Last Friday, I expressed my horror at Donald Trump's executive orders related to immigrants and refugees, and that these orders evidenced distortion of the underlying issue to such a degree that his language, and his decisions, can rightly be likened to the type of propaganda we associate with 1930s fascism. In that piece, I noted that an initial statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which addressed the president's executive orders, was weak and I encouraged them to speak more forcefully.
The USCCB then issued a second statement which, like the first, was published in the name of Bishop Joseph Vasquez, chair of the Committee on Migration. It focused on the specific issue of Trump's threat to defund sanctuary cities. It was worse than weak: It was deplorable.
You would think a statement from our bishops might begin with a citation to Sacred Scripture, for example, Exodus 22:21, or Leviticus 19:34, or Deuteronomy 10:19, all of which mandate that the stranger, the foreigner, be treated as a native-born person by Israel because Israel had been a stranger in the land of Egypt. Or, the bishops could have begun with Pope Francis' powerful words at Lampedusa, the first time he left Rome as pope, to visit with the migrants crossing from Africa. Or they could have cited the homily preached by one of their own, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, when he celebrated Mass at the border in Nogales, Ariz.
But, no. The opening sentence of the statement repeated a meme first articulated by then-candidate Donald Trump when he announced his candidacy for the presidency by claiming Mexican immigrants were "criminals" and "rapists." He and his campaign continued to claim that undocumented immigrants commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime, which is not true. And so, it is repugnant to see the statement by Bishop Vasquez begin with this sentence: "I share the concern that all of us feel when someone is victimized by crime, especially when the perpetrator of that crime is someone who is in the United States without authorization." He goes on to state that he is "concerned" that the executive order "would force all jurisdictions to accept a one-size-fits-all regime that might not be best for their particular jurisdictions."
Concern? Where is the sense of outrage? Our Catholic people of Latino descent are terrified. Bishop Vasquez knows this. The President of the USCCB, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, knows this, and if he doesn't, he only has to visit one of his Catholic schools and talk to the kids. Archbishop Jose Gomez, vice president of the conference and chair of their working group on immigration not only knows this, he has given profound and eloquent expression to that fear when preaching in his own cathedral in Los Angeles just after the election. Alas, when he signs a statement drafted by the conference staff in Washington, the phrasing is softened, nothing that might upset Mr. Trump and his pals.
Let us compare the wording and the structure of the recent statements from the USCCB with those issued in response to the contraception mandate ordered by the Department of Health and Human Services. On March 14, 2012, a statement came from the full administrative committee of the conference which said the body was "strongly unified and intensely focused in its opposition to the various threats to religious freedom in our day." They stated further: "One particular religious freedom issue demands our immediate attention: the now-finalized rule of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that would force virtually all private health plans nationwide to provide coverage of sterilization and contraception — including abortifacient drugs — subject to an exemption for 'religious employers' that is arbitrarily narrow, and to an unspecified and dubious future 'accommodation' for other religious organizations that are denied the exemption." They pledged themselves to "vigorous efforts at education and public advocacy."
The bishops in 2012 did not start by acknowledging the need to close the disparity in healthcare costs for women. They explicitly denied the fight was about contraception and its costs. They did not speak of their "concern" but of their "opposition." Alas, the fifth floor of the conference can only evidence "concern" that 11 million people, most of them Catholic, are terrified, that refugee families are being torn apart, that funding, including funding for Catholic Charities, will be eliminated in sanctuary cities. What they really care about is that a Catholic institution might purchase contraceptive coverage in its insurance plans.
It is ironic not least because President Trump's executive order relating to refugees flies in the face of any religious liberty concern, and imperils the Christian populations in the Mideast the conference has repeatedly sought to defend. The order targets Muslims, as made clear by the fact that he called for priority status for "religious minorities" from majority Muslim countries. By painting Muslims as a threat, even as an enemy, Mr. Trump has ably assisted ISIS's effort to paint America as the enemy of Muslims. This will not make life any easier for the Christians in the Mideast.
We don't need irony. The country is facing a moral crisis the likes of which were unimaginable even a few months ago. We need moral leadership. Some bishops have found their voice. In addition to his splendid tweet the day the orders were signed — "A fearful nation talks about building walls and is vulnerable to con men. We must challenge the fear before we are led into darkness.” — Cardinal Joe Tobin of Newark issued a fuller statement. "Wednesday's Executive Actions do not show the United States to be an open and welcoming nation," Tobin said. "They are the opposite of what it means to be American." Cardinal Blase Cupich issued a blistering statement in which he stated, "The world is watching as we abandon our commitments to American values. These actions give aid and comfort to those who would destroy our way of life. They lower our estimation in the eyes of the many peoples who want to know America as a defender of human rights and religious liberty, not a nation that targets religious populations and then shuts its doors on them."
To be fair, the conference issued a third statement on the executive orders, specifically on the refugee ban, and it was better than the previous two but still lacked the force and power of the statements from our new cardinals. It acknowledged that the bishops "strongly disagree" with the ban on refugees from several Muslim countries.
This will be a defining week in the life of the country and also in the life of the church. Sunday morning, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was not going to obey a court order that placed a temporary stay on the president's executive order barring certain refugees. At Dulles Airport, there was a showdown between DHS personnel and federal marshals who were there to enforce the order. At airports around the country, spontaneous protests erupted, demonstrating the "better angels" of the American people. It remains to be seen if other Republicans will denounce the Trump administration's executive orders. So far, the silence has been remarkable but for a few brave souls like Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.
This is a defining moment in a different way for the leaders of our church. Latinos are already a majority of Catholics in the U.S. under the age of 18. They have a right to expect their church will do everything it can to protect them. Just as the church has stood up for the unborn in good times and bad, we must stand up for the undocumented now, before the debate becomes normalized around terms set by President Trump. I suspect Mr. Trump has greater respect for strength than for accommodationism. In any event, our teaching compels us to stand up for them. The fact that immigrants are our people compels us to stand up for them. Let the political chips fall where they may. If the bishops botch this because they think the Trump administration will do them some favor on contraception, they will lose another generation of Catholics.
The March for Life on Friday certainly attracted plenty of Catholic prelates and the enthusiastic attention of the USCCB. As well it should. A church that stops defending the unborn has ceased to meaningfully defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, should not our church be just as vigorous in defending our undocumented and those refugees who wish to come to our shores? Here is a political program for the USCCB: Defend the unborn and the undocumented, against all comers, in all times, in all ways, with vigor and determination and, if necessary, resistance. And, if the fifth floor of the conference only wishes to focus on abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception, despite Pope Francis's explicit encouragement to not only focus on those issues, and they downplay or sideline immigration, it is time for some heads to roll at headquarters or for the bishops to stop sending in their tax to fund the place.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]