Catholic Social Teaching and Migration

Lorenzo L. Pérez

In this issue of El Ignaciano dedicated to the topic of migration, is helpful to bring into the discussion the reflections on Catholic Social Teaching and migration by Professor Anna Rowlands in her recent book.¹  In her own words, the book attempts both to explore the development of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) that Pope Francis discussed in his catechetical talks during the seclusion due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic² and to offer some sense of the dynamic interaction of the Church, shaped by and thoroughly situated within  a modern and late modern age.  According to Professor Rowlands the CST tradition that began self-consciously with the publication of  Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 has its roots in the very origins of Christian communities and remains a dynamic-changing-yet recognizably coherent body of social thought.

Church Teaching on Migration

Any reading of Scripture and Christian history offers a sober reminder of the complex connections between Christian faith and migration.  This suggests that we should seek to avoid constructing a simplistic account of relations between faith and migration.  Religious belief can act as a cause of forced migration as much as it can be a reason for persecution, death, or exile.  The history of Christian politics includes both the development of sanctuary provision and the establishment and policing of ghettos. More recently, migrants in the United States and Europe face more difficult situations as their numbers have increased, and there has been a revival of white Christian supremacist politics which promotes social hatred and a push for expulsion of migrants.  This is happening at the same time that Christians and other groups face difficult realities in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world where totalitarian regimes do not respect the most elementary human rights and implement misguided economic policies forcing their citizens to migrate. 

¹ Anna Rowlands:  Towards A Politics of Communion, Catholic Social Teaching in Dark Times, Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc.,2021.
² The principle of the dignity of the person, the principle of the common good, the principle of the preferential option for the poor, the principle of the universal destination of goods, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and the principle of the care of our common home.


There was some development of CST regarding migration prior to Rerum Novarum³, a document which is traditionally recognized as the first CST document of the Church.  The migration out of Europe to the Americas during the mid to late 19th century resulted in a need to make provision for the religious and pastoral needs of Catholic migrants.  After the Second World War, the internal and external displacement of Europeans created another impetus to develop CST on migration.⁴ In 1952, Pius XII promulgated his apostolic constitution on forced migration, Exsul familia.  The title comes from the reference in the first line of the document to the exilic journey of the Holy Family to Egypt.  The Pope’s exhortation encouraged Christians and religious orders to become active in caring for migrants who are not in their lands and to treat them in accordance with the dignity due to the human person. Pius XII stressed that efforts should be made to try to understand migrants not only in their speech and manner but also regarding the working of their minds.  Exsul familia emphasized the initiatives of the institutional church that aimed to increase the security and dignity of migrants.  Pius XII argued for provision of culturally and linguistically appropriate pastoral and spiritual care and for an awareness of ways to mitigate the dreadful choices that face the destitute.  Pope Pius XII also was strongly against the encampment of migrants.  His perspective was shaped by the situation in Europe when seven years after the end of the Second World War, refugee camps still remained for the displaced who had no means to return to their countries of origin (Armenians, Poles, Latvians, Estonians, Greeks, and Russians, among others). 

While there are references to migration in the Second Vatican Council documents, Professor Rowlands points out that the next major migration document issued by the Vatican took another 52 years to arrive. Under the papacy of Saint John Paul II, the Vatican Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples issued Egra migrante caritas Christi (EMCC) in 2004. It repeated many of the earlier themes but updated the Church’s social teaching to reflect the changing nature of migration flows (South-North and South-South migrations).  The document argued that any theological discussion of migration must be properly global and take into account the ecumenical and interfaith perspectives.  The document addresses the causes of migration in a more systematic and structural way than previous documents through a search for a new economic order that better represent the universal destination of goods and reduces the need for survival migration.

³ Rerum Novarum discusses the relationship between capital and labor, the dignity of work, and the role of the state.
⁴ Rowlands, op. cit., page 75.


A failure to ensure the universal destination of goods, especially with a priority to those with particular need, is a factor that drives forced migration ˗economic and political˗ and also forms the context for the reception or failed reception of migrant claims for membership and protection.  This theme is picked up with new emphasis in Pope’s Francis social teaching on migration 15 years later.

In addition to repeating earlier teaching on the need for appropriate pastoral provisions for migrants, EMCC identifies internal changes for the order of the Church itself as it negotiates the relations of different Catholic cultures brought together in new forms of interaction and division in local and national church contexts.  The authors of EMCC argued that any reflection on the meaning of migration from a Christian point of view must take as its end point (and work back from) the ultimate purpose of human relations: the call to universal communion.

After EMCC, the encyclicals of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI widened the social and theological analysis of migration.  Both treated migration as an issue to be included in the discussions of food security, ecological change, and increases in global inequality.  They both exhorted the world to closer analysis of and better responses to the deep roots of displacement.  John Paul II judged that the impact of globalized migration was to intensify patterns of socialization and argued for greater attention to be paid to practices of human solidarity.⁵ For John Paul II, solidarity was not simply a duty to respect rights in the face of globalized movements of people. It also called for a deeper form of social creativity, in which our communities are refashioned as socialization gives way to concrete forms of solidarity.  Benedict XVI focused particularly on the duty to create well-ordered systems to manage migration flows.  He argued that the appropriate level for moral engagement on the issue of migration was between states at an international level.  He called for close collaboration between migrants’ countries of origin and the countries of their destination to attempt to safeguard the needs and rights of individual migrants and those of host countries. 

Pope Francis’s papacy has coincided with an intensification in patterns of global migration.  There has been an increase in the number of internally and externally displaced persons and an increased politicization of the issue of migration.  Pope Francis has made the practical questions on forced migration and the new ideological and political focus on migration central to his papacy.

⁵ Rowlands, op. cit., page 81


He has produced an unprecedent volume of teaching on the subject through homilies, addresses, and public statements.  In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis addresses the ideological barriers that work against the ethics of migration, naming isolationism and populism as ideologies that have increased cultural hostility and fueled public policies that have proved deadly to migrants in transit.  Pope Francis also has refocused the Church’s migration teaching within the context of local humanitarian and civil action, rebalancing the heavy emphasis on global political actors in Pope Benedict XVI’s social teaching and positioning the Church as itself a critical local actor. 

In different addresses and homilies, Pope Francis has noted that indifference to migrants arise from a culture of individualism, which he thinks breeds a sense of anxiety and cynicism, in a capitalistic market culture which reduces people to narrow economic values and from a culture obsessed with what he calls well-being. In Laudato si, for example, Pope Francis connects the failure of the law to respond to the pressing challenges brought by increased forced migration to a deep failure in civil society.  Indifference to migrant suffering suggests not just the failure of government, or of the individual but the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.⁶ Professor Rowlands notes that this logic is expanded in Fratelli tutti.  What we do not have is a social commitment to the idea of fraternity ˗to seeing all people as a single human family, and the earth as our common home˗ and a fully common and social ethic that embodies this.

Professor Rowlands highlights that Francis’ teaching offers a more placed-based vision of migrant response than his two predecessors, emphasizing the constantly interconnected relationship of the local and the global, the particular and the universal, mediated through the action of the embodied moral agent, committed to the process of becoming a neighbor, whether migrant or host.⁷  For Pope Francis the question is not “how many is too many/or who takes precedent”.  The question is one of mutual, challenging becoming, in which difficult reality gives way to something new.  In the fourth chapter of Fratelli tutti Pope Francis argues for both concrete practices of welcome, protection, promotion and integration, and a wider disposition of reciprocity, gift exchange, and gratuitous openness to others.  Pope Francis believes that encounters through migration are part of how we experience and develop fuller knowledge of truth, and part of the cycle of necessary renewal for cultures that manifest a tendency to fallenness.

⁶ Laudato si, paragraph 25.
⁷ Rowlands, op. cit., page 87.


Pope Francis also updates the Church’s social analysis of contemporary migration trends and integrates the principles of CST into this picture.  He identifies armed conflict and social violence, poverty, economic crisis and exploitation, ecological change and climate vulnerability, political instability, and corruption as the key causes of displacement.  He believes that the current practice of border closing can be a form of cooperation with moral evil when that leads to intensification of the criminal exploitation of forced migrants.  Pope Francis thus argues that the only possible ethical response to migration flows is solidarity.

In Fratelli tutti, fraternity and social friendship are seen as the core practices that enable the re-founding of civil society as well as the founding of a better politics, acting as the antidote to indifference and individualism which the document identifies as the core viruses which cripple the social body. In this context, Pope Francis advocates four principles in dealing with migrants  (1) welcoming them by providing safe and legal programs of reception, and access to services; (2) protecting them by providing relevant and accurate information to defend basic rights independent of legal status and a special duty of care for migrant children; (3) promoting their welfare by ensuring the conditions for migrants to develop according to their own needs and capacities and those of native citizens; and  (4) promoting mutual integral development of migrants and citizens to facilitate new forms of sustainable hospitality.   

CST Principles on Migration based on the Natural Law and post-1891 Church Teachings

In concluding the discussion on CST and migration, Professor Rowlands notes that a distinctive set of natural law principles aimed at informing questions of law and politics in the context of migration have been developed.  In some ways the teaching on migration has been far more specific and concrete than on many other social questions.⁸

The CST first principle on migration is the right not to be displaced or emigrate ˗a right to remain.  If the human person is by nature a social and political creature, oriented to negotiating their own good as part of the common good, then achieving basic human flourishing implies the need for membership of a functioning political, economic, and ecological community.  This principle cannot be emphasized enough and calls for international pressure on governments which cannot guarantee a safe living environment for its citizens thus forcing them to migrate. It also casts a harsh light on governments which suppress human rights and/or those who compel its citizens to migrate because of their incompetent economic policy.

⁸ Rowlands, op. cit., page 81.


A second principle suggests that when there is conflict, persecution, violence, hunger, or an inability to subsist or thrive, the individual has natural and absolute rights to migrate and a natural right to seek sanctuary and membership within an alternative safe political community.  According to this principle, the CST recognizes that the well- being of the person is tied to the good of both local and national bounded communities as an expression of meaningful global citizenship.  Rowlands notes that CST has neither pro- nor no-border ideology.  Where borders provide for a stable community, the fostering of culture and a stable practice of hospitality they may well serve the common good.  She adds that the task of government, then, is to evaluate claims for membership based on balance on a consideration of the universal destination of goods. ⁹  

The right to migrate implies a third principle:  a moral requirement placed upon existing political   communities, especially the most materially privileged, to receive migrants and hear and assess with justice their claim for admission, transit, or membership.  Rowlands believes that this principle is nuanced by a fourth principle: the (imperfect) right of a sovereign political community to regulate borders and control migration.  CST sees borders as a relative good of the established community only insofar as they protect the common good of the established community and are porous and humane, enabling the established community to enact its duty or obligation to offer hospitality and recognize its part in a common good that lies both within and beyond itself.¹⁰ Political communities are expected to include within the exercise of sovereignty the establishment and oversight of just measures for those who arrive seeking sanctuary and for effective global governance, to minimize and accommodate forced migration. Professor Rowlands emphasizes that legitimate sovereignty in CST is exercised always with reference to three prior principles:  the universal destination of goods, recognition of prior and inalienable moral unity of humankind (solidarity), and the requirements to regulate borders according to basic conditions of social justice.¹¹

A fifth and last principle proposes that the recognition of the social and political nature of the person implies a need for migrant integration as full and dignified members of a community and therefore a shared responsibility of migrants, civil society, and the state to enable a meaningful participation of migrants in the host community. ¹²

⁹ Rowlands, op.cit., page 82.
¹⁰ Rowlands, op.cit., page 83.
¹¹ See Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate, 2009, paragraph 62.
¹² See John Paul II, Message for the Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2001 and Laborem exercens, 1981, paragraph 23.


Concluding Remarks

This article attempts to give a historical overview of CST and migration to facilitate an assessment of public policy options on migration from a Christian perspective.  The CST principles on migration distilled by Professor Rowlands highlights the complexity of the topic and how far the international community remains from fully applying these principles.  Nevertheless, the CST principles on migration can help concerned citizens of goodwill to advocate for just and merciful policies regarding the migration crisis. From international diplomatic initiatives in countries that are the source of migrants in order to advocate addressing adequately the causes of forced migration; to legislation and policy initiatives that respect the right of migrants to leave their countries and create conditions that are open to receive and integrate migrants in the culture of the receiving countries; and to just border policies that protect the interest of receiving countries while at the same time being open to receive forced migrants, these are policies that can be modified and strengthened in the United States and Europe, the main destinations of forced migration. 

Lorenzo L. Perez is a retired economist and member of the editorial board and nonresident columnist of the El Ignaciano.