As Congress ponders faster ways of deporting kids from Central America trying to cross the US border to flee poverty and violence, the Catholic Church is emerging as their first line of defense. This past week brought not only a rare papal intervention in American politics, but a historic first from the country’s Jesuits.
Whatever the political results of those efforts, the big picture for the church is that immigration is taking its place at the Catholic table as a fully “pro-life” issue.
A rising tide of unaccompanied children from Central America is heading north, driven by gang violence that’s claiming ever younger victims. According to US Customs and Border Protection, more than 52,000 minors from the region have been processed since October 2013, and that’s just those who were caught. The real number is presumably much greater.
On Friday night, the Republican-led House passed two measures aimed at dealing with the surge, including provisions to speed deportations and rescind President Obama’s authority over deportation. The bills are unlikely to become law, however, and The Washington Post reported that Obama is weighing executive action that would allow millions of immigrants to stay in the United States.
Popes are generally reluctant to pronounce on domestic political squabbles, but this isn’t just any pope. Not only is Francis the first pontiff from Latin America, he’s the son of Italian emigres to Argentina whose affection for immigrants is clear.
On Monday, Francis dispatched a message to a summit in Mexico City called to address the crisis. While the venue was international, the pope’s language was directed above all at policy makers in America.
“Such a humanitarian emergency demands as a first urgent measure that these minors be protected and duly taken in,” the pope said, insisting that these young people “cross the border under extreme conditions, in pursuit of a hope that in most cases turns out to be vain.”
Defense of immigrants has been a cornerstone of Francis’ papacy.
His first trip outside Rome was to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, laying a wreath in the sea to commemorate 20,000 people believed to have perished attempting to make the crossing from North Africa to Europe during the last two decades, and blasting what he called a “globalization of indifference.”
The US bishops have followed his lead by, among other things, staging a dramatic photo-op at the US-Mexico border in April in which they distributed communion to people on the Mexican side through slats in the massive security barrier separating the two countries. They cited Lampedusa as their inspiration.
This week, the bishops dispatched more than 1,200 Spanish-language Bibles to about 1,000 youth from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador detained by the US Border Patrol near Nogales, Ariz. They publicized the donation widely, obviously intending it as a way of making sure the situation stays in the spotlight.
Last week also brought new evidence that others in the church have gotten the memo.
On Wednesday, the Jesuit Conference, representing roughly 2,500 Jesuit priests and brothers in America, issued a personal plea to the 43 members of Congress who are alumni of Jesuit schools, both Republicans and Democrats, not to water down sex trafficking act of 2008, which requires hearings for the Central American children before they can be deported.
The Rev. Thomas Smolich, president of the conference, called those efforts “inhumane and an insult to American values.”
One of those Jesuit alums is House Speaker John Boehner, a graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati. Smolich addressed Boehner directly, insisting that short-circuiting due process rights won’t make the causes of the situation go away.
“This is not a new crisis, nor is it primarily at our border,” Smolich wrote.
“It has been escalating over the last decade . . . 90 children are murdered or disappeared in Honduras every month,” he said, pointing out to Boehner that “this is the equivalent of eight children being executed in your congressional district every 30 days.”
It’s telling that the Jesuit conference has never before appealed to alumni in Congress on any issue. Under the first Jesuit pope, one who’s obviously made this a priority, they broke the mold.
Here’s the Catholic significance of all this:
Especially in the United States, the social agenda of the church in recent years has been largely identified with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, and there’s no indication those issues are receding as top-shelf concerns.
From the beginning, however, Francis has been a pope of the social gospel, making equivalent priorities of poverty relief, conflict resolution, human trafficking, and the environment, as well as immigrant rights. His aim seems to be to expand the notion of what counts as a “pro-life” issue, meaning a matter where human dignity is at stake and where the church is obligated to respond.
In practical terms, calling something a “pro-life” issue for the church means that it’s really, really important, something that justifies the investment of serious time and treasure beyond issuing an occasional press release, or delivering a pious sermon every so often.
This week suggests the plan is working. In the Francis era, being pro-life will still mean opposing abortion, but it won’t be limited to that. If there’s a threat to immigrant rights, then as far as Catholicism is concerned, it’s game on.
Muslim backlash against ISIS
Last week, I touched on the devastation of the Christian community in Mosul in northern Iraq, a city where the roots of the faith go back 1,200 years and which is now basically a Christian-free zone after a takeover by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, sometimes rendered as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and usually abbreviated as ISIS.
If there’s good news, it may come in a July 31 piece from Oasis, a foundation launched by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan when he was still the Patriarch of Venice devoted to dialogue between Christians and Muslims and to giving a voice to the Middle East’s small Christian minority.
Michele Brignone’s essay reports that reaction across much of the Muslim world to the proclamation of a “caliphate” in northern Iraq by ISIS has been strikingly negative.
Brignone notes, for instance, that the World Union of Muslim Ulamâ (a term meaning “scholars”), whose president is Sheikh Yûsif al-Qaradâwî, an influential thinker connected with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has declared that the caliphate is legally void.
“All of us dream of the Islamic caliphate and hope deep in our hearts that it will be established as soon as possible,” the judgment reads, referring to the vision of all Muslims living together in one state ruled by Islamic law. However, it says establishment of a caliphate must come from “consultation” and not unilateral actions.
Noted Moroccan Islamic jurist Ahmed Raysûnî, according to Brignone, has also denounced the ISIS proclamation, insisting that the use of the sword is justified against aggression but not for “hegemonic purposes or the abuse of power.”
Brignone reports that even the Jordanian-Palestinian ideologue Abû Muhammad al-Maqdisî, known for close ties to Al Qaeda, has denounced ISIS, writing that “the caliphate must be a refuge and a guarantee for all Muslims, not a threat or an intimidation.”
For Brignone, the anti-ISIS backlash illustrates the chronic divisions in the Muslim world. One wonders if, having recoiled at the latest example of what a caliphate looks like in practice, some of these Islamic thinkers might be open to a conversation about how to shape an Islamic society that also fosters protection for minorities.
Desperate Christian leaders in Iraq certainly would be eager to join them in talking it out.
A tour of Pope Francis’ Rome
Rome is a premier tourist destination, drawing 7 million to 10 million visitors every year. August is when the visitors really rule the roost, since many locals slip away to escape the heat. Romans say only two things move this month — cani e americani, or “dogs and Americans.”
In the spirit of the season, I’ll propose a tour of “Francis’ Rome,” meaning sites now associated with this maverick pope. To grasp what makes him tick, visiting these places would be far more useful than standing in line at St. Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican museums.
You won’t find these destinations in any guidebook, because they’re far off the beaten path. As Francis said when he went to the city’s northern edge for his first parish visit in May, “You understand reality better from the periphery than from the center.”
1. Casal del Marmo
Six miles from the Vatican in northeastern Rome is the city’s largest youth prison, called the Casal del Marmo. It houses about 50 male and female inmates aged 14 to 21, mostly North Africans and Slavs, groups that often don’t find a warm reception from locals.
Francis chose the spot for his first Holy Thursday Mass last March, washing the feet of 12 young offenders, including two women, an Italian Catholic, and a Serbian Muslim, in a technical violation of church rules restricting the rite to men.
“Washing your feet means I am at your service,” Francis said, calling it “a symbol, a sign.” When asked why he’d come, he said that “things of the heart don’t have an explanation.”
In April, Francis visited Rome’s Magliana neighborhood, as iconic for Italians because of its association with organized crime as the Bronx is for Americans. He’s made the battle against the mob a priority, in June declaring its dons “excommunicated.”
As Francis sees it, the mafia exploits the poor under a veneer of Catholic piety.
Magliana doesn’t have a lot of pretense, and the laid-back Francis fit right in. A handwritten sign read, Come butta France? which roughly translates as, “How’s it hangin’, Frankie?” It drew a big papal grin.
Francis said that while Christianity is a fellowship of sinners, it’s not a haven for the corrupt. He also denounced a “throwaway culture,” including the poor and victims of crime.
Rome’s bus and railway terminal is a magnet for poor migrants and troubled locals, who can find shelter as well as sandwiches and medical care from charitable groups. That would make it a good symbol for Francis anyway, but it’s Andrea Quintero who seals the deal.
Quintero, 29 at the time of her death, was a Colombian transgender immigrant and drug addict who lived on the streets around Termini. On July 29, 2013, she was beaten to death by unknown thugs and left along the tracks.
A local priest proposed holding Quintero’s funeral in the Church of the Gesù, the spiritual center of the Jesuit religious order. It was a daring idea, because he knew some might worry about blurring the church’s moral teaching, and the order’s leadership wouldn’t want to embarrass history’s first Jesuit pope.
Because that pope was Francis, however, there was no problem. The funeral took place Dec. 27, 2013, reinforcing that marginalized people such as Quintero are his idée fixe.
4. Bambino Gesù
Dec. 21, 2013, neatly captured this pope’s priorities. In the morning, Francis delivered what is usually the “State of the Union” speech, an address to movers and shakers in the Vatican, and basically phoned it in. It was brief and perfunctory, little more than a fervorino on humility.
In the afternoon, however, Francis came alive by spending almost three hours visiting sick children and their families at Rome’s Bambino Gesù hospital, devoting more time to the outing than any other activity during his first Christmas season.
Francis seems to want to shift perceptions of authority in the church away from power and privilege toward service, and watching him at the Bambino Gesù brought it home.
5. Don Gnocchi Center
Located close to the youth prison, the “St. Mary of Providence” health care center is run by a foundation created by the late Rev. Carlo Gnocchi, serving elderly and disabled persons. It’s where Francis celebrated Holy Thursday Mass in April.
The pontiff arrived in his trademark blue Ford Focus in order to wash and kiss the feet of 12 patients, ranging in age from 16 to 86, several of whom were in wheelchairs and whose feet were horribly swollen or disfigured.
A physician at the center, Dr. Furio Grammatica, told reporters that even its most severely disabled residents have a sixth sense for when someone cares about them, saying it was humming that day.
Pope John Paul II used to urge seminarians to imparare Roma, to “learn Rome,” the idea being that just moving around the city offers an education in Catholicism. If you want to grasp the kind of Catholicism the current pope is after, these five places should do the trick.
Debut of Crux
When I moved to The Boston Globe in February, it was part of a broader plan to expand the paper’s Catholic coverage by creating a new site devoted to church affairs. I’m happy to report the site now has a name, “Crux,” and a home on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/crux.
The launch of the site will come in early September. Among other points of interest, Crux will not be behind the Globe’s paywall.
On the lecture circuit and in conversations over the past few months, I’ve often been asked to describe the vision for the site. Honestly, the best person to answer that question is really Teresa Hanafin, the Globe’s former community engagement editor and former metro editor, who’s now the impresario for Crux. I’m a staff contributor, but she’s the boss.
For what it’s worth, however, here’s my take.
I’ve been on the Catholic beat for almost 20 years, and one thing that’s become clear is that the trick is to be close enough to the story to get it right but far enough away to stay objective. Often, we in the media business err on one or another side of that equation.
In big-time secular outfits, much of the commentary on church affairs comes from people who have never had the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of Catholicism. In the specialized Catholic press, people tend to feel a strong investment in who’s winning the Church’s internal debates, which at times colors how they report the news.
Ideally, Crux can strike the right balance. We will be close enough to know what’s going on, able to situate breaking news in the proper context and to tease out its likely implications. Yet we will keep our distance from the church’s various camps, trying to be a fair broker to all rather than a voice for one.
In a nutshell, the aim is to be the town square of the Catholic Church, a place where everyone can feel at home. The mix will include not just serious stuff, but also offbeat stories, features, quizzes to test people’s knowledge of Catholicism, and other lighter fare.
That, of course, is just a vision, and it remains to be seen how well we will pull it off. I can say for sure, however, that I can’t wait to get started.
To find out when Crux launches, visit www.cruxnow.com.John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.