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    A Syrian father and his children wait in line to have their passports checked at Hanover airport in Germany.

    When Migrants Come Knocking

    What Natural Law Demands

    By Edmund Waldstein

    September 21, 2021
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    In September 2015, I was curate in two Lower Austrian parishes: Trumau and Pfaffstätten. It was the height of a refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of migrants were travelling through the Balkans toward Central Europe. Between Pfaffstätten and Trumau lies Traiskirchen, the site of a refugee camp where asylum seekers in Austria are first sent.

    I drove by the camp almost every day, going from one parish to the other. The camp was full to overflowing. Many refugees slept outside in tents, or simply on blankets on the ground. The whole neighborhood of the camp was crowded with migrants milling about aimlessly, or sitting in the shade. In the mornings, they were lined up outside the doctor’s office and the pharmacy. There were also usually volunteers outside the camp handing out free stuff: clothes, soap, food, etc. The parish of Pfaffstätten helped organize some of the handouts, as well as providing rooms in the parish hall for German classes. It was difficult to gain access to the camp itself, but on one occasion I was able to go inside with the help of the parish priest of Traiskirchen, and celebrated Mass in a little chapel in one of the upper floors of the main building (a former barracks).

    The refugees came from all over: from Syria (of course), Sudan, Iraq, Iran, and (as today) a great many from Afghanistan. Most were fleeing war, but not all. The ones who came to Mass were mostly from Iran and from sub-Saharan Africa. I spoke with one lady from Iran, who told me that she and one of her daughters ran away from home because they wanted to convert to Christianity. When her husband found out about their conversion, he sent a text message to their 14-year-old daughter saying that he was going to find and kill her.

    The vast majority of the refugees, however, were themselves Muslims. There is a little building opposite the camp in Traiskirchen that was converted into a mosque. Relations between the Mosque and the Catholic parish in Traiskirchen are quite good; they have collaborated on various projects, especially organizing German lessons. This despite the fact that the parish in Traiskirchen has received a number of Muslims into the Church.

    Many of the Syrian refugees were from the middle and upper classes, and still had some money left over from the trip, as well as smartphones and other valuables. This led some Austrians to claim that these were “not real refugees,” and that the whole situation was being exploited to take over Europe for Islam. But whatever the long term effects of the migration will be, to question the motives of (say) a Syrian doctor or lawyer who had lost most of his family, and his home, and his job, and his country to live in a tent in an overcrowded refugee camp in Traiskirchen, just because among the few things he hasn’t lost are a few thousand euro, an iPhone, and a gold ring, would be absurd.

    A Syrian father and his children wait in line to have their passports checked at Hanover airport in Germany.

    A Syrian father and his children wait in line to have their passports checked at Hanover airport in Germany. Photograph by Gordon Welters

    The current debates on immigration between liberal globalists on the one hand and populist nationalists on the other raise fundamental questions about the nature of political community and solidarity. Neither side offers satisfactory answers. Immigration naturally raises such fundamental questions, since the extent to which new members are admitted to a community varies widely depending on how that community understands and sustains its own internal unity. Thus a nomadic tribe, living in easily breachable tents and depending on close bonds of trust, will approach the integration of strangers differently than a city-state with stone houses, locking doors, speculative philosophy, law courts, and even (perhaps) op-ed columnists.

    The vast numbers of persons fleeing the incessant wars in the Levant or economic hardship and disruption in the global south (disruption caused in part by the dynamics of the globalization of neoliberal capitalism), and trying to enter the prosperous and relatively stable countries of Europe and North America, have brought the debates between nationalists and globalists to a head. The globalists favor a liberal immigration policy, not only out of compassion for the needy, but also as a means to the destruction of the remnants of homogenous national cultures, in order to make way for a fully liberal, multi-cultural future, where both labor and capital may flow freely. The nationalists, on the other hand, favor protectionist immigration policies, for the sake of those already within the bonds of nationhood, but often with callous disregard for the needs of refugees and migrants.

    How many refugees should we let in? How can we best help them integrate into our communities, so that they and we become stronger thereby? These are where the really difficult debates come in.

    The debate between globalism and nationalism is in many ways reminiscent of a debate raised in ancient philosophy by the conquests of Alexander the Great: is man a political animal or an imperial animal? That is, does the nature of man limit him to the small-scale communal life of the ancient city, in which he can know most of his fellow citizens, and a solidarity based on friendship can bind the community together? Or does the universality of reason rather incline him to hold, as Plutarch put it, “that his friends and kindred should be the good and virtuous [of all mankind], and that the vicious only should be accounted foreigners”?

    The Christian Middle Ages attempted a synthesis of those two ideals. Christendom was ideally a universal community in which all the baptized were considered friends and fellow-citizens of the City of God, and only Muslims and Jews were considered foreigners. And Christendom was supposed to be a united community, under the spiritual authority of the pope, and the temporal authority of the emperor. But that order was subsidiarist, with many common goods pursued at the lower levels of kingdoms, duchies, counties, abbeys, towns, villages etc.

    Medieval Christendom was always fraught with tensions. The injustices committed against Muslim and Jews are a stain on its history. Christians fought each other, army against army under the cross, and there were conflicts as well between the spiritual and temporal powers. This cosmopolitan yet unified civilization, always imperfectly realized, existing often only in sketch, began to break down at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The conflict between King Philip the Fair of France and Pope Boniface VIII – sparked as the pope issued a decree forbidding kings from taxing clergy without his consent, spiraling out into a wide-ranging dispute over the nature of papal and royal power, and ending with King Philip sending his henchmen to kidnap the pope – was in part a conflict between the old ideal of Christendom and the emerging strong territorial monarchies.

    The new monarchies transferred many of the claims of the Church on to themselves – thus the kingdom of France began to be seen as a “mystical body” headed by the King, and those who died for France were seen as martyrs. The classical idea of patria, the fatherland, which had previously been applied either to the Heavenly City, or to the village where one was born, was now applied to the Kingdom of France. This had in part to do with the rediscovery of Aristotle’s Politics in the thirteenth century. Aristotle’s teaching on the polis was now applied to the temporal kingdom, seen as complete society arising from natural inclination, and thus receiving its authority from God through the natural law, rather than through the revealed and delegated spiritual power which Christ had given to Peter.

    Thus began the development of the modern nation-state, whose severance from the ideal of Christendom was solidified in the seventeenth century at the Peace of Westphalia. The nation-state combines the worst features of political and imperial communities. It lacks the advantages of a small community founded in friendship and mutual trust among citizens actually living a common life, but preserves the communal egoism and hatred of outsiders typical of such small communities. It lacks the capaciousness and ability to unite many nations typical of ancient empires, but has all of their militarism and libido dominandi. The absurd spectacle of modern “imperialism” (abusively so-called) shows a form of human solidarity that lacks the most important political goods, and replaces the pacific goods of empire with endless unjust wars of conquest and internal efforts at purification.

    Can we say that the Capetians and their like built better than they knew? It cannot be denied that such nation-states were at times able to serve the common good to some extent, and one cannot fail to praise the heroism of such true patriots as St. Joan of Arc. But on balance the rise of the nation-state seems to have brought more harm than good. The ever more idolatrous political theologies and ever more totalized internecine wars of self-sacrifice with which nation-states have tried to bolster their internal solidarity culminated in the horrific slaughter of World War I and World War II.

    After the horrors of the world wars of the twentieth century, a new ideal of global solidarity founded in a secular, liberal conception of human rights came to the fore. This aridly rationalistic global liberalism cannot, however, provide true universal solidarity, which can only be found in the social kingship of Christ. Thus we are left with the current situation in which the heirs of Enlightenment rationalism press their unrealistic dream of a secular end of history against the no-less-ugly heirs of the ideals of Philip the Fair, Henry VIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Bismarck. Much depends on how this struggle will end. In the meantime, however, it is important to try to follow the natural law, and the injunctions of the Gospel, as best we can in the present situation.

    One problem that was aggravated by the rise of the nation-state is the problem of the migration of refugees. Certainly, this problem existed long before modern nations. Indeed, it was the migration of the German tribes into the Roman Empire that in part brought about that empire’s end. Nevertheless, nation-states, with their relentless drive towards the homogenization of populations within given territories, have been particularly prone to cause such migrations. To take just one example, modern Germany is deeply marked by the experience of the more than 14 million Germans who fled from territories annexed by Poland and the Soviet Union after World War II. I know many children and grandchildren of Silesian refugees, who are marked by a deep and abiding resentment over the loss of their ancestral homes.

    An important precept of the natural law, perennially taught by the Church, is the obligation to help refugees and needy immigrants. This obligation is inextricably linked to the principle of the universal destination of goods. In a 1948 address to American bishops, Pope Pius XII taught the following:

    The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people. For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth [publicae utilitati], considered very carefully, does not forbid this.

    In this passage Pope Pius traces the natural law demand for allowing the immigration of the needy of other parts of the world into a polity to the principle that “the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all.” This is a perennial principle of Catholic Social Teaching: “the universal destination of goods.” One of the most famous witnesses to that principle was given by St. Ambrose of Milan in On Naboth:

    It is not one poor man, Naboth, who was slain; every day Naboth is struck down, every day the poor man is slain. Seized by this fear, the human race is now departing its lands. Carrying his little one, the poor man sets out with his children; his wife follows in tears, as if she were accompanying her husband to his grave. Yet she who mourns over the corpses of her family weeps less because she [at least] has her spouse’s tomb even if she has lost his protection; even if she no longer has children, she at least does not weep over them as exiles; she does not lament what is worse than death – the empty stomachs of her tender offspring. How far, O rich, do you extend your mad greed? “Shall you alone dwell upon the earth” (Isa. 5:8). Why do you cast out the companion whom nature has given you and claim for yourself nature’s possession? The earth was established in common for all, rich and poor. Why do you alone, O rich, demand special treatment?

    External things such as food, fuel, and shelter, and also the land which is necessary for the production of such things, are given by God to the whole human race for the sustenance of life. The tradition recognizes that private property is lawful insofar as it is conducive to such sustenance, but those who have property beyond their needs owe it to those who are in need.

    Josef Cardinal Frings, the Archbishop of Cologne and a major figure in German resistance to Hitler, in a New Year’s sermon during the bitterly cold winter after the war, defended the widespread practice of stealing coal from coal-trains. “A single individual, in his need, ought to be allowed to take what he needs to preserve his life and health, if he cannot obtain it through other means,” he said from the pulpit. “Fringsen” thus became a slang term meaning “small-scale pilfering from others’ superfluity for the sake of survival.” St. Thomas teaches that this practice is permissible.

    Pius XII’s teaching on immigrants is a specific application of this general principle. Wealthy countries that have a superfluity of external goods owe a share of those goods to the needy who flee less fortunate countries on account of war or unemployment or hunger. This is a matter of justice, not merely of voluntary generosity.

    We can only benefit those who flee to our lands if we can make these lands themselves truly places of justice, places of refuge.

    The current situation in Afghanistan, where many Afghans who collaborated with the occupying forces in the years since the NATO invasion of 2001 are now seeking refuge in the United States and other NATO countries, also involves another principle of justice: The responsibility that countries have towards their own allies. The NATO countries have a special responsibility toward those Afghans who supported them as interpreters, security officers, etc.

    Of course, such principles of justice do not nullify a country’s responsibility to preserve its common good. The demands of justice in a concrete situation will depend in part on the demands of the common good. The common good includes the social bonds in a society on which its internal unity and peace depend. Thus the demands of the common good will vary depending on what sort of social bonds are necessary to hold a particular society together: the very point at issue in the globalist/nationalist debate. One of the kinds of social bonds that those who have the care of the common good must certainly consider are the bonds of local cultures that can be disrupted by excessive immigration. But one thing is certain: it is not acceptable for a wealthy country to frame immigration policy exclusively in terms of “what benefits us.” The wealth of the world has been given to the whole human race, and we owe the needy a share in it.

    How many refugees should we let in? How can we best help them integrate into our communities, so that they and we become stronger thereby? These are where the really difficult debates come in. But one certain principle is this: we can only benefit those who flee to our lands if we can make these lands themselves truly places of justice, places of refuge.

    In 2015 one of the refugees in Traiskirchen whom I knew, an Iranian convert to Christianity, was assaulted by other refugees, Muslims, when they saw him reading the Bible in his bunk. He reported the matter to the authorities, but they merely advised him to be more discreet. This was an appallingly insufficient response. We can only benefit those who flee into our lands if we can prevent the very problems that forced them to flee from being replicated here. I think that an important step in that direction would be to recover our understanding of our political communities as Christian, as parts of Christendom. Refugees from the Islamic world to the West often expect to find a Christian society here. Perhaps this expectation can be a help to us to remember what we were, and what we should be.


    The author is an editor of The Josias, from which parts of this essay have been adapted.

    Contributed By EdmundWaldstein Edmund Waldstein

    Pater Edmund Waldstein is a monk of Stift Heiligenkreuz, a Cistercian abbey in Austria.

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