Catholic Social Teaching on Refugees & Asylum Seekers

Catholic Social Teaching on Refugees – What are the Basic Teachings?

Catholic Social Teaching approaches questions of human mobility from the point of view of human dignity rather than legal status or national interest. It’s key questions are not about legal obligations or defending sovereign territory, but rather how right relationships with self, God, others and creation, would call us – as individuals, communities, nations and international bodies – to respond to people on the move.

Catholic Social Teaching holds that anyone who is forced to move to preserve their lives or human dignity has a moral claim on the hospitality of others. The more vulnerable and needy the person, the greater their moral claim. Beyond responding to immediate needs it also requires the protection of rights and the transformation of the causes of displacement. Because every human person, regardless of one’s legal status or geographic location, has a transcendent dignity that must always be respected, people on the move should enjoy the full range of human rights, and others have a duty to see that they are respected, protected and fulfilled.

According to Catholic Social Teaching, nation states exist to serve the human person by fostering, organising and promoting the common good. The dignity of persons comes before the interests of nation states and people must never be treated as means. Addressing the global phenomenon of migration requires all nations and international organisations to work together to ensure that all people and groups are able to meet their needs and achieve their potential, that is, to share in the common good. Effective expressions of solidarity are needed.

National sovereignty should be respected and supported as long as sovereign states are willing and able to fulfil their responsibilities to respect and protect the dignity and rights of people within their jurisdiction and to promote the common good. The international community has a responsibility to support and assist where this condition is not met. This is how the principle of subsidiarity works. National sovereignty cannot legitimately be used as an excuse to neglect or abuse the human rights of people, no matter what their legal status, or to stand by while this happens. In practice however states do manipulate these concepts to justify their actions, sometimes with deadly results.

For more detail, see Sandie Cornish, “People on the Move and Catholic Social Teaching”, Asian Horizons, Vol 8, No 4, December 2014

What are the Major Documents of Catholic Social Teaching on Refugees?

Papal messages for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees have been issued for more than one hundred years, but migration and forced displacement have only really emerged as important themes in Catholic Social Teaching since the mid twentieth century. Pope Pius XII responded to the post World War II migrations affirming a right to migrate. In 1952 he issued the landmark document Exsul Familia Nazarathana. It was an Apostolic Constitution that set out how the Church should care for migrants, as a matter of charity, justice, and solidarity.

Pope Paul VI updated Exsul Familia Nazarathana in 1969 with an Apostolic Letter called Pastoralis Migratorum Cura and the Sacred Congregation for Bishops followed up with the instruction De Pastorali Migratorum Cura.

Refugees, A Challenge to Solidarity was issued in 1992 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace together with the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. It addressed the growing refugee crisis and stresses on the international humanitarian law regarding asylum.

By 2004, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People was a need to again update the instruction on the pastoral care of migrants and Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi was issued.

In 2013 the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People and the Pontifical Council Cor Unum published pastoral guidelines on the care of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. It updates Refugees, A Challenge to Solidarity. The document is called Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Displaced Persons, and a discussion guide by Sandie Cornish is available here.

During these years the social justice teachings of the Popes and Bishops also touched on questions concerning migrants and refugees in the context of their broader social justice teachings. This prezi by Sandie Cornish highlights the key positions taken.

Where Can I Find Catholic Social Teaching on Refugees Quotes?

Pope Francis has been very vocal about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. His first pastoral visit outside of Rome was to the island of Lampedusa, where many migrants land in Italy. Bishops Conferences in the Asia Pacific region have also consistently taught hospitality to strangers.

Inspirational quotes on refugees from the Popes and Bishops can be found here.

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