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Issue Date:  April 14, 2006

Mahony on immigration

Cardinal says Catholic opposition to 'punitive' measures is rooted in Gospels, tradition of the U.S. church

Los Angeles

In late February, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony made national headlines, not only by opposing a tough new measure adopted by the House of Representatives aimed at stemming illegal immigration, but by announcing that he would instruct his priests to defy provisions that could require them to check for residency documents before administering certain kinds of assistance.

The Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, H.R. 4437, sponsored by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., passed the House Dec. 16. The Senate is currently considering another immigration reform package, closer to the “comprehensive” approach advocated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Mahony’s history of advocacy in favor of immigrants goes back to the early 1980s, when he was bishop of Stockton, Calif. His latest stand has drawn praise from forces opposed to a crackdown, but also criticism from some who think the cardinal is functioning more like a politician than a clergyman.

Mahony, however, has not been cowed. Last week, he called for a special day of prayer and fasting ahead of the expected Senate vote. During the recent Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles, he sat down with NCR to discuss the issue.

NCR: A recent piece titled “Cardinal Errors” in National Review suggested that you are overstepping your bounds by opposing particular pieces of legislation and proposing others. How do you respond?
: Basically, by saying that there is no such thing as a purely political piece of legislation. If it affects people, then it has ethical and moral dimensions. Nothing has more dramatic moral implications than immigration policy. It greatly affects people living in our midst, people whom we serve. So it is not just a political issue, or civic issue. It’s very much who we are. Go back to Jesus. Go back to the 1700s. … The Catholic church in this country has always been consistently with the immigrants, always having these battles. We opposed “Irish Need Not Apply,” and even when the Jews were being attacked in the cities, we’ve always been there with them. I think that’s a wonderful tradition.

What gave me the impetus to come out and say we’re not going to do it is that this bill, Sensenbrenner Bill 4437, got passed just before Christmas … and nobody was focused on it. Everybody was focused on the holidays and nobody was paying much attention. National Migration Day was the first weekend after Jan. 1 in the United States, so we had a big Migration Mass, and I brought this up. I said there’s a sleeper out there, this bill. If you tease it out to its absurd finality, it means that giving many kinds of aid to immigrants makes you a felon.

Giving a sandwich to a hungry man could theoretically be a criminal act.
Absolutely. Let me just give a couple of examples that are so absurd, people just say, “What?” The one I used was, since we have undocumented people who come to our churches, do we now ask to see documentation before we give them the body and blood of Christ? People got that as an absurd implication. The other side yells, “That’s not what we mean.” Well, that’s not what they intended, but if you tease it out to its extreme, this is what it amounts to, this kind of nonsense. That’s what got people’s attention, [asking], “What’s in this bill?” Congress has a lot of fault to carry, a lot of it.

I talked yesterday to [California Sen. Dianne] Feinstein on the phone, and I think we’ve been able to turn her around very nicely. Even [California Sen. Barbara] Boxer. They were very hesitant to look at a comprehensive bill. I said to Sen. Feinstein, there are five necessary elements of a comprehensive bill. When we only do one or two of them, we suffer the consequences of not doing the others. For example, in 1986, we did this comprehensive amnesty thing, but you, Congress, didn’t do the rest of it. All of a sudden you wake up and say, “We’ve got 11 million undocumented people here. How did this happen?” Because you didn’t give any leadership to deal with it. We can’t make that mistake again. We’ve got to do the whole thing this time.

We’ve got to deal with the people who are here, we’ve got to deal with the people who are coming, we’ve got to deal with the fact that this is a magnet for jobs because no one here will do the jobs, we’ve got to deal with the kids in high school and college … all the pieces and parts have to be dealt with. Otherwise, we’re going to end up 10 or 20 years from now saying, “Oh my God, we’ve got all these illegals.” I just felt it was necessary to get out there in front with it, but to do it in our spiritual Gospel tradition of making room for the strangers, as Jesus said. It coincided nicely with Ash Wednesday, and with my own message about making room for Jesus and the specific plight of migrants.

Could a Catholic in good faith vote in favor of the Sensenbrenner bill?
I don’t think so. I don’t think they could vote in good faith.

So this is not a matter of prudential judgment on which you would recognize the legitimacy of other views. It’s an absolute?
It’s an absolute because it is so punitive. It punishes people for being here in ways that we’ve never, ever discussed in this country. We’ve never had this kind of thing, ever.

What would you do if a Catholic politician in your archdiocese supports it anyway?
It’s my hope that this legislation will never come to a vote.

But it could.
If it does, I’m not going to do anything. I’m not going to toss them out or deny them Communion. I’m just going to say, “You’re really missing the point here.” In the negative comments I’ve received, almost all of them don’t understand the issues at all. It’s just this emotional response. My point is not that we want amnesty for everyone here, nor do we want to break laws. Basically, those things aren’t going to solve the problem either. This is not only a theological and traditional argument, but [a punitive solution] just isn’t going to work. I asked one person the other day who said what the governor should do is just deport all 11 million people. I said, the government couldn’t evacuate New Orleans, let alone this. Give me a break. It’s never going to happen. What I’m trying to do is to encourage Catholic legislators to understand the issues and to come up with a just, humane policy that works for the good of the people and the country.

What kind of responses have you received from your brother bishops?
Quite positive. At least, I haven’t received any negative, but they probably wouldn’t have written. But remember, we voted as bishops with Strangers in Our Midst to have this big effort. We developed the parish resource kits, they’ve been sent out across the country.

The shock is that somebody’s actually doing something about it.
That’s right. It isn’t that this is a big surprise to anybody. Here in California, with the bishops in the West, we have so many people.

Is it possible to get a coordinated national effort?
I think we have one, at least [that’s] what I’m hearing from other bishops. They really understand that we have got to take a stand.

You have a sense that there’s a genuine consensus in the conference behind the position you’ve taken?
The five goals that we’ve published in our resource kits [global antipoverty efforts; reunifying families; a temporary worker program; broad-based legalization; and restoring due process] are the things I’m talking about. This is what we agreed to do. I just was given the opportunity to inaugurate it in a way that got attention.

This is a divisive issue, and no doubt there are people in your archdiocese with different feelings. How do you deal with that?
One of the things I’ve done is to point out that our response to immigrants in our midst is truly one of our pro-life issues. I’ve tried to frame it as one of the pro-life issues, because it is. That helps people. This is a pro-life issue.

More than that, the negative letters I’ve gotten … I haven’t read them all, but I ask my secretary to give me an assortment. Most simply don’t understand the issues and what the church is trying to do. It’s a time to educate. I don’t want to get people angry or upset, I want to try to educate them, inform them. It’s pretty tough when you take Matthew 25, and one of the categories [for the Last Judgment] is how you care for strangers. Of course, the Old Testament is even stronger in terms of our response to aliens in our midst. I try to be sympathetic, to be understanding, and to call people together.

But I also tell proponents of immigration reform that you can’t do dumb things that are going to continue to cloud the issue. Carrying Mexican flags in a demonstration for immigration reform in the United States is stupid. It simply creates the wrong message, because that isn’t the message. Take out the Mexican flags and give everybody an American flag. That’s what this is about, making people citizens, for God’s sake. So I try to encourage people to do things that are going to be effective. Do things that are going to help.

Your activism also, it seems to me, gives the lie to the myth that because of the sexual abuse crisis the church has been muzzled in the public square.
Absolutely. What has happened in the last few years is that we as bishops have had opportunities to have a public voice and role, but have been very hesitant, and just kind of sat out a number of these things. I’m thinking of local things -- for example, police abuse and overreactions in certain communities. We’ve had a lot of that across the United States. I think bishops normally would have said something, saying police are overreacting and categorizing people in ethnic groups, but in many cases they just remained silent. The gap, the chasm, between the wealthy and the middle class … the fact there’s almost no middle class left. The minimum wage, affordable housing, we just kind of sat it out, because we were afraid to appear above the sandbags. We were hiding. … Had this come up two years ago, three years ago, I don’t know what the reality would have been then. I just know that in our archdiocese, this issue is so important that even during these years I always spoke up.

But what this illustrates is that the way to get off the mat is to get off the mat.
That’s right. To venture forth and say [that the sexual abuse crisis] is not the only thing affecting the life of the church. We have a mission, and we have to follow it without hesitation. I’m hopeful this will free us up to be church again in the community.

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

The Word From Rome
Find a link to a podcast of John Allen's interview with Cardinal Mahony in Allen's April 7 Web column on

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2006

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