I had endeavored to write a post some time ago when all eyes were turned to Catalonia because of the separatist fervor threatening the unity of Spain, but I never got around to it. Let this supplant it.
The recent history of the Iberian peninsula is rife with political conflict… (In fact, it is only barely out of living memory that Spain was in a war with the United States.) It should be entirely unsurprising that there are still problems… And only time will tell if Catalonia earns its independence, with violence, with voting, or with a mix of the two.
There is a singular voice in the Catalonian Church which sticks out like a sore thumb, aching to teach us an extremely important lesson about the way ecclesiastics ought to treat politics. It is St. Anthony Claret – priest of the Diocese of Vic, 3rd Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and confessor to the Queen of Spain, Isabella II.
During his entire life and ministry, St. Anthony was surrounded by fierce political controversies and enemies of the Church, including the Carlist civil wars raging around his home, an attempt on his life in Cuba, the confiscation of the Papal States, and the dethronement and exile of the Queen. Certainly, St. Anthony’s immense tact guided him during all this – such as when he would say he was from the Diocese of Vic when questioned by Carlistas and that he was from the town of Sallent when questioned by the Isabelinos – but beyond this, two things are striking about St. Anthony’s response to political clamor.
First, he was positively and intentionally aloof from political affairs which did not directly concern the Church and the salvation of souls. This is most evident during his time in the Queen’s court, an assignment which he utterly despised, calling it a “continual martyrdom.” (Anthony Claret is one of the few saints who left us an autobiography. It is excellent.) By that time in his life, his fame was widespread, and to have the Archbishop’s approval on some matter would carry immense weight, especially with the Queen. He wanted no part – it would be alienating to those who did not agree with his decision, threatening their relationship with the Church, of which, after all, he was a steward and representative. Despite an average of a hundred letters a day asking for his help in various matters, he remained disinterested, answering none. He saw involvement in politics as an abuse of his office, as something beneath his dignity; his principal duty was the care of souls, not care of the country. When affairs did directly concern the Church or salvation of souls, such as the unification of Italy, or the anti-clerical sentiment in Spain and Cuba, he was ready and willing to act appropriately. During the Risorgimento, for instance, the Queen faced immense pressure to give her approval of the dissolution of the Papal States, but her confessor was there to warn her of the grave spiritual danger which such a move would bring… He was also there to lift the canonical penalty she incurred after having finally given her assent to Italian unification, as she sat in exile in France, disgraced and contrite.
Second, he was engaged in entirely non-partisan works as a civic leader. Given the incomprehensible amount of preaching and sacramental work which Claret performed – in his 6 years in Cuba alone, he wrote many books and pamphlets on spirituality and doctrine, validated over 9,000 marriages, confirmed some 300,000 people, and conducted 4 missions in every parish in his large and rugged diocese, always traveling by foot – one would think he would have time for little else. On the contrary, he was up to his neck in public works, such as supporting orphans, educational institutions, scientific research, agriculture, and healthcare. All of this was neutral work that no reasonable person could object to. Those who smeared him for it did so because of an animus against the Church or his own person, not because the work was partisan.
All this brings us to comments made by some bishops on illegal immigration which are only the most recent manifestation of a disturbing trend.
Unlike other so-called political issues, such as euthanasia or abortion, the Church has no teaching on the treatment of illegal immigrants as such. All we have are some basic ideas about human dignity and the authority of the state. Who could object to a preacher who says, “We should treat every human being with charity because all are made in the image and likeness of God”? It is easy, however, to imagine an objection to a preacher who says, “It is uncharitable to defend our nation from illegal immigrants,” and yet this is the kind of thing which is sometimes said, including presently. Not unlike the rhetoric which surrounds the current debate on gun-control, those of a liberal mindset accuse those of a conservative mindset of immorality prima facie – to oppose stricter gun laws is simply to care too little about people’s lives, especially children’s lives. In this case, to oppose sanctuary cities and spotty border patrol is simply to care too little about the oppressed who are fleeing from the south.
Of course, this trick could be reversed easily enough (and sometimes it is done to good effect), but making accusations of immorality due to differing prudential judgments does not make for a healthy political forum. Let me suggest that it makes for an even unhealthier ecclesiastical forum. Perhaps – or even, dare I say, probably – both sides really do care about the common good of the nation and have compassion for the suffering, but they simply have different ideas about how to reach the goal of political flourishing and the role of jurisprudential factors in border control and deportation.
Since I am not a cleric, I will go so far as to say that the past shows us that our current tolerance of illegal immigration has been extremely expensive and dangerous, the principle of subsidiarity seems to be violated by accepting a long-term responsibility for people of other countries who do not legitimately become part of our own, and that writing laws based on empathy for those who suffer is, in general, a bad idea, because it blinds one to the broader impact of that legislation.
And what good does it do for a bishop to risk scandalizing the faithful who might hold a different prudential assessment of the situation than himself by insisting that a certain position on DACA is immoral? Usually little to none; it is either ignored, is used by those who already agree as a moral sledgehammer, or simply annoys people who disagree, as they rightly sense that this is not a matter for the Church to be involved with directly. It certainly seems good for a bishop or any cleric to have a well-informed opinion on immigration policy, but it seems extremely unwise to reveal it. Perhaps the time of an ecclesiastic could be better spent by prayer, devotional and doctrinal preaching, administering the sacraments, studying theology, or building up the common good by entirely neutral means. Anything more is a waste of time at best and positively harmful at worst.
“A sacerdotes,” says St. Anthony, “must never align himself with any faction.” This is the great lesson our Catalonian saint teaches us: that a cleric is to render unto Caesar what is his by simply leaving him alone.
Main image: the Cathedral of Vic, where St. Anthony was ordained a priest and bishop