The Common Good: The dignity of migrants

Last week while in Tanzania, the first bit of TV that I saw in a month involved a French Catholic priest, Fr. Arthur Hervet, having to apologise for saying that he wished French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a heart attack and change his mind over his government’s policy to evict and deport Roma living in encampments in France back to Romania. Nonetheless, Fr. Hervet said that he would be returning his national order of merit medal: “…I feel he does not know the situation, he does not know what these people are going through,” he said (referring to the Interior Minister overseeing the deportations).

Praying for a heart attack is a bit much, but my immediate and rather cynical (or generous, depending how you look at it) reaction was that this 71-year old priest probably had more than an inkling of what he was doing (i.e. generating a bit of controversy) when he made his remarks. The very real and very serious point has been about how France treats its Roma minority, but there’s no surprise in the Church’s defense of the gypsies in particular, and concern for the rights of migrants more generally.

For ultimately, the call to us all to respect the human dignity of migrants, who make dangerous journeys and live precariously – that they too deserve fair treatment and not be the subjects of intolerance. I say I wasn’t surprised by Fr. Hervet’s remarks, because it echoes a core tenet of the Church’s social doctrine. Two weekends ago in comments to French pilgrims in Rome, Pope Benedict spoke of “an invitation to know how to accept legitimate differences among humans, just like Jesus came to pull men together from every nation, speaking every language,” which rings particularly true in economically challenging times where the populist temptation to scapegoat migrants looms especially large.

In this context, the consistency and robustness of the Church’s response is more important than ever. While in Tanzania I met a Jesuit priest on his way to Malta to minister to African immigrants and refugees who seek out the island as a stepping stone on the way to safety in Europe, which led me to recall the Pope’s comments in April on his way to visiting the island:

All of us have to respond to this challenge, first of all so that people can live a dignified life in their own land, and on the other hand so that these refugees can also find space for a dignified life here. It means responding to a great challenge of our time, and Malta reminds us of these problems. It also reminds us, as you know, of the force of charity, which allows us to respond well to these challenges.

And when the US state of Arizona hit the headlines around the same time for passing a law that would require police to ask people they encounter in everyday policing for immigration documents, I was struck by a post by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York in his blog:

To welcome the immigrant, to work hard for their legalization and citizenship, to help them feel at home, to treat them as neighbors and allies in the greatest project of human rights and ethnic and religious harmony in history — the United States of America — flows from the bright, noble side of our American character.

To blame them, stalk them, outlaw them, harass them, and consider them outsiders is unbiblical, inhumane, and un-American.

Whether the Roma living in France, Africans making their way to Europe, or Latinos crossing the desert into the US (among myriad examples from around the world), “We are all witnesses to the burden of suffering, the dislocation and the aspirations that accompany the flow of migrants,” the Pope wrote in last year’s encyclical on human development and social justice. “Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respect by everyone and in every circumstance.” (Caritas in Veritate, para.62)

The Common Good’ refers to the title of a publication by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in advance of the recent UK general election, ‘Choosing the Common Good’, offering a short vision of “what belongs to everyone by virtue of their common humanity”. This is the beginning of (yet another) subseries of occasional posts, which seeks to explore the Catholic Church’s social teachings on contemporary world affairs. As will become painfully obvious, I am no theology or philosophy student, so with apologies, there’ll be a fair bit of learning by myself along the way.

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