Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Catholic Perspective on Undocumented Immigration: All People Are Human Beings

Americans are of two minds about the undocumented immigrants who are in the country—now estimated to number about 12 million people. On the one hand, many Americans recognize that the national economy depends on these people’s labor—particularly in agriculture, construction, and the hospitality industry. No wonder many business groups oppose any legislation that would penalize employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

On the other hand, many Americans are angry about the fact that millions of immigrants reside in this country illegally. All over the country, anti-immigrant groups are urging state legislatures to pass laws that will make it so difficult for undocumented immigrants to live and work in their communities that they will “self-deport”. Awhile back, one Oklahoma legislator even suggested that legislation should be passed that would deny birth certificates to children born in this country to undocumented immigrants—even though such children are American citizens by constitutional right.

As Catholics, what should our position be on this divisive issue? After all, many of these undocumented immigrants are our co-religionists, and we worship together with them in our cathedrals and parish churches.

Catholics should think about undocumented immigrants from the perspective of our Catholic faith. Pope John Paul II made this quite clear in Laborem Exercens. “Man has the right to leave his native land for various motives . . . in order to seek better conditions of life in another country,” John Paul wrote. And in Ecclesia in America, John Paul recognized the rights of migrants and their families to human dignity “even in cases of non-legal immigration.”

The American Catholic Bishops have spoken on this matter as well. In Strangers No Longer, the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) acknowledged the right of sovereign nations to control their borders, but it “rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth.” In addition, the USCCB said that “[m]ore powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.”

As Catholics, we might also view this issue from a historical perspective. In a way, the debate about the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States is similar to a debate that took place in 16th century Spain about the proper treatment of Native Americans by Spanish conquistadores.

As historian Lewis Hanke laid out in his marvelous book Aristotle and the Indians, debate about the proper treatment of American Indians began soon after the New World was discovered and had become so intense by the middle of the sixteenth century that King Charles V—Holy Roman Emperor and the strongest ruler in Christendom—ordered all New World conquests to be suspended until a special counsel of theologians and jurists should decide upon a just policy for the treatment of the Natives in the Americas.

Two scholars debated this issue at a gathering of Spanish scholars in Valladolid in 1550. On the one side was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that the nature of Native Americans was brutish and rude, making the Indians fit only to be slaves of the Spanish. Moreover, Sepúlveda argued, the Spanish had the right to make cruel war on these people wherever they might be found. Taking a contrary view was an elderly Dominican friar by the name of Bartolomé de Las Casas, who had lived in the Americas nearly half a century and who argued that the essential natures of the Indians was in no way inferior to that of the Spanish.

As Hanke pointed out, Sepúlveda drew his negative opinions about the Native American character without ever having visited the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, he ignored information then available in contemporary Spain about the achievements of Native American culture.

In this sense, Sepúlveda is like some of today’s anti-immigration activists, who insist that undocumented immigrants are criminals by their very presence in the United States, that they are excessively disposed to crime, and that they pose an unacceptable burden on public services for which they pay nothing in taxes. In fact, scholars have shown that undocumented immigrants commit far fewer crimes per capita than native born Americans and that they pay more in taxes than they receive in public services.

Las Casas argued that “all the peoples of the world are men”—that is, human beings—and that American Indians should be treated humanely and that their dignity should be respected.
Looking back from the perspective of the 21st century, we know that neither Sepúlveda nor Las Casas totally won the debate at Valladolid. The Spanish conquest of the Americas went forward with great cruelty and bloodshed interspersed with acts of kindness and humanity. Still, as Professor Hanke reminds us in his book, “Today it is becoming increasingly recognized that no other nation made so continuous or so passionate an attempt to discover what was the just treatment for the native peoples under its jurisdiction than Spaniards . . .”

Surely, Las Casas was right when he argued in 1550 that the relationship between the Spanish and the Native Americans should be governed by justice and compassion. Today, American Catholics face a question similar to the one that Las Casas and Sepúlveda debated four hundred and fifty years ago.

How should we respond to the nation’s new immigrants—particularly the undocumented? Shall we respond like Sepúlveda did, concluding that illegal immigrants are unworthy of our compassion? Or will our faith call us to be the intellectual and spiritual heirs of Las Casas and conclude that as Catholics we have a duty to work for justice, dignity and fair treatment for the nation’s immigrants, whether or not they have their immigration documents.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saint Newt?

Newt Gingrich’s political opponents criticize him for his three marriages and his two religious conversions. Newt was first a Lutheran, then a Baptist, and converted to Catholicism in 2009. Newt’s detractors imply these biographical facts are signs of instability and lack of moral conviction. Perhaps they think they can undermine Newt’s political support among conservative Protestants and Catholics by highlighting these details of his life. If so, their tactics could backfire--especially among Catholics.
Almost all Catholics know at least one adult convert whose life was spiritually transformed after entering the Church. In fact, Catholic history is replete with stories of people who led self-indulgent, dissolute lives but who changed dramatically after some sort of religious conversion. St. Augustine, for example, was a bit of rogue with women; but he had a radical change of heart and went on to become not only a saint but one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church. Francis of Assisi, founder of the original Franciscan religious order, and Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, were completely absorbed by the quest for pleasure when they were young men; but both men experienced radical conversions and became saints.
Indeed, over the last two centuries, adult converts have provided the Catholic Church with a great deal of its intellectual and spiritual vigor, especially in England and the United States. In England, Cardinal John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and Ronald Knox converted to Catholicism and became famous apologists for the Catholic Church. In the United States, Orestes Brownson, a former Unitarian minister and a member of the Transcendentalists, converted to Catholicism in 1844, an event so shocking that a Boston Protestant pastor attributed it to an “unbalanced mind”. And in the twentieth century, Dorothy Day turned her back on a Bohemian lifestyle to become a Catholic. She founded the Catholic Worker movement and devoted the rest of her life to the poor. Dorothy Day has been named a Servant of God by the Vatican, the first step toward canonization.
Some of Newt’s critics describe him scornfully as a “cafeteria” Catholic, a person who embraces some elements of Catholicism while rejecting others. Newt opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, for example; but he supports the death penalty, which is contrary to Catholic doctrine. And Newt has not endorsed the humane views of the American Catholic bishops toward our nation’s undocumented immigrants.
But many Catholics will affirm that conversion is a lifelong process for most people. Anyone--Catholic or non-Catholic--whose life is a spiritual journey, goes through a process of discernment that can lasts many years, with some religious truths revealing themselves only after a long period of time. Would New Gingrich be a better Catholic if he opposed the death penalty and was more compassionate toward undocumented immigrants? Probably--but who knows how his beliefs might change as his faith matures? After all, Newt has only been a Catholic for about two years.
In short, Newt’s three marriages and two religious conversions might actually strengthen his appeal among Catholics. And who knows? Newt might someday become the first American president to be canonized. If so, he would join a list of people that includes Ignatius Loyola, Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, and Dorothy Day--people who radically changed after becoming Catholic and went on to lead saintly lives.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Public Education and Catholic Schools in the 19th Century: A Historical Reflection

A couple of years ago, a bill was introduced in the Texas Legislature to approve a public voucher program for the state’s five largest metropolitan areas. Had it become law, low-income families could obtain vouchers for their children to attend the schools of their choice—including Catholic schools. The Texas Catholic Conference supported the bill and Catholic leaders testified in its favor at a legislative hearing. Nevertheless, the bill failed to become law.

Public funding for religious education is a contentious subject in the United States—even among Catholics. Some argue that a voucher program like the one that was recently introduced in the Texas legislature would allow families of modest means to obtain a religious education for their children, regardless of their ability to pay. But some people are concerned that voucher programs could undermine public education.

The debate about public funding for religious schools dates back more than a century and a half to when the nation first began experimenting with the idea of “common schools”—free schools paid for with public funds and available to all children, regardless of economic or social status. Historians agree that these early public schools often taught religion as well as the rudiments of a secular education. In general, the public schools of the early 19th century promoted nonsectarian mainline Protestant religious values, with prayer and Bible reading being part of a normal school day.

Today, accustomed as we are to public schools that are rigidly secular, it is difficult to imagine how sectarian the public schools were in the United States during the nineteenth century. In Catholicism and American Freedom, Historian John McGreevy tells the tale of the “Eliot School Rebellion,” which illustrates the Protestant dominance of public education in one American city during the 1850s--Boston.

On a March morning in 1859, a teacher at Boston's Eliot School ordered Thomas Whall, a Catholic school boy, to read the Ten Commandments from the King James Bible. Whall refused, having been instructed by his father not to do so. An assistant to the school principal then stepped into the classroom and informed the class, “Here's a boy that refuses to repeat the Ten Commandments, and I will whip him till he yields if it takes the whole forenoon.” The administrator then beat Whall severely with a rattan stick for half an hour.

At the conclusion of this beating, “the school principal ordered all boys not willing to recite the Ten Commandments in the King James version to leave the school, and about one hundred Catholic schoolboys were discharged.”[1] On the following day, three hundred Catholic school boys were turned out of school for the same offense.

The Eliot School rebellion was not an isolated incident. In Maine, Bridget Donahue, a fifteen-year-old Catholic girl, was expelled from school for refusing to read the Protestant Bible. Catholics sued over the matter, but Maine’s highest court ruled that requiring a child to read the King James version of the Bible at school was not an infringement on religious freedom.[2]
School textbooks during this period often contained blatantly bigoted references to Catholicism and Catholic immigrants. For example, one book said that Irish immigration would make America the “common sewer of Ireland.”[3]

In New York City, Catholic families, led by Irish-born Bishop John Hughes, objected to Protestant themes in the city’s public school curriculum, to the reading of the King James Bible in the classroom, and to anti-Catholic bias that appeared in some school texts. In the late 1840s, Catholics used the political process in an unsuccessful attempt to get a share of public education funds for Catholic schools.[4]

Eventually, Bishop Hughes gave up efforts to obtain public funding for Catholic schools and turned instead to the task of building a Catholic school system. “How are we to provide for the Catholic education of our children?” Hughes asked in a public letter. “Not by agitating the questions of the constitutionality, legality, or expediency of state schools. Let us leave these points to be settled by politicians, legislators, political economists, philosophers and denominations outside of the church . . . . Let us then leave the public schools to themselves.”[5]

Thus, the Catholic Church in the United States turned away from efforts to reach a compromise with Protestant-dominated public schools and began developing a system of parish-based Catholic schools. This was a long and arduous process. According to one historian, parochial education did not exist on a large scale until 1870.[6] By the end of the nineteenth century, Catholic parochial schools were flourishing in urban America, and the Catholic school had become “the hallmark of American Catholicism.”[7]

Today we are seeing a return to a controversy that first arose in the early nineteenth century on the issue of public funding for religious schools. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a publicly-funded voucher program may constitutionally include religious schools,[8] voucher opponents have persuaded some state courts to strike down various voucher programs on state constitutional grounds.

No matter what position we take on this divisive issue, let us remember those nineteenth-century figures from our American Catholic heritage who fought to uphold Catholic values against public school systems that were blatantly hostile to Catholic interests: Bishop John Hughes of New York; Bridget Donahue of Maine; and Thomas Whall, the quietly defiant school boy in Boston’s Eliot School.

[1] John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), 8.
[2] Joseph Viteritti, Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 150.
[3] Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983), 163.
[4] Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars: The History of the New York City Public Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 33-45.
[5] Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 168.
[6] Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, 171, quoting James Burns.
[7] Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1975), 100.
[8] Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).

Elizabeth, Francesca and Katharine: Three American Saints



In a nation of 300 million people, a quarter of them Catholic, only four United States citizens have been canonized. Three of the four are women: Saint Elizabeth Seton, canonized in 1975; Saint Francesca Cabrini, canonized in 1946; and Saint Katharine Drexel, canonized in 2000. Elizabeth and Katharine were natives of the United States; Saint Francesca Cabrini was born in Italy and became a naturalized citizen in 1909.

These three saintly women had much in common. First, all three lost their mothers when they were young. Saint Katharine’s mother died only five weeks after Katharine’s birth. Saint Francesca lost both her mother and father in the same year, when Francesca was only 20. Saint Elizabeth Seton’s mother died in childbirth when Elizabeth was less than three years old.
Second, all three saints founded religious orders: Mother Seton founded the American Sisters of Charity, the nation’s first native women’s religious order. Mother Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Mother Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Third, all three American saints were educators. Saint Katharine’s order was dedicated to serving African Americans and Native Americans, which was done largely through education. Saint Katharine founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first and only Catholic college for African Americans. In addition, in dispensing her inherited wealth, Katharine provided financial support for dozens of schools for African Americans and all the Catholic missions to the Indians that were scattered throughout the American West.

All three lived at a time when nativism and anti-Catholic bigotry were rampant in the United States, and all three saw these ugly pheonomena first hand. Sisters from Mother Katharine’s order were harassed in Beaumont, Texas by members of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s.. Mother Francesca founded a mission in New Orleans in 1892 to serve an Italian Catholic community that was beleaguered by racism and nativism. Only a year before Mother Francesca’s Sisters arrived in the city, eleven Italian men had been taken from a New Orleans jail and hanged by a New Orleans lynch mob.

As for Mother Elizabeth Seton, her Protestant family and friends subjected her to cruel ostracism and contempt after she converted to Catholicism as a young widow in New York City in 1805. Her biography described the first months after her conversion as “one of the great trials of Christian history.”

Although Elizabeth, Francesca, ad Katharine had much in common, each made a distinctive contribution to Catholic life and culture in the United States. As an Italian immigrant to the United States, Mother Cabrini was a perfect representation of Catholic piety among the European immigrants who streamed into the United Stated in the late 19th and early 20th century. A woman of intense energy, Saint Francesca founded orphanages, hospitals, and schools all across the United States—building an infrastructure of compassion in a Protestant nation intensely devoted to capitalism and rugged individualism.

Saint Katharine Drexel, who inherited an immense fortune before entering religious life, truly passed through the eye of the needle, dispensing her great wealth for the benefit of American Indians and African Americans, while living a life of poverty in her order’s Mother House in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. A person who visits her museum and shrine today can see the patched shoes that she wore and the pencil stubs with which she wrote, saving pennies so that more money would be available to fund Catholic missions.

Further Readings
Dirvin, Joseph L. Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity. New York: Basilica of the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton, 1993.

Duffy, Sister Consuela Maria. Katharine Drexel: A Biography. Bensalem, PA: Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, 1966.

Maynard, Theodore. Too Small a World: The Life of Mother Cabrini. New York: Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, 1945.