Stephen K. Bannon sees only partisan politics in the U.S. bishops’ support of DACA. But there is a century-long theological debate behind their decision. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Gráinne McEvoy is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, and is currently writing a book on American Catholic social thought and immigration policy in the 20th century.

During a recent interview with Charlie Rose on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” former presidential adviser Stephen K. Bannon delivered a scathing critique of the American Catholic bishops’ position on President Trump’s cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Bannon’s accusation that the bishops “have an economic interest in unlimited immigration” generated a flurry of headlines. When Rose expressed surprise that “a good Catholic” would say such a thing about his church, Bannon affirmed his respect for the pope, cardinals and bishops on doctrine, but doubled down on his message. The politics of immigration, he argued, are “not about doctrine [but] about the sovereignty of a nation.” The bishops’ position on immigration, Bannon suggested, has no basis in church teaching and so no authority over Catholics like him.

Bannon’s opinion, which aligns with that of many white Catholics on immigration, was firmly rejected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But his views are not just at odds with Catholic leadership, they are also ahistorical. Over the past century, immigration policy has been a central concern of U.S. bishops precisely because of church teaching.

Since the 1920s, American Catholic leaders have used Catholic social teaching, papal instruction and biblical interpretation to develop responses to a variety of immigration issues. While immigration critics within the Catholic Church have long debated liberal vs. restrictive positions, church teachings have instructed both respect for the individual’s right to migrate and for the state’s right to control migration in the national interest. Contrary to Bannon’s statements, in the church’s view, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Catholic responses to immigration debates have long centered on religious teachings. In the 1910s, pro-restriction forces in Congress worked to pass a bill that would prohibit immigration of the illiterate. Catholic leaders loudly protested, arguing that such a proposal was really intended to keep out immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, many of whom were Catholic.

But some influential Catholic voices dissented, suggesting that unlimited immigration might not be in the best interest of the nation and its people. The Rev. John A. Ryan, a social theologian, explored the moral imperative of a living wage based on his reading of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum novarum.” Using this teaching, he argued that a literacy test could limit the inflow of unskilled immigrants and protect American jobs and wages that were already under pressure. Although an outlier in Catholic circles, Ryan’s stance revealed a way to balance the national interest with those of the church.

During the 1920s, Congress prepared to introduce immigration restriction on the basis of national origins. This time, the bishops expressed support for immigration limits, even though they decried setting them on the basis of a person’s country of origin.

Catholic outreach to immigrants already in the country had revealed a need to promote assimilation and good citizenship. So even as the bishops condemned “the principle or purpose underlying the bill,” they affirmed that restriction and selection in immigration should be enforced “based on literacy and skill and general fitness for citizenship.”

Over subsequent decades, leaders of the Catholic Church and social activists developed a formula, rooted in Catholic teaching, for how this should be done. Key aspects of that formula remain the core tenets of Catholic theology on migration that persist to this day.

An emphasis on uniting and protecting immigrant families has been a top priority. As the gates closed in the 1920s, Catholic immigration officials were alarmed by the number of immigrant men who were unable to secure visas for the wives and children they had left at home. Such prolonged separations encouraged estrangement or divorce, they argued. Insisting that the union between husband, wife and child was “natural and sacred” and must not be undermined by “any positive law of human making,” the bishops pressured Congress to amend federal law to permit family reunification.

During subsequent debates over general immigration reform, refugee policy and protection of the undocumented, Catholic leaders consistently pushed the moral imperative of family unity as a priority. New church teachings were incorporated into this body of thought, such as Pope Pius XII’s 1952 papal decree “Exsul Familia,” which projected Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus in exile in Egypt as an archetype for migrant and refugee families.

The church’s formula for a just immigration policy was not limited to family unity. Catholic leaders have also insisted that the state has a moral responsibility to respect an individual’s right to migrate in pursuit of safety and a decent standard of living. In 1946, as Congress was considering legislation to admit people displaced by World War II, the bishops asked that the government “give these unfortunate people a haven and a chance to live in the enjoyment of their God-given rights.”

Protection of a living wage for citizens and immigrants alike has also remained central. Beginning in the late 1940s, the bishops called for an end to the government’s practice of importing Mexican agricultural workers through the Bracero program. The state, they argued, was morally obliged to protect the dignity of citizens and immigrant workers by ending the exploitation of agricultural laborers that the program effectively encouraged.

In short, the Catholic Church’s position on immigration has long been guided by church teaching, not partisan politics, as Stephen K. Bannon claims. The bishops today have determined that DACA is both morally just and in the national interest because the program ticks all of the boxes for the Catholic theology of migration: It keeps families together, exercises economic pragmatism by retaining valuable members of the national workforce and fulfills the moral obligation to “welcome the stranger” into a life of security and stability.

This is not to say that the U.S. bishops’ guidance on DACA in particular or on immigration in general necessarily holds all the answers. In fact, in recent years, certain church leaders have perhaps underplayed the more restrictive aspects of the church’s position. But in the context of refugee crises, an uptick in deportations and rescinded protections for dreamers, the bishops, perhaps understandably, have identified a critical need to emphasize the more liberal, charitable aspects of their position.

Still, Bannon, American Catholics and anyone with a stake in the future of U.S. immigration policy would do well to pay attention to the church’s complex engagement with this issue over the past century. By dismissing this history and shunting the position of an influential national institution to one side of an acutely polarized debate, we deny ourselves one resource for thinking about this challenging, emotive and urgent question.