What Diocese Will Quote St. Thomas on Citizenship and Immigration?

Even as Christian thinkers respond to divorce, gay “marriage,” and mass feticide, we should also give extra thought to the patriotic question, which is more closely related to the pro-life movement and the defense of marriage than we might at first suppose. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, the different facets of natural law stand or fall together, so if the sanctity of the conjugal vow, the dignity of unborn life, and the complementarity of the sexes embody real values, then so, too, does loyalty to homeland, community, and heritage. Those of us who are alarmed to see marriage trivialized and redefined might do well to think long and hard about how citizenship has been trivialized and redefined.

During most of the history of the West, citizenship was understood to be a jealously guarded privilege and honor, not a universal entitlement entailing access to a plethora of welfare benefits. In the Aristotelian scheme, the most legitimate republican form of government is a polity, yet even in said polity, citizenship would be restricted to able-bodied men who bear arms; to have a vote, one would have to be one of those who stands in harm’s way to protect the community. Even in more recent times, with the ascendance of classical liberalism, it was taken for granted that the franchise would be restricted according to a variety of criteria, such as property ownership. While I may not be numbered among the classical liberals, I can see their point here: It is difficult to imagine how we might prevent a large-scale egalitarian democracy from degenerating into a “race to the bottom,” whereby a demagogic system confiscates middle-class wealth to fund bread and circuses.

None of this is to suggest that we try restoring citizenship to exactly what it was in ancient Athens, or eighteenth-century Britain, or whenever, any more than taking seriously the long and instructive history of the family automatically means a return to arranged marriages. The point is that once upon a time citizenship was heavily laden with status and significance; it meant something. Now it has become much more inclusive, but at the price of having been radically devalued. It has been reinvented as if it were a romanticized Costco membership, much as marriage has in our time been reinvented as a romanticized hook-up. Sentimental rhetoric about Ellis Island notwithstanding, the truth is that no mere bureaucratic ruling can transform a foreigner into a full-fledged American, anymore than it could turn two men into husband and wife.

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Those who find this last claim objectionable are advised to look to Summa Theologiae I – II, Q. 105, Art. 3, wherein St. Thomas Aquinas discusses citizenship by way of ancient Israel. Under the Law, says Aquinas, whenever foreigners wished to be admitted into complete fellowship with the Israelites, “a certain order was observed”:

For they were not at once admitted to citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Politics III, 2).

The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.

In other words, according to precepts Aquinas cites as “suitable” (convenientia) for directing relations “with foreigners” (extraneis), only the descendants of new arrivals would be eligible for citizenship. The reason for this seems to be that the Israelites understood true assimilation into a living community to be a profound, challenging process, one requiring not years, nor even decades, but generations. And lest we miss a couple of other important implicit points, note that the would-be citizens here are presumably not participating in massive overwhelming waves of illegal settlement, and that their hearty espousal of Israelite customs, heritage, and language seems to have been taken for granted.

That there is at least a grain of truth to Aquinas’s account of naturalization is easily demonstrable, and there is no need to surf the Internet for accounts of the US soccer team being booed while playing the Mexican team in Los Angeles. Unless one lives in the heart of Appalachia or an Amish homestead, it is nigh impossible in America today to avoid encountering US citizens who speak of “going back to my country for the holidays,” or who reminisce about life “back in my country,” or who even—in the case of one of my students who had been adopted from abroad as a small child—explicitly and vehemently deny being American. Just to be clear, this is not to censure people for revealing in unguarded moments their more or less normal sentiments toward their respective birthplace. Rather, it is to question bureaucrats and intellectuals who insist that an unlimited number of foreigners may move into a community without said community being turned into another country.

Getting back to Aquinas, it should be noted that while he brings up Aristotle’s Politics, he goes further than the Aristotelian passage by considering, and then condoning, the making of distinctions with respect to national origin. For although in exceptional circumstances “it was possible by dispensation for a man to be admitted to citizenship on account of some act of virtue,” for the most part among the Israelites it was only

in respect of certain nations that had close relations with the Jews (viz., the Egyptians among whom they were born and educated, and the Idumeans, the children of Esau, Jacob’s brother), that they should be admitted to the fellowship of the people after the third generation; whereas others, (with whom    their relations had been hostile, such as the Ammonites and Moabites) were never to be admitted to citizenship; while the Amalekites, who were yet more   hostile to them, and had no fellowship of kindred with them, were to be held as foes in perpetuity, for it is written (Ex. 17:16): “The war of the Lord shall be against Amalec from generation to generation.”

We see that historical ties conferred upon certain incoming peoples easy access to citizenship—“easy” by ancient standards, that is—while other peoples were to be permanently excluded, and still others not merely excluded but regarded as being in a state of longstanding enmity. Thus there is an extraordinary contrast between Aquinas’s remarks and the outlook of Catholics offended by the Trump administration’s quarantine of terror-ridden Islamic countries. Setting aside the question of whether Aquinas is right or wrong, or how he might respond to any specific contemporary question, or how his pronouncements might be balanced with those of other teaching authorities, it is obvious that his sensibilities and those expressed by most diocesan newspapers are mutually exclusive.

None of this should be understood as a call to recreate nationhood or citizenship per the Old Testament, medieval Thomist thought, or any other bygone era or school, much less to enlist St. Thomas in the cause of populist conservatism. It has always seemed to me to be a misuse of tradition to cherry-pick teachings from the distant past and then try applying them to the present in a cookie-cutter fashion, without accounting for historical context. The danger today is not that too many are selectively and dishonestly quoting Aquinas to advance their own political agenda in ways that are unfaithful to the Angelic Doctor’s beliefs and intentions.

The real point, the metapolitical point, so to speak, is that Catholics have fallen into an appalling habit of censoring the very voices from the past that should be helping us define ourselves. We need to be more willing to look to our traditions, immerse ourselves in them, and learn from them, instead of selectively filtering them so as to make them neatly compatible with the relatively recent, politically correct fixation with inclusiveness. That is, if they are quoted at all. For whatever we make of Question 105, Article 3, the extent to which it has been totally and completely irrelevant to the Catholic discourse about immigration is undeniable—as well as positively surreal from the standpoint of anyone who takes the notion of magisterial continuity seriously.

We have not, after all, been talking about some obscure figure who vaguely and fleetingly touched upon an issue of mild interest. We have been talking about one of the foremost teachers of the Church speaking directly to one of the most searing controversies of our time. Were I unwise enough to rely solely upon my diocesan establishment for information, however, I would not merely think that arguments in favor of more rigorous restrictions on citizenship are wrong; I would assume such arguments simply do not exist. I would not think that concerns about the long-term effects of indiscriminate mass immigration upon America’s communities, culture, politics, and economic system are misinformed; I would, along with Nancy Pelosi and Hollywood and the ACLU, think that there are no such concerns, only “hate.” Certainly, I would not have the slightest shadow of suspicion that Saint Thomas Aquinas has an opinion pertaining to the matter. Indeed, when it comes to what the Doctor of the Church says, it is not just as if nobody knows. It is almost as if nobody cares.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is St. Thomas Aquinas painted by Francisco de Zurbaran.


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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