanics constitute 39 percent of U. S. Catholics and 13 percent of U.S. seminarians. But the ratio of one Hispanic priest to 9,925 Hispanic faithful is eight times greater for Hispanics than for the Catholic population in general.

In an effort to address the “vital dimensions” of Hispanic Christian life, the bishops adopted “Encuentro and Mission: A Renewed Pastoral Framework for Hispanic Ministry.”

It continues the plan the bishops passed in 1987 and offers pastoral leaders a structure for formation, service and advocacy, community-building and collaboration, liturgy and prayer life among Hispanics.

More than 150 dioceses and 4,000 local parishes and Catholic agencies currently serve Hispanic Catholics. As Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante saw it, the church must find ways to minister to “what in fact is the predominant Catholic group.”

Poverty -- at home and abroad -- occupied members of the domestic and international policy committees whose joint document, “A Place at the Table: A Catholic Re-Commitment to Overcome Poverty and Respect the Dignity of All God’s Children,” won approval from 241 of 245 bishops voting.

Addressing the roots of violence

Last November the bishops overwhelmingly approved the war against Afghanistan because its Taliban regime was harboring terrorists. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and McCarrick led much of the debate. A year later McCarrick, who conducted the poverty debate on behalf of the bishops’ domestic policy committee, which he chairs, noted that the nation cannot simply consider military responses to terrorism.

Instead bishops must pursue “policies that address the roots of violence and reduce poverty and suffering in our nation and world.” McCarrick acknowledged that the United Nations, the leading industrial nations and scores of nongovernmental organizations had all failed to meet goals set in the early 1990s to eradicate absolute poverty early this decade. “In truth the world has gotten poorer,” he told NCR. “We bishops have to be more inventive about finding solutions.”

It’s “a moral scandal” that half the world lives on less than $2 a day and cannot afford food and medicine, he said.

In Washington the bishops’ conference has lobbied Congress -- with some success -- for debt relief, development assistance and greater spending on health care in Africa. In July, the Senate passed a bill to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which contains significant debt relief provisions. A similar aid bill is stalled in the House.

In their document, the bishops use the image of a table to illustrate the urgency of including all people in economic, social and political life.

They ask Catholics to share their wealth, trim their consumption patterns and make their voices heard as public policies and priorities are decided. It also promises Web-based resource materials for parishes, dioceses, schools and Catholic agencies.

In another action, the bishops adopted “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence.” The bishops approved the original document 10 years ago and have revised it in the light of “so much accurate government information” that was not in the original pamphlet, said Bishop Edward Cullen of Altoona, Pa., who chairs the Women in Society and in the Church committee.

“We have a better understanding of the dynamics in domestic violence,” of why men batter and why women stay in abusive environments, Cullen told NCR. The bottom line remains: “Violence against women is never justified.” Although an estimated 4 million women are battered every year, the number could be much higher as many do not report such abuse for fear of losing their children, of having no job or money to support them, or of being deported if they are here illegally.

Cullen, a social worker who directed Catholic Charities in the Philadelphia archdiocese for 20 years, regretted that “none of this is news to me.” He urged priests to preach about domestic violence and to post information about it. “Women aged 35-49 can really get killed by batterers,” he said.

“If someone comes for counseling or confession, who’s drinking, and says he’s going to give up alcohol and thus his battering will stop, I say: ‘No, you have a double dysfunction.’ ” The person must work to overcome both “disabilities,” Cullen said.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling in January, the bishops adopted a brief statement, “A Matter of the Heart.” They take comfort that fewer abortions are being performed each year and fewer doctors are willing to be involved in abortion. They note that over three decades thousands of pregnancy resource centers have opened to help women facing troubling pregnancies.

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002