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Not Because They Are Catholic

In the spring of 2011, The Catholic University of America and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) cosponsored a conference titled “The Catholic Church and Immigration: Pastoral, Policy and Social Perspectives.” The keynote speech of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, focused on the Church’s policy and pastoral work with migrant communities. He emphasized the important role played by the Church’s moral tradition in shaping its response and guiding its activities. A key point was when McCarrick noted that the Church’s support for migrant populations occurs “not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”

Walter Burghardt, in his book Love is the Flame of the Lord, traces the origins of this phrase to McCarrick’s predecessor, Cardinal Francis Hickey. Under different circumstances, he was reported to have been asked by a concerned Catholic why the Church spends so much time, effort, and money to help the poor and marginalized, particularly since so many that it helps are not Catholic.  Cardinal Hickey declared, along similar lines to that of McCarrick, that “we do it not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.” In addition to both Cardinals McCarrick and Hickey, this maxim has become a fairly standard descriptive of the Church’s work in the world.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Cardinal Wuerl reiterated this vision with respect to the provision of healthcare by Catholic hospitals, particularly as such a practice was complicated in the shadow of the HHS mandate. Caroline Woo, then Executive Director of Catholic Relief Services, responding during an interview to a question about the relationship between Catholic identity and the work of her organization, responded in a similar manner. Others have applied this maxim to the role of Catholic education in public life… any number of other examples could be provided along the same lines.

Such a vision embraces a nonsectarian rationale for the Church’s outreach efforts – religious identity is a non-factor for Catholics who engage in social service. In important ways it calls to mind the story of the Good Samaritan, who goes out of his way to help another who was ignored by so many others. Nevertheless, it also represents an important shift in the rationale used by the Church in its engagement with the public sphere. The migration field provides a helpful example illustrating this shift. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century American Catholic bishops were mainly guided by two priorities in their work on behalf of migrants arriving in the United States: providing for the pastoral and material needs of their flock and advocating for fellow Catholics.

Ecclesiastical activities in the mid-nineteenth century, the establishment in 1921 of the Bureau of Immigration of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and the work of clergy with displaced populations following World War II demonstrated that the Church’s outreach efforts were motivated in large part because the migrants it helped were Catholic. Although the bishops were committed to the well-being of Catholic immigrants who arrived on American shores and were wary of Protestant attempts to convert such vulnerable individuals, their efforts to protect their own also ensured the stability of the U.S. Catholic Church as an institution. Thus the institutional and pastoral concerns of the Church were closely intertwined in this respect.

The rationale that informed the bishops’ activities in this regard shifted in the decades following World War II. Pastoral and institutional considerations remained important, but a more universal moral ethic for the Church—its “social mission”—emerged as the guiding force behind its work with migrant populations. In a speech to the Catholic Press Association in 1979, Msgr. John J. Egan hinted at this shift when he noted that “what has been called the social mission of the church, long identified as a somewhat extraordinary and secondary work of the church, now seems in fact the very nature of the church’s presence in the world.” Such a development represented a reconfiguration of the hierarchy’s priorities regarding migrant populations—the social mission became ascendant, whereas pastoral and institutionally self-interested concerns moved to a secondary role.

This shift in emphasis is significant, as it points to some fundamental changes in the way in which the American Catholic Church understands itself within an American context. By the second half of the twentieth century the social position of the Church had changed substantially, which in turn led to important shifts in the way that the church’s laity and leadership alike engaged the public square, and understood itself in relation to the American experience.  While there are definitely some upsides to this shift, there are some demonstrable downsides as well – in many respects, the good and the bad are flip sides of the same coin. The one may not come without the other.[1]


[1] This post, and some of those to follow are taken at least partially from an earlier paper that I published on this topic. See Todd Scribner, “Not Because They Are Catholic, but Because We are Catholic: The Bishops’ Engagement with the Migration Issue in Twentieth Century America,” The Catholic Historical Review 101, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 74-99.

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