Understanding the universal context of Catholic social teaching on migrants and refugees.
Love the Stranger
Pope Francis’s encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, published in 2020, establishes the universal context which should underpin our response to migrants and refugees. It expresses the need to “acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.”6 These sentiments are developed through Pope Francis’s reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ call for us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbour, but rather to actively become neighbours to all. To illustrate this point, Pope Francis uses the example of environmental measures undertaken locally for the sake of humanity as a whole and proposes that “the same attitude is demanded if we are to recognize the rights of all people, even those born beyond our own borders.”7
In doing so Pope Francis builds upon the long-established principle in Catholic social teaching that we form one human family transcending states and nationalities. As the Bishops of England and Wales emphasised in The Common Good, published in 1996: “our neighbourhood is universal: so loving our neighbour has global dimensions.”8
It is also important to recognise that a key principle of Catholic social teaching is “the universal destination of goods”, by which it is intended that all should have access to the goods of this world. We in richer nations should not preclude others from the enjoyment of the riches that are available to us. As Pope John Paul II explained: “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.”9 This means that nobody should be inhibited from enjoying the fruits of the earth because of where they were born. We should not prevent people from migrating to better their condition.
Pope Francis draws this link between the right to migrate and the universal destination of goods when he writes that no one “can remain excluded because of his or her place of birth, much less because of privileges enjoyed by others who were born in lands of greater opportunity. The limits and borders of individual states cannot stand in the way of this.” He goes on to underline that it is “unacceptable that the mere place of one’s birth or residence should result in his or her possessing fewer opportunities for a developed and dignified life.”10
Exploring the theme “towards an ever wider we” for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 2021, Pope Francis warned that, in today’s context, our concept of ‘we’ is increasingly under threat from nationalist or individualist tendencies, with the highest price being paid by those viewed as ‘the other’ – whether living abroad or new arrivals to our shores. Reinforcing the message of Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis calls on us to counter this prevailing trend by working towards the establishment of a single ‘we’, encompassing the whole of humanity.11 It is through this lens that the Catholic Church sees the movement of people across borders and through which we should consider our response to migrants and refugees seeking to build their lives here.
This perspective is different from those which often shape contemporary discussion around migrants and refugees, especially in the political sphere. Rather than beginning with our own national systems, then broadening our focus to include the drivers of displacement ‘upstream’, we are challenged to start with a global approach to upholding human dignity and to work from there. We must also ground our response to migrants and refugees in a recognition that the whole earth exists for the flourishing of all people, regardless of where they were born.
8. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching (1996) 14.
11. Pope Francis, Message for the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2021).