Rights Are Not Derived from Law, but from Human Dignity

Author: Most Reverend Robert Vasa

Rights Are Not Derived from Law, but from Human Dignity 

Most Reverend Robert Vasa
Bishop of Baker, California   

BEND — It was my joy this week to travel to Ontario’s Blessed Sacrament Parish in a continuation of the spring confirmation schedule. This entails a trip of 260 miles in each direction or nearly 10 hours behind the wheel over the course of the weekend.
The road between Bend and Ontario is one of the straightest stretches of two-lane road in Eastern Oregon. The two fairly minor passes, interestingly named Drinkwater and Stinkingwater, provide a slight variation in an otherwise relatively straight and level route. Unfortunately there are only a couple of places on this journey that could be described as strikingly beautiful, but this is not to say that the scenery is at all boring or uninteresting. As with most drives through Eastern Oregon the scenes are expansive, freeing and engaging.

The youth at Blessed Sacrament were almost exclusively of Hispanic origin. I have no idea about the status of their parents but I would guess that most of these youngsters have been born in the United States and are therefore U.S. citizens. I presume the same of their parents but I do not know. My duty in their regard is to help assure that the Catholic faith is imparted to them and that they are strengthened in the practice of that faith through programs and opportunities offered mostly at the parish level. The Catholic Church, besides being concerned about the spiritual welfare of its members, also exhibits a concern for the physical, emotional and social well-being of everyone.

The salvation of souls is the greatest and most necessary work but this is not done in a vacuum but rather in the midst of the real life situations in which people find themselves, often as a result of their own freely chosen actions.

Over the past 10 years there has been an occasional flare-up of concern about the number of undocumented residents in the United States. A vast majority of these are from Mexico and their numbers continue to increase.

Every nation has the right and the duty to regulate its citizenry. Every nation likewise has the duty to protect its citizens. As a church, we have the duty to protect everyone, not only those who are citizens. The civil society enacts laws, which are ordained for the common good. In some sense the limit of that “good” is seen as extending only to those legally present in that society. This is true if one thinks of rights as somehow determined by that society, by a particular law. When we look at humanity from a broader perspective, however, we see that the common good is not limited by a border or by nationality. This is not intended, in any way, to imply that a nation does not have the right and duty to properly police its borders or protect its citizens but in doing so such a nation cannot forget the solidarity of the whole of humanity. This is the perspective of the church. This may, at times, make it appear that the Catholic Church stands in opposition to certain laws or policies but the truth is that the church tries to be consistent in standing for the good of every person because rights are not derived from civil laws but rather from the dignity of the human person.

I do not think the church would propose hiring “coyotes” to help bring people to the United States illegally. Yet, once people are here and in distress then the church will provide comfort, solace and perhaps even sanctuary because that is what the church does. There may be some of this that is technically “illegal,” but splitting up a family or sending a family-wage earner back to Mexico where he can no longer provide for his family is not in accord with what we are to do as members of a church. It is not consistent with the dignity of human persons. As Catholics we must try to look upon every Catholic in the world, indeed every person, as “our brother” and this is a different relationship than a legal / citizenship relationship. Just because something is “legal” does not mean that it is morally correct. There are any number of examples from our own history and the histories of other nations where something “legal” was grossly immoral and needed to be resisted. I am not suggesting that the American “immigration policy” is immoral but there seem to be some elements of injustice that permeate it and it is this injustice, whether legally sanctioned or not, the Church opposes.

It is very easy to identify all undocumented workers or residents in the United States as criminals but this fails to distinguish between those who are here peacefully and productively and those who are here to engage in other criminal pursuits. I suspect, most of us, if we discovered that one of our Mexican friends were here illegally, would not report that person, an illegal alien, our friend, to the INS. We would see him or her first as a person of worth and dignity and would want to help him or her. However, if the illegal resident were running a meth lab then we, or anyone in the church, would have no problem reporting that illegal behavior to the proper authorities.

There is a form of injustice done to the American people when our borders are not respected but there is also a possibility that a grave injustice could be done to an undocumented worker if too harsh a solution is enacted. It is certainly not right for anyone to violate or seek to circumvent the immigration laws of this nation but unless we know all of the reasons and factors that led a person to the decision to come to this country or to remain illegally, I suggest that it is very dangerous for us to judge that person as a “criminal.” The issue of illegal residency in the United States is a most complex and troubling social reality. Very few of the slogans, pro or con, resonate with me. I do find, however, that thinking about real, identifiable people, concrete human persons and human families, makes it much easier to see that those who cross our borders or remain here illegally are not necessarily evil or wicked men or women but simply people with human aspirations and longings and dignity. Crossing a border illegally does not eliminate that person’s right to be treated as a brother or sister. Remaining in this country illegally does not eliminate that person’s human dignity.

Catholic Sentinel, 13 May 2010, reprinted with permission

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