The Catholic Church on Immigration
The teaching of the Catholic Church on immigration is abundant, and has been strong for a century. Some key excerpts and links follow.
Pius XII: Exsul Familia Nazarethena
A key document to understand the teaching of the Catholic Church on migration is an apostolic letter written in 1952 by Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia. It is available in Latin on the Vatican website, or – perhaps more convenient – in English on another site. It includes a plea to nations with more extensive territory and less numerous populations to open their borders.
Pope John XXIII: Pacem in TerrisPope John XXIII wrote in 1963 about the rights of immigrants in his encyclical on peace. Under the heading “The Right to Emigrate and Immigrate,” section 25, he said: “Again, every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.(22) The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.”
Pope John XXIII: Mater et Magistra
Pope John XXIII wrote in 1961 about the rights of immigrants in his encyclical on Christianity and social progress. Under the heading “The Family,” section 45, he referred to his predecessor’s (Pius XII’s) statement that private ownership of material goods has a great part to play in promoting the welfare of family life, because it helps to secure the liberty needed for proper care of “the physical, spiritual and religious welfare of the family.” Pope John XXIII built on the teaching about private property: “It is in this that the right of families to migrate is rooted.”
Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (or The Church in the Modern World), 1965
Perhaps the best known document from the Second Vatican Council is the extensive document entitled The Church in the Modern World. It does not have en extensive section, or even a paragraph, devoted to migration. However, it does refer, in section 65, to the “personal right of migration.”
In section 84, it says: “organizations of the international community, for their part, must make provision for men’s different needs, both in the fields of social life—such as food supplies, health, education, labor and also in certain special circumstances which can crop up here and there, e.g., the need to promote the general improvement of developing countries, or to alleviate the distressing conditions in which refugees dispersed throughout the world find themselves, or also to assist migrants and their families.”Pope Paul VI: Populorum Progressio
Pope Paul VI wrote about the “duty of welcoming others” in his encyclical on development, in 1967.
67. We cannot insist too much on the duty of welcoming others – a duty springing from human solidarity and Christian charity – which is incumbent both on the families and the cultural organizations of the host countries. Centers of welcome and hostels must be multiplied, especially for youth. This must be done first to protect them from loneliness, the feeling of abandonment and distress, which undermine all moral resistance. This is also necessary to protect them from the unhealthy situation in which they find themselves, forced as they are to compare the extreme poverty of their homeland with the luxury and waste which often surround them. It should be done also to protect them against the subversive teachings and temptations to aggression which assail them, as they recall so much “unmerited misery.”  Finally, and above all, this hospitality should aim to provide them, in the warm atmosphere of a brotherly welcome, with the example of wholesome living, an esteem for genuine and effective Christian charity, an esteem for spiritual values.
68. It is painful to think of the numerous young people who come to more advanced countries to receive the science, the competence, and the culture which will make them more qualified to serve their homeland, and who certainly acquire there a formation of high quality, but who too often lose the esteem for the spiritual values which often were to be found, as a precious patrimony, in the civilizations where they had grown up.
69. The same welcome is due to emigrant workers, who live in conditions which are often inhuman, and who economize on what they earn in order to send a little relief to their family living in misery in their native land.
Pope John Paul II, On Human Work, or Laborem Exercens
In 1981, Pope John Paul II, the champion of Solidarity in Poland, wrote an encyclical about labor. He included reflections on “Work and the Emigration Question” (section 23):
Finally, we must say at least a few words on the subject of emigration in search of work. This is an age-old phenomenon which nevertheless continues to be repeated and is still today very widespread as a result of the complexities of modern life. Man has the right to leave his native land for various motives – and also the right to return – in order to seek better conditions of life in another country. This fact is certainly not without difficulties of various kinds. Above all it generally constitutes a loss for the country which is left behind. It is the departure of a person who is also a member of a great community united by history, tradition and culture; and that person must begin life in the midst of another society united by a different culture and very often by a different language. In this case, it is the loss of a subject of work, whose efforts of mind and body could contribute to the common good of his own country, but these efforts, this contribution, are instead offered to another society which in a sense has less right to them than the person’s country of origin.
Nevertheless, even if emigration is in some aspects an evil, in certain circumstances it is, as the phrase goes, a necessary evil. Everything should be done – and certainly much is being done to this end – to prevent this material evil from causing greater moral harm; indeed every possible effort should be made to ensure that it may bring benefit to the emigrant’s personal, family and social life, both for the country to which he goes and the country which he leaves. In this area much depends on just legislation, in particular with regard to the rights of workers. It is obvious that the question of just legislation enters into the context of the present considerations, especially from the point of view of these rights.
The most important thing is that the person working away from his native land, whether as a permanent emigrant or as a seasonal worker, should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the other workers in that society in the matter of working rights. Emigration in search of work must in no way become an opportunity for financial or social exploitation. As regards the work relationship, the same criteria should be applied to immigrant workers as to all other workers in the society concerned. The value of work should be measured by the same standard and not according to the difference in nationality, religion or race. For even greater reason the situation of constraint in which the emigrant may find himself should not be exploited. All these circumstances should categorically give way, after special qualifications have of course been taken into consideration, to the fundamental value of work, which is bound up with the dignity of the human person. Once more the fundamental principle must be repeated: the hierarchy of values and the profound meaning of work itself require that capital should be at the service of labor and not labor at the service of capital.
Pope John Paul II: Familiaris Consortio
Familiaris Consortio, or On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, is a formal letter or Apostolic Exhortation to Catholics from John Paul II to Catholic leaders and laity dated November 22, 1981. In a section of the letter entitled The Charter of Family Rights, it calls migration a right. The excerpt:
46. The ideal of mutual support and development between the family and society is often very seriously in conflict with the reality of their separation and even opposition.
In fact, as was repeatedly denounced by the Synod, the situation experienced by many families in various countries is highly problematical, if not entirely negative: institutions and laws unjustly ignore the inviolable rights of the family and of the human person; and society, far from putting itself at the service of the family, attacks it violently in its values and fundamental requirements. Thus the family, which in God's plan is the basic cell of society and a subject of rights and duties before the State or any other community, finds itself the victim of society, of the delays and slowness with which it acts, and even of its blatant injustice.
For this reason, the Church openly and strongly defends the rights of the family against the intolerable usurpations of society and the State. In particular, the Synod Fathers mentioned the following rights of the family: … [what follows is a list of 14 rights, including …] the right to emigrate as a family in search of a better life.
Pope John Paul II: Ecclesia in America
Another key document about immigration in America was a letter written by Pope John Paul II on January 22, 1999, and released in Mexico. It has a section on the “question of immigrants,” which notes they “often bring with them a cultural and religious heritage which is rich in Christian elements,” and says that the Church will work to “foster a welcoming attitude among the local population.”
It repeats the words from a recent (1997) synod of bishops: “the Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.”
Pope Benedict XVI: Caritas in Veritate
In his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (June 29, 2009), Pope Benedict XVI considered the world since Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio (in which Paul VI said that “development was the new name for peace”). Benedict, looking at changes in recent decades, wrote about immigration, among other things.
62. Another aspect of integral human development that is worthy of attention is the phenomenon of migration. This is a striking phenomenon because of the sheer numbers of people involved, the social, economic, political, cultural and religious problems it raises, and the dramatic challenges it poses to nations and the international community. We can say that we are facing a social phenomenon of epoch-making proportions that requires bold, forward-looking policies of international cooperation if it is to be handled effectively. Such policies should set out from close collaboration between the migrants’ countries of origin and their countries of destination; it should be accompanied by adequate international norms able to coordinate different legislative systems with a view to safeguarding the needs and rights of individual migrants and their families, and at the same time, those of the host countries. No country can be expected to address today’s problems of migration by itself. We are all witnesses of the burden of suffering, the dislocation and the aspirations that accompany the flow of migrants. The phenomenon, as everyone knows, is difficult to manage; but there is no doubt that foreign workers, despite any difficulties concerning integration, make a significant contribution to the economic development of the host country through their labour, besides that which they make to their country of origin through the money they send home. Obviously, these labourers cannot be considered as a commodity or a mere workforce. They must not, therefore, be treated like any other factor of production. Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance.
The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
In his teaching on immigration, Pope Benedict XVI used material developed by experts in the Vatican. Their key document is entitled “The Love of Christ toward Immigrants,” published in 2004.
World Day of Migrants
There are a number of speeches or messages prepared for the Church’s annual World Day of Migrants available on the Vatican website. The first World Day of Migrants was in 1915; messages going back to 1978 are easily available.