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News & Features

Columnist addresses Catholic social thought
archived from: 2011-02-14
by: Pittsburgh Catholic Staff Report

E.J. Dionne featured at Duquesne University Founders Week

Catholic social justice teachings can greatly impact the current debate on immigration, according to Washington Post columnist and author E.J. Dionne.

Both sides in the debate have hardened their positions and too easily dismiss legitimate concerns raised by others, yet, “we must reason together” to solve the dilemma, he said.

Dionne spoke Feb. 2 at Duquesne University on immigration and Catholic social justice traditions. He gave the keynote address as part of a series of Founders Week events.

The church’s social justice teachings call for a commitment to basic human dignity and economic fairness, and he quipped that some say “the goal of the Catholic Church in politics is to make every one of us feel guilty about something.”

He said, “Some opposition to immigration is rooted in legitimate anxiety, and we must address this,” quoting one observer on the need to create “an attentive society,” with room for strong convictions but also for give-and-take on the road to truth.

Dionne believes the great traditions of Catholic social thought are ebbing today. “We Catholics are coming more and more to ignore these great teachings.”

A Protestant professor friend told him that, “Catholic social thought is a gift to the entire Christian tradition with its set of vigorously guarded commitments that enriches all of us.”

But, he said, “the rank and file don’t truly appreciate what the church teaches on economic justice, social welfare and dignity for all,” adding that only rarely do priests talk of the right ordering of society and what the church teaches.

He traced this in part to many considering abortion “the transcendent issue.”

But such commitment must apply to all segments of life, Dionne said.

At its best, Catholic teachings aid not only Catholics but also society as a whole, asserting the important role for government and the “indispensable role” of groups working to strengthen societal bonds.

“Social justice requires individual and collective action,” he said, noting that the “grassroots church” responds in many ways — through such efforts as Catholic Relief Services, Caritas, the church’s support of its schools, the Maryknoll sisters at work in Central America and Spiritan priests serving in Africa.

When asked why the church is involved in the immigration debate, he responds, “in the face of the migrant we see the face of Christ.”

“Immigrants are us,” he said. “It’s part of who we are, it’s our identity.”

Immigrants come to church institutions for help, yet, “a lot of times we can’t, other than to change the laws.”

Critics assert that the church is only involved because most immigrants are Catholic. Dionne said that 60 percent of migrants are Catholic, “and we have special obligation to respond to them, but even if they are not Catholic, our duty is to help them.”

“We need a common solution,” he said. “Too often we see nativist tendencies to demonize, but faith groups can help.

“Do we want to live in a country with a permanent underclass, with no protection under the law?”

Human dignity is not being addressed, Dionne said, cautioning against the “birthright citizenship issue” now being debated under the 14th Amendment.

Not all criticisms should be dismissed as racist, he said. “We must see the truths of those who disagree with us.”

He placed some of the blame for the incendiary nature of the current debate on “bad timing,” on fighting for immigrants’ rights in a time when many middle-class families are suffering economic losses.

“These people are wondering, ‘When are they going to get around to me?’” he said.

When people are feeling more secure, they can be open to the needs of others, he said, noting that a “cranky nation rarely undertakes great tasks. We need to rebuild trust.”

The debate tapped into “serious discontent,” he said, noting that the costs are borne more heavily in some parts of the country. “We need to deal with legitimate gripes.”

Issues such as immigrants costing communities money are also being debated. It does cost local communities in terms of taxes, but those taxes represent a “windfall” nationally, he said. “There’s nothing local governments can do, they need reimbursement.”

On the charge that immigrants are driving down wages and working conditions, Dionne said they do not have an enormous impact, but rather “a small impact on local levels.”

The main issue is that they can’t complain, join unions and protect themselves. “We are establishing a separate but unequal population with limited rights,” he said, noting that lower-level workers share these issues.




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