In February 2017, Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego, addressing the U.S. Regional Meeting of Popular Movements, spoke of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Mater et Magistra” (1961) and its call to restructure the economies of the world using the methodology of “see, judge, act.” We can apply the same method toward a just treatment of refugees and migrants by the United States.
Pope John challenged young people especially to adopt this method, which is not immersed in abstraction but action. The first step is to review the concrete situation that needs change: What are people experiencing and how are they responding? Is there helpful data available? The second step is to ask: How did the injustice develop? One forms a judgment from theological reflection, Scripture, social teaching and social analysis. Finally, there is the third step: What can and should be done to address the root causes of the injustice? What actions can address the social structure that causes it? How can the relationships or structures that created the injustice be alleviated or transformed? Theological reflection or contemplation results in pastoral action.
Pope John challenged young people especially to adopt this method, which is not immersed in abstraction but action.
This approach has its roots in the work of Joseph Cardijn, a Belgian priest and later cardinal, who founded the Young Christian Workers in 1912. The bishops of Latin and Central America (CELAM) used the “see, judge, act” methodology to address structural injustices at their meetings at Medellín, Colombia (1968), and Puebla, Mexico (1979). These conferences dramatically articulated the teaching of the Synod of Bishops in 1971 and its document “Justice in the World,” which stated that acting on behalf of justice and the transformation of the world is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.
By the time of the 2007 meeting of CELAM in Aparecida, Brazil—at which Pope Francis, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, played a significant part—the “see, judge, act” process was more familiar. Cardinal Bergoglio, an advocate of this method, was among those calling for the meeting’s document to include a chapter on “how to see,” or how to be instruments of the Spirit by which Jesus Christ is better known, followed and loved.
Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops teach us precisely “how to see,” particularly in their critiques of the global immigration crisis.
In his address to the U.S. Congress in 2015, Pope Francis stated that the world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since World War II. He acknowledged that the crisis presented difficult choices, but he encouraged Americans not to be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and instead to listen to the stories of immigrants and refugees―and to respond in a way that is humane, just and fraternal. “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays to discard whatever proves troublesome,” he said.
Pope Francis on refugees: “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Now consider the priorities of the Trump administration. They have included the hiring of more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents; the construction of a border wall between Mexico and the United States; the processing and return of unaccompanied minors and the seekers of asylum as soon as possible; the utilization of a “merit-based” system of immigration; the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects young adults brought here as children; and, most recently, the separation of children from families deemed to have crossed the U.S. border illegally.
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Also note that 85,000 refugees were admitted to the United States. Despite the continuing refugee crisis, in 2017 that number dropped to 54,000. The administration has set an even lower cap of 45,000 for 2018, and the pace of new admissions suggests that far fewer will be resettled here.
The U.S. bishops have supported efforts for the just treatment of refugees and migrants, including the legal protections and due process that those fleeing persecution are entitled to. As U.S. bishops whose states border Mexico have said, “Seeking refuge from persecution and violence in search of a peaceful life for oneself and one's family is not a crime.”
In his 2017 address, Bishop McElroy asked that the agents of justice in today’s church revitalize the “see, judge, act” approach. He issued a call to action for those who hunger and thirst for justice: “So let us see and judge and act. Let us disrupt and rebuild. And let us do God’s work.”
Pastoral leaders have had many opportunities while walking with Pope Francis to see the disparities and inequalities in our society that must be addressed and to make judgments about these issues―chief among them our immigration policy―with a theological and scriptural lens. Now it is time to act.
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