Hope and Wisdom Prevail at Princeton Conference on Forced Migration

Who is the refugee? Who do I recognize myself to be when confronted with the refugee? How does the politicization of refugees hurt and help them? What responsibility do faith communities have to respond to this crisis? What concretely can we do to respond? These are a few of the burning questions tackled earlier this month at an international gathering of scholars, students, and representatives from the US State Department, the United Nations, and various charities, human rights groups, and faith communities convened by the Princeton University Office of Religious Life and the Community of Sant’Egidio.

The gathering’s panels and roundtable discussions ranged from topics including gender and migration, global citizenship in an era of nationalism, the religious experiences of refugees, the media and migration, and many more. In contrast with popular media coverage of immigration issues, which can often be sensationalist and fleeting, these conversations probed deeply into the history, causes, and long-term implications of the present refugee crisis. Some participants, like Jane Bloom of the International Catholic Migration Commission, pointed out that migration was a fraught issue long before Donald Trump issued his bombshell executive order. How will these new arrivals impact US security, economics, and culture? How does accepting refugees affect relations with their nations of origin? These are the questions that every administration has to navigate in the course of fulfilling its duty to protect American interests and sovereignty.

In another sense, however, the current crisis reflects an even older problem—as old as human society itself. Recent efforts to label refugees as a threat to national security or an economic burden are just one manifestation of humans’ psychological impulse to project internal conflict outward onto others and to “otherize” fellow human beings in response to the experience of fear and anxiety. At its roots, the current resistance to refugees is not just about terrorist attacks and tax dollars. More fundamentally it is a test of our ability to respond reasonably and compassionately in the face of our inner fears and anxieties.

While conference participants clearly recognized the staggering challenges and complexity of the refugee crisis, their conversations did not devolve into despairing or unproductive hand wringing. Far from it, this well-informed and highly motivated group of people reported how their institutions have sprung into action to meet the crisis head-on and identified additional steps that need to be taken. One basic measure that numerous presenters emphasized is educating the public about refugees in order to combat the stereotypes, misconceptions, and “alternative facts” that perpetuate fears about this vulnerable and diverse group of people. For example, contrary to many Americans’ belief that accepting refugees exposes the country to greater risks of violence, studies show that immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than the general US population (and probably less so). Read More


Republicans Shouldn’t Take Prenatal Care Guarantees from Pregnant Women

Republican Congressman John Shimkus expressed opposition yesterday to the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that healthcare plans must cover prenatal care. He argued that men should not have to contribute to the healthcare of pregnant women and their unborn children. Instead, he expressed his support for Americans choosing health insurance plans where coverage is chosen a la carte.

There are a number of problems with this line of thinking. First, it’s detached from reality. That is not how the marketplace has worked or will work, as Congressman Michael Doyle helpfully pointed out. Second, it ignores the practical impact that this would have on the cost of health insurance plans that include prenatal care. It would certainly make it less affordable and thus inaccessible for pregnant women and their children. Combined with Paul Ryan’s seeming inability to understand how insurance works, it is clear that Republicans lack the minimal technical knowledge required to produce healthcare reform that is actually feasible in the real world, let alone a plan that is prudent and helpful.

The case for removing the prenatal care mandate is also deeply immoral. It reflects a market morality that places consumer choice above human dignity and the sanctity of human life. Every single person who is pro-life, including the Congressman, should reject this perverse ordering of values. Pope Francis directly challenged this mentality, saying, “Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege.”

Against this libertarian mentality that is driven by extreme individualism, unlimited choice, and maximized autonomy, a Christian approach recognizes that we all (including men!) have a responsibility to support pregnant women and unborn children (among others). Recognizing this is integral to building a culture of life. This type of commitment to community and mutual responsibility is essential for achieving the common good.

Until Republicans’ leading policy wonk figures out how insurance works, those Republicans trying to replace the Affordable Care Act develop a minimal understanding of how obtaining health insurance works in reality, and the Republican party starts to show a little more respect for life rather than unfettered choice, the party’s effort to cut taxes for the wealthy by wrecking the Affordable Care Act should be strongly opposed by all.


Rend Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

“Rend your hearts, not your garments!” These are the challenging words of the prophet Joel that greeted Christians in churches around the world as they marked the beginning of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday.

Lent—too domesticated over time—is a radical ancient invitation to reject the globalization of superficiality that too often sullies our lives and our communities and to take up a new path that celebrates authentic encounter and encourages human and societal transformation.

It’s a 40-day journey right to the heart of who we are and who we long to be.

Jesus—the great protagonist of this holy season—shows us that life and redemption aren’t achieved through strength and power but by rejecting a privileged mentality and taking up the sufferings and dysfunction within our own lives and those of the entire human family.

Every person lost and broken wears the body of the Lord.

Rend your hearts, not your garments—artificial penance without true transformation.

Rend your hearts, not your garments—a formal and fulfilled fast which continues to keep us satisfied.

Rend your hearts, not your garments—superficial and egoistic prayer, which doesn’t reach the depth of our life to allow it to be touched by God.

Lent comes to us as a cry of truth and sure hope, which answers yes, it is possible not to put on makeup and draw plastic smiles as if nothing is happening.

Yes, it is possible that everything be made new and different because God continues to be “rich in kindness and mercy, always willing to forgive,” and encourages us to begin again and again.

This Lent, we are again invited to undertake a paschal journey to new life, a journey that includes the cross and suffering, which will be uncomfortable but not sterile.

We are invited to admit that something is not right in ourselves, in society, and in the Church—to change, to turn around, to be converted.


See, Judge, Act: Racism, Structural Sin, and Infant Mortality

At the beginning of each semester, I introduce my students to modern Catholic social teaching by emphasizing its dialogue with a changing world. We often start with Rerum Novarum, which was a moral reflection and response to a particular historical context in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of new working conditions. According to Leo XIII, “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere…for the solace to its troubles” (18).

Gaudium et Spes asserts strongly and simply that the duty of the Church (and of moral theology)  lies in “scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (4).

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged all communities to engage in reading the signs of the times: “This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse. We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan” (51).

The common thread here emphasizes the primary methodology of Catholic social teaching, which was officially emphasized by Vatican II and can be boiled down to three words: See. Judge. Act.

Looking upon the world as it really is and scrutinizing the signs of the times requires seeing and listening. If we do not fully and accurately see the complexities of our world, we are virtually guaranteed to judge incompletely and act incorrectly.  Seeing clearly is the palpable drive behind Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

In his recent speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in California, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego expanded on the “See, judge, act” theme, explaining that these mean “seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people and acting in a way which implements these principles in the light of everyone’s unique situation.” He went on to call for greater attention and renewal of “these words — which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in service to the dignity of the human person.”

“Seeing” and listening can seem overwhelming. In an era of social media and alternative facts, I know that I feel like I am constantly on overload. Yet, as Christians, we must persist in seeking the truth and working to better understand the world in which we live. While we often look at economics and politics, one area Catholic social teaching should engage more is public health. In particular, recent research on racism and public health should be part of Catholic social teaching’s reflection on both racism and more broadly, social sin.

Racism, Structural Sin, & Infant Mortality

For at least ten years, public health experts have been researching the high prematurity and infant mortality rates within the African American community. I first encountered this research in the documentary Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality making us Sick? The current issue of The Nation has two in-depth articles on the current state of this research: “What’s Killing America’s Black Infants?” and “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be.”

Education, regular medical checkups, and a healthy lifestyle should reduce the risk for premature delivery, low birthrate, and infant mortality. In the US, however, an African American woman with a college degree has a higher risk for these outcomes than a white woman without a high school diploma. Controlling for genetic and socioeconomic causes, public health experts have identified the long-term experience of systemic racism as a significant cause of high infant mortality within the African American community.

This research is important for Catholic social teaching for two reasons. First, the life course perspective in public health urging attention to health and well-being from before birth throughout one’s life is deeply consonant with a Catholic consistent ethic of life. Attention to maternal-child health begins not with pregnancy, but with a woman’s development in utero and the health of her mother. Public health on racism and childbearing demonstrates the incredible importance of an intergenerational approach.

Second, this research provides a significant challenge to the standard Catholic social teaching approach to social or structural sin. In contrast to liberation theology, John Paul II and Benedict XVI emphasized that while the impact of social sin exceeded individual actions, we were still fundamentally talking about personal sin (An excellent primer on this debate is Kristin Heyer’s “Social Sin and Immigration: Good Fences Make for Bad Neighbors.”). Pope Francis has revitalized official Catholic social teaching’s attention to social structures, especially inequality. This growing public health research on racism also provides new evidence for rethinking and deepening our understanding of social sin.  It reminds us of the importance of preventative care throughout one’s life alongside maternity care, anti-poverty and nutrition programs, and civil rights. “Seeing” this information clearly has wide ranging relevance for our “judging” –policy formation and actions to implement them.


We Are All Refugees…Some of Us Just Don’t Know It


My wife and I are one month away from being homeless…at least we thought we might be until yesterday. We are currently in the process of buying a house, and everything was moving along smoothly until the inspector discovered an abandoned oil tank under the driveway. If it turned out that the tank had leaks, it would require extensive cleanup that could take months, even a year or more. That would be a big problem since our landlord has already rented our apartment to a new tenant starting April 1. Fortunately for us, it turned out that the tank had no leaks, so our family’s brush with temporary homelessness will materialize into nothing more than that.

A momentary scare like this one tends to make one very grateful for the roof over one’s head. Even more significantly, Margaret and I are very much aware that we will soon have the privilege of moving into a home of our own at the very moment that we are witnessing a worldwide migrant crisis. Millions of people have been displaced not only from their homes but also their homelands by violent conflict, religious persecution, and economic hardship. This is a heart-wrenching backdrop to a joyful moment in our lives. How is a socially conscious, soon-to-be-homeowner Catholic to feel about all this?

A big reason that we are excited about finally having a home to call our own is that this means having a home to share with others. Margaret and I love to host. For me a dinner party with good friends is an image and foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, an analogy that Jesus himself drew frequently (see Mt 22:1-14; 25:5-15; Lk 12:31-41). From the time of our engagement, we have talked talked about our hopes that our home would be a place where neighbors would congregate, where our kids’ friends would stick around for dinner, where people would know they always have a place to stay. We have hoped that when we had a house one day, we would be able to open our doors to those in need as our parents have done.

Perhaps it is because all things house-related are consuming my thoughts these days that I was so impacted by a line I recently read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book How to Love. The Zen Master writes, “As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful.” This idea of building a home, not just around oneself, but within oneself strikes me as profoundly important, especially given the current state of world affairs. My wife and I will soon have a new home that we can open up to others. However, a brick-and-mortar house is not a prerequisite for hospitality. Each of us is a home unto ourselves, or at least we can be if we commit to the necessary interior work. (How much time most of us spend selecting wallpaper and manicuring the lawn and how little time getting our spiritual house in order!) All that we need to feel at home and to make others feel the same—namely, love—is with us wherever we go. Even for those who have been driven from their dwelling places, a kind word or a cup of tea extended in friendship can be all they need to feel a sense of home again.

In this sense hospitality is not the sole prerogative of the well-to-do or even average homeowners; it is a mandate of faith for all Christians. Few commands are repeated more often throughout the pages of the Bible than that of caring for strangers or aliens. (See a sampling here.) Jesus affirms this key tenet of faith by identifying with the homeless and the stranger: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:15-25). Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus lay out the criteria for entering God’s kingdom more explicitly than in Matthew 25 where he says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:34-35). Scripture leaves no room for excuses on this score. We are all bound to care for the strangers in our midst. Here Jesus does not require something we cannot give. We may not all own houses, but we all have hearts. Therefore, we all have the capacity to welcome others into that inner space that constitutes a home in the deepest sense of the word. Read More


Burritos, Microwaves, and Walls—Lessons in Adulting from High Schoolers

President Donald Trump recently announced that refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries would be denied entry into the United States. As a white, American-born school teacher in a Midwest Catholic school, I didn’t anticipate that this would change my day-to-day life very much. Then a student’s prayer stopped me in my tracks.

In my theology classroom, our daily devotion is a prayer of thanksgiving called “Gratitude Journals.” Every day, the students write five things about which they are grateful, and they’re told to never repeat a past entry. It’s hard. You really have to take notice of the little things, and you have to be creative. So anything goes. And I mean anything. I’ve gotten everything from “creamy garlic mashed potatoes” to “Harambe” to “the way my mom laughs when she’s not stressed” and everything in between. My students come from all sorts of cultural, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds so almost nothing surprises me. I usually just smile and call on the next student. But this week I heard one that stopped me in my tracks:

“What are we grateful for today, people?” I asked.
“Trump’s ban.”
“What was that?” I had heard, but I needed to make sure.
“Trump’s ban.”

These students are fourteen and fifteen years old. They don’t yet understand political rhetoric, extreme nationalism, or norms that sustain the  delicate balance of democracy.

Their parents do.

The same day I heard this distressing gratitude journal entry, I received a note from the office to give to another student. As I glanced at it and passed it on, I had to fight to hold in my laughter. It read in all caps:

“DON’T MICROWAVE YOUR BURRITO IN THE FOIL…Love, Mom.”

These students are still figuring out how to warm up their own lunches, how to write a three paragraph essay, how to wear deodorant and look cool walking down the hallway with textbooks in their arms. Most things they know about life and the real world they learned from the adults they live with. That’s what was so concerning to me about the gratitude journal.

As a teacher, I strive to keep my political views to myself. During election time, Clinton supporters, Trump supporters, and third party supporters had equal rights in my classroom. My faith does not make me part of a political party, and neither should it impact my students’ choice of political affiliation.

But, when it comes to President Trump’s recent ban of refugees coming into the United States from certain countries, the faith is clear: Jesus says welcome the stranger. All strangers.

Fr. James Martin put it well: “Jesus doesn’t say help the stranger only if there’s no risk to you. Or help the stranger only if it’s convenient. Or help the stranger only if he or she is the same religion you are.” He just says help.

When parents baptize their children into the Christian faith they promise to teach their children what it is that Jesus taught. The rite goes like this:

“You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”

I always wonder if parents know what they have undertaken.

Love God, love your neighbor.

Pope Francis has a message for parents who think they are handing on the faith while handing on the idea that it’s okay to ban refugees: “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty.”

I realize that, at this age, my students’ “beliefs” are still really a reflection of their families’ beliefs. I don’t hold my freshman students responsible for thinking it can be congruent with a Christian faith to turn away refugees or for thinking it’s okay to put metal in the microwave. I do hold their parents responsible.

Don’t let our students nuke their burritos and burn down the cafeteria. And please, don’t let our students believe that the message of Christ is anything but a message of justice, compassion, and welcome to all, especially the refugee.

Allison Walter is a theology teacher and track coach. She was formerly press secretary with Faith in Public Life and policy education associate with NETWORK Lobby Organization in Washington, DC. She has also written for the National Catholic Reporter, Patheos, and Busted Halo.


Pope Francis Challenges Profit-Obsessed Capitalism and Our Complacency

As a certain group of right-wing American Catholics continues to promote free market fundamentalism—sometimes very amiably with rhetorical commitments to a (diminished) social  safety net and maybe even with a nod to an increase in the earned income tax credit—Pope Francis has once again affirmed the Church’s fundamental opposition to this ideology (however cleverly marketed) and the idolatry that often drives it.

While right-wing defenders of libertarian economics should be deeply challenged by the pope’s call for an economy of communion (along with over a century and a quarter of formal Catholic teaching), those of us who actually value Church teaching and orthodoxy should also reflect upon our own biases and assumptions. A market mentality permeates much of American culture, including the thinking of many in the center and even on the left. I sincerely doubt that, given my American background, I am immune from certain biases that pull me from identifying the best path to integral human development, global economic justice, and the common good.

It is easy to cast stones at Catholics who (against Church teaching) believe that access to food or healthcare is a privilege to be earned, rather than a right. It is easy to cast stones at those who delude themselves into believing that the economic growth under China’s state capitalism shows the efficacy of free enterprise and small government, or that the Great Depression and Great Recession were caused primarily by excessive government intervention in otherwise virtuous markets, or any other delusions that ideologues cook up while promoting policies that create the throwaway culture. It is much harder to check one’s own assumptions and ensure that we too are not complicit in this culture or guilty of being capitalists first and Christians second.

Here are some highlights of Francis’ speech on Saturday that should challenge all Americans to reflect on what we are doing (or not doing) to build a more just socio-economic system that serves all:

  1. We cannot understand the new Kingdom offered by Jesus if we do not free ourselves of idols, of which money is one of the most powerful.
  2. When capitalism makes the seeking of profit its only purpose, it runs the risk of becoming an idolatrous framework, a form of worship.
  3. Tax avoidance and evasion which, before being illegal acts, are acts which deny the basic law of life: mutual care.
  4. The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are no longer seen.
  5. The economy of communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full.
  6. We must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system.
  7. May the ‘no’ to an economy that kills become a ‘yes’ to an economy that lets live, because it shares, includes the poor, uses profits to create communion.