This semester I have been teaching a course on how theology relates to power and politics. It has been a joy to watch students grapple with classic theological texts – so apparently distant from their everyday experience – and see them realise how sharply they apply to pressing contemporary issues.
At the same time, I have been watching a strange dynamic emerge among Christians in Ireland, not at all disconnected from power and politics. In the midst of the humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Christian commentators have applied a tired and trite “I’m just asking questions!” approach to our asylum policy.
Very few people in Ireland are against immigration. This is in part because of our long history of mass emigration. It is also in part because of the remarkable success of the relatively new phenomenon of welcoming people here from across the world. It is also because of a lingering commitment to hospitality which – even if far from perfect – is an echo of the best of the Christian tradition.
After all, making space for the alien and welcoming a stranger with the hope of them becoming a friend is not remote from the Christian message. It is a one-sentence summary of Jesus’ entire mission.
But some people who agree in principle that immigration has improved our society have specific questions about some of the policies. They worry about the extra stress placed on our social services by receiving so many asylum seekers. They are concerned about social integration.
It is plain that this is a very different position from the people who are actually racist, those opposed to immigration on principle, and who are seeking to exploit honest concerns to serve their abusive aims. The fact that there are a handful of fascists in our society doesn’t mean we need to accuse people of being crypto-fascists for wanting to weigh up a situation.
It must be legitimate for people to arrive at a position where they oppose the implementation of particular approaches to immigration policy without being understood as being opposed to immigrants. In a democratic society, this is how we arrive at better policy positions – by agreeing on the fundamentals – we want a society that acknowledges everyone has an intrinsic dignity and we seek to build a culture where they can flourish – and then disputing the details.
While we should anticipate a great diversity of opinion on how to formulate particular policies. It can be a baffling experience to sort between all the different perspectives on offer. But Christians are helped by remembering they have a framework for discernment. In the Catholic tradition this has come to be known as the church’s “social doctrine” – its best kept secret in many ways. Catholic Social teaching allows us to think about the political world as less of a baffling maze that reduces to irresolvable conflict and more like a table that we get to set and fill with food. Recognising that justice is what love looks like in public, the social teaching of the church guides us towards that goal by encouraging us to build policies that enact solidarity and protects dignity, that cares for creation and the sides with the marginalised, that pushes decision-making down to the level where it affects people and that respects human rights.
In sum, the Christian approach to politics is to start from an assumption that we are trying to cultivate the good things we share in common. The church has defined this common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily”. This is actually a radical understanding of our political life. Unlike the reigning orthodoxy of our liberal age, this is a view of society which isn’t narrowly individualistic. Unlike the common sense of neoliberal capitalism, it does not start from the assumption of scarcity. Unlike the utopian ideologies like Marxism, it does not require a violent revolution to be enacted. It recognises that we are social animals. It asks what people deserve, not what we can afford. And it can be taken up and put into practice now, even if incrementally at first.
Working with this understanding of the common good, we would not try to respond to humanitarian policies with a rationing logic. Anyone with a grasp of the scandal of the Irish response to the Holocaust would realise that sins of omission are components of sins of commission. Driven by a sense that we could not over-extend ourselves, Ireland offered refuge to only about 100 Jewish people. Who, if they could go back in time, would not remedy that criminal miserliness?
To remember such situations is not to draw an equivalency between the plight of the Ukrainian people and what was unleashed on European Jews. But it is to suggest that we have tried in the past to follow our self-interest and it was a disaster. Better to aspire to the common good and see the challenges we face as an opportunity to build a society that serves all of us better.
We need more doctors and nurses. We need more teachers and classrooms. We need more houses, made available at terms that do not immiserate their occupants. We needed all these things before Russia invaded. And we will need them after. Let’s do both – care for ourselves by caring for others.
There are voices out there that want Irish people to live in fear. The most common commandment in the bible is “do not fear”. Folks chanting their terrified slogans outside the homes of refugees and asylum seekers need Christians to stand up for what they say they believe in so they can see that there ways to live that aren’t shaken by the existence of difference.
Pope Francis has been insistent from the very start of his papacy that the place of the migrant and the refugee is a litmus test for our societies. But we do not need to turn to the present Bishop of Rome to see this perspective articulated. Pope John Paul II understood that the common good was a demanding vocation to seriously seek the full development of the whole individual and of all people. He concluded in one of his most important documents that the common good is the realisation that “we are all really responsible for all”.
Christians in Ireland are no long particularly close to Power and we are no longer decisive in our politics. Freed from the temptation of having to sustain some artificial consensus, we can boldly lean into the teaching of our Scriptures, the witness of our tradition, and the life of Jesus, the internally displaced God.
Our responsibility to care for our neighbours – regardless of where they started their lives – is not determined by the limits of our social conditions. We condition society to make that care possible.