“Ask a Priest:What Should We Make of Criticisms of a Border Wall?”

Q: The Pope in the past has criticized our president over building the border wall and the refugees. When the Pope makes these statements, such as building a wall is un-Christian, how should I as a Catholic react to them? I am not sure if he is speaking infallibly or just stating his opinion. Please clarify. – J

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: What follows is not meant to be the definitive answer to your question. But perhaps a few points will be helpful for you to consider.

Infallibility covers the solemn pronouncements of the popes as well as their ordinary magisterium. But infallibility only touches on issues of faith and morals — issues linked to unchanging principles. In many political debates, the real disagreements don’t have to with the principles. In this case, for example, everyone would agree with certain principles, such as “all human beings should be treated with dignity; every country has a right to protect its borders.”

The disagreements come when people have to make laws and policies about how to live out those principles.

In answer these questions, prudence comes into play. Sometimes a particular answer clearly violates a principle that the Church has taught infallibly — for instance, if someone were to propose liquidating all illegal immigrants in order to solve the immigration problem, the Church could surely pronounce infallibly against such an unjust solution.

But many times a particular proposal doesn’t clearly violate a basic moral principle; rather, it chooses one particular way to respect many principles. And other proposals will put forth other possible ways to achieve the same end. When it comes to evaluating these prudential proposals (such as the proposal of building a wall on the Mexico-U.S. border), differences of opinion are fine, and discussing them can lead to greater clarity.

The Pope, as Pope, cannot put forth as infallible a particular prudential judgment about a possible way to remedy or improve a social situation, unless the proposal in question clearly violates a fundamental human right.

Pope Francis hasn’t actually condemned President Trump’s specific legal proposal to build a border wall, but he has frequently commented on the possibly damaging attitudes that might be involved in that kind of a proposal.

So, we certainly don’t have to believe in a “no wall” policy in the same way that we have to believe in Christ’s resurrection or the evil of abortion (directly killing a defenseless human being). In fact, a pope’s comments on political and social policies where prudential judgments can vary simply cannot fall under the authority of his papal infallibility.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis is the vicar of Christ, and his words should be given a certain weight and respect. Francis does, after all, have a lot of pastoral experience, as well as a fairly broad view of the world. At the least it isn’t too much to ask that the faithful give him the benefit of the doubt and take his words to heart.

There doesn’t rule out the need for debate on this issue. Governments do have a right to protect their citizens, and they do have a right to protect their borders. But whether a wall in this case is needed or advisable is an open question. Good people can disagree over the issue.

I don’t think the Holy Father wants to interfere in U.S. policy. But he has seen the effects of the immigration crisis in Europe these past few years. And he has seen the heartbreaking cases of children and families dying during their flight to seek refuge.

The topic of barriers to immigration is not a mere hypothetical question. It is an issue that impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, in real time.

Pope Francis understands the plight of refugees and immigrants well, so it is understandable that he wonders why the world’s richest country is considering a wall and putting a tight seal on its borders.

Obviously the issue is complex and ongoing, and genuine fears about terrorism continue to hang over the world, not just the United States. Respect for the law is also an issue that shouldn’t be overlooked. Is it healthy to have thousands and even millions of people in a country illegally? It can expose them to exploitation as well as corrode respect for the rule of law.

Still, the Holy Father might feel compelled to speak out on this particular issue because of its potential impact on already-struggling immigrants and refugees, and because of its ability to fan the wrong kinds of political flames.

So what should a Catholic in the U.S. make of all this?

Perhaps it might give a Catholic pause to think about the wisdom and fairness of such a wall.

The problem of illegal immigration remains a legitimate issue, and one that the U.S. can and should continue to debate and deal with.

As the debate continues, the Pope’s words might be helpful as a kind of a lighthouse beacon in the night, helping boats to move in the right direction.

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