National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Cardinal proposes encyclical on migrants


Reflecting what he called the Catholic church’s duty to defend the world’s 175 million migrants and 40 million refugees, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington has called on Pope John Paul II to issue an encyclical letter on the subject.

McCarrick spoke at a Nov. 17-22 Rome conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.

The proposal won support from participants at the conference, including the head of the migration committee for the German bishops and Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, a member of the pontifical council. The Vatican official in charge of migrant and refugee issues also signaled cautious backing.

An encyclical letter is regarded as the most formal and highest-profile kind of papal teaching. To date, John Paul II has issued 14 encyclicals over his 25-year pontificate.

“We must never be accused of being silent when refugees seek a place of haven,” McCarrick told the crowd of more than 300 people representing more than 100 nations gathered for six days at Rome’s Augustinianum, just off St. Peter’s Square.

McCarrick argued forcefully that migrants and refugees should be of special concern to the church.

“However they come, they come as our brothers and sisters in God’s one human family,” McCarrick said. “They come guided by the hands of God.”

In the parlance of international policy, a “migrant” is someone who has elected to cross a border in search of work. A “refugee” is someone compelled to cross a border by reason of some crisis, such as persecution or war. A “displaced person” is someone uprooted by a crisis who remains within his or her own country.

During the conference, dramatic situations around the globe that are today generating an unprecedented level of human movement -- war, famine, economic collapse, disease and the “propaganda of the West” that offers the illusion of quick wealth -- were described in sometimes harrowing detail. Participants chronicled hardships faced by migrants and refugees, such as xenophobia, racism and restrictive immigration policies.

Gabriela Rodriguez Pizarro, the U.N. rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, described how people who attempt illegal border crossings due to economic hardship or political persecution die by drowning, hypothermia, dehydration and asphyxiation.

Fr. Anthony McGuire, outgoing director of the Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said that since 1995, more than 2,000 people have died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

McCarrick described such situations as in conflict with John Paul II’s teaching on the dignity of the human person.

“May we not hope that this might be a moment to ask our Holy Father to give the church and the nations an encyclical on refugees and migrants,” McCarrick said, “so that the clarity and strength of his teaching might give light and challenge to the world at what is surely a critical time?”

Auxiliary Bishop Josef Voss of Münster, Germany, head of the German bishops’ committee on migration, seconded the idea.

“An encyclical would give us a new impulse to address the phenomenon of migration in terms of both pastoral care and political advocacy, and on a universal level,” Voss told NCR Nov. 19.

Voss said that he regards the proposal as a “dream,” in the sense that he doesn’t know if the pope’s work schedule could accommodate a new encyclical letter.

Maida likewise endorsed McCarrick’s proposal.

“I think they’re ahead of the curve in the Vatican on these issues,” Maida said. “In the U.S. we have our own experience, but it’s localized. Here they’re got a global view. I think the Holy See could offer some very significant guidance in this area, given the wealth of experience they have to draw upon.”

As NCR went to press, the Australian bishops’ conference was also set to consider recommending the drafting of an encyclical on migrants and refugees.

Japanese Cardinal Stephen Hamao, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, told NCR Nov. 18 he, too, supports the idea.

“On migrants and refugees, the Holy Father has written many messages and apostolic letters for pastoral care, but he never wrote about the larger issues in an encyclical,” Hamao said. “We of the council, not all of us but many of us, want to have an encyclical in the future.”

Hamao told NCR that his office is currently working on a revised edition of a 1969 Vatican document, Pastoralis Migratorum Cura, which set out basic guidelines for the pastoral care of migrants and refugees. The work should be finished next year, Hamao said, and that could be the occasion for formally requesting that the pope begin work on an encyclical.

Privately, several conference participants said that it is an “open question” whether John Paul’s declining health renders such a project unrealistic, although several noted that the pope issued an encyclical letter on the Eucharist just last April. In any event, participants said, work begun in the current papacy could always be carried over into a new one.

Conference participants stressed the need to incorporate persons on the move into the pastoral care offered by religious communities and dioceses. In fact, some speakers argued that migration makes local churches more “catholic” by bringing diverse cultures into contact.

“Through the meeting and exchange with the diverse cultures and religious habits of migrants, our Catholic communities lose what is often an overly national or ethnic character, limited by social class, and become more truly Catholic,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

“Migrants don’t simply receive, they also have much to offer,” Kasper said.

John L. Allen is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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