Diálogo de Sordos: Catholic Discussion of the Immigration Chaos

Some have accused the Church of being complicit in creating the broken mess of the immigration system. That is like blaming the staff of the emergency room attending gunshot victims for the violence in the streets.

The classic phrase in Spanish for a conversation in which two sides never hear each other is “diálogo de sordos,” which means a discussion in which the parties are deaf to each other. I think that applies very much to the polemics that are swirling around Catholic involvement in the crisis of unrestricted immigration that the country has been experiencing for decades and which has greatly intensified under the Biden administration.

Recently, retired bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who has been a pastor to many immigrants, put out a statement countering some of the blaming of Catholic institutions for the problem at the border: 

A review of the social ministry teaching of the Church will help dispel the doubts that have been placed in the public forum by some uninformed public officials. First, let me be clear: The Church does not advocate for open borders. In fact, the teaching is clear that a sovereign nation has the right to admit those whom it chooses, but it must be based on the common good—not only of the receiving nation but also of the migrants. In fact, the Church prefers that a person not exercise their right to migrate if conditions in their home country are adequate for a decent life. The Church never encourages illegal or undocumented migration but advocates for legal pathways for their migration.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Bishop DiMarzio is not the only bishop saying these things. Cardinal Dolan indicated lately that his concerns about the ballooning immigration crisis in New York City have not been heard by the Federal Government. He went as far as saying that President Biden does not take his phone calls nor answer his letters. Nevertheless, some have accused the charitable activities of the New York Archdiocese, which the mayor of New York relies on and has practically begged for, as if the attention to problems is complicit in creating the broken mess of the immigration system. That is like blaming the staff of the emergency room attending gunshot victims for the violence in the streets.

An old pastor in my diocese was aware that sometimes his assistant priests were not always the best preachers. “If you can’t think of anything to say,” he told the young priests, “accuse the people of something.” I think that applies to some so-called conservative Catholics in their frustration with the hierarchy. It is as if no one ever discovered the fallacy of ad hominem arguments nor ever learned that it is more conducive to Church unity and real development of ideas to attempt to put a positive construction on the opponents’ ideas. They may not even be opponents, and that is the tragic point.

I hear it said and, regrettably, even see it in print that the official Catholic stance on immigration is the product of crude self-interest. More people in the pews and more money in the collection baskets? Millard Fillmore, you should be living at this hour! Fillmore was one of the founders of the Nativist political movement that decried the immigration of Irish Catholics as the ruin of the Republic. 

With what right does a serious person discussing serious ideas have recourse to not just cliches but canards casting aspersions on whole groups of people without any evidence? There has to be more concern for blanket affirmations about motivation. “Just throwing it out there,” and other hackneyed phrases, are substitutes for the complications of thinking through very complicated things.

The greater good of society, and, naturally, of the Church, demands more care in the presentation of ideas, even ideas that are questions of opinion. Once, the archbishop I worked for was asked his opinion of the current president of El Salvador. He said, “That is something about which there are opinions.” There are many sides to most issues, and it is dangerous to ignore distinctions. 

It is a fact, for instance, that undocumented aliens do much work that society depends upon. A cousin in California—anti-Catholic and anti-Mexican, which she sees sometimes as one—was complaining to me about undocumented workers while the man who took care of her lawn and landscaping came to work. Wasn’t Jorge an example of what she was criticizing? Her reply was “The grass grows and grows. What I can I do about it?”  It is a fact, for instance, that undocumented aliens do much work that society depends upon.Tweet This

She was also under the impression that anyone with an accent had to be undocumented. I forgot to remind her that our grandmother, who couldn’t read or write English and had a pronounced German accent, had been a legal immigrant from Europe before World War I.

St. Thomas Aquinas is reputed to have decreed in discussion of ideas that it was best to “rarely affirm, seldom deny and always distinguish.” The authors of The Coddling of the American Mind popularized some of the distortions that affect people’s perceptions and eventually can lead to neurosis. Emotional Reasoning, Catastrophizing, Overgeneralizing, Dichotomous Thinking (as in all or nothing), Mind Reading (presuming the thoughts of others or their motivations), Labeling, Negative Filtering, Discounting Positives, and Blaming are the categories they present. St. Thomas was more succinct, but certainly we can see all of the distortions in so many ecclesiastical battlegrounds these days, but particularly in the question of immigration. 

Arguments should be framed with respect. If there is no respect shown on the other side, respect will return to the giver, as Jesus said about the disciples greeting households with peace. Within the Church, we must have greater care about respect. 

I can’t find the Tolkien quote right now, but the great writer said that one of the most subtle stratagems of the Enemy, the Father of Lies, is to divide good people into antagonistic groups. Tossing caricatures of ideas and exchanging insults with the other side of contentious and often ambiguous policy and political disputes does not serve Christ’s Church. Immigration policy is so complex and there is so much need of serious thinking about it because of its global and even anthropological ramifications that sound bites should be dispensed with. Neither “you have no compassion” nor “you are self-interested” shed light on a world of darkness. 

E.M. Forster has a character in A Room with a View say, “It is so difficult—at least, I find it difficult—to understand people who speak the truth.” Take that difficulty to the highest power when people speak some truths and some mistaken notions. It is hard work, but not avoidable in this valley of tears.


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

tagged as: Church Immigration

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