Catholics are (not) responding.

One out of every seven people on earth lives elsewhere than in their country of birth. Many decide freely to move and do not need special help; even so, the Church is with them.

But there are millions who are forced to flee: asylum seekers, refugees, vulnerable migrants, the internally displaced and those who have been trafficked. “The Lord entrusts to the Church’s motherly love every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future.”[1] Conditions that can force people to move include armed conflict, natural disasters, persecution, climate change, violence both within the home and in the outside community or society, extreme poverty and a sub-human standard of living.

One can usefully ask: if my family were under one or more of these conditions, how long would it take us to decide to flee? And if we were forced to go, would we expect any country to take us in?

The work of the Migrants & Refugees Section is supported by the wonderful dedication of Catholic faithful all over the world who embrace Pope Francis’s message of openness to vulnerable newcomers and are working tirelessly to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them. In Europe, some Catholics are not always in tune with Pope Francis on this topic. Instead, statistics show that Catholics and Christians are more likely to be suspicious of immigrants, especially Muslims, than non-religious people.[2]

However, a researcher has argued that this anti-immigration feeling among religious people is not strictly related to religious affiliation, bur rather to belonging to the majority group in a given country. What this means, in practice, is that Catholics are more likely to be against immigration than non-Catholics in countries where Catholics are in the majority. Religious affiliation correlates with — but does not explain — anti-migration feeling; rather, it is identifying with the majority group in a certain society that makes people more likely to reject migrants.[3]

Looking at the case of Italy brings another important factor to light. Anti-migrant feeling can be found among the majority group, which happens to be Catholic. But in addition, there is also deep-seated dissatisfaction with the way in which migration has been managed up to now, and the disruption caused by the lack of integration policies. This creates diffidence towards those in social services [third-sector actors] who are responsible for hosting migrants. For instance, in Italy, the population favours compulsory Italian language courses and wants to encourage programmes offering migrants voluntary work to learn jobs and to provide services that are useful to the community. Only 20% of the population declares that Italy should not welcome any migrant at all.[4]

When discussing attitudes towards immigration, it is also important to make a distinction between practicing and non-practicing Catholics. Researchers have noted a stronger correlation in anti-immigrant sentiment among non-practicing Christians, who may see their religious affiliation as cultural identity, rather than as religious or spiritual commitment.[5] There is a certain correlation between religious affiliation and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, but this does not indicate a relationship of cause and effect between these factors, especially considering that Churches have been among the most vocal in their support of migrants and refugees during the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe.[6]

In fact, a survey commissioned by Catholic organisations in France showed that French Catholics, although somewhat ambivalent on the issue of migrants, were more positive towards them than the general population. While over half of French Catholics resist the idea that France has a duty to do more for migrants, 71% of Catholics said that migrants should be supported to find employment and their qualifications should be recognised. This is a much higher percentage than the general population. Despite some Catholics feeling uneasy due to the arrival of a large number of Muslim migrants, 61% of French Catholics are in overall agreement with Pope Francis’s stance on this issue, believing that compassion should be the overriding consideration when dealing with such issues. Moreover, the survey found that among Catholics, those who declare themselves to be Catholic but do not practice their religion are most resistant to migrants.[7]

In the United States, diversity among Catholics has been growing and is expected to continue to grow. At present, 34% of Catholics are of Hispanic descent, but this number grows to nearly 50% among millennials.[8] This, therefore, has an impact on the attitudes of Catholics towards refugees, especially those coming from Central America, and towards the controversial positions of the government, which for a time separated families at the southern U.S. border for asylum seekers. In fact, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference strongly condemned this policy as “immoral”[9] and Catholics — who have traditionally defended the right to family life — were vocal in their protests and acts of solidarity with the separated families.[10]

In spite of this, the Church must be sensitive to the reasons why some residents and some communities might hesitate, despite Pope Francis’s teaching, to welcome, promote, protect and integrate vulnerable migrants. Some are worried that criminals or terrorists might inevitably get in. For others, it’s that newcomers, needing to work, might “take away our jobs”; or if they don’t work, they “drain our social services”. Others ask themselves “What if these people fall victim to criminal organisations that exploit them, what is the point in them coming to live as slaves?” Or they might argue that migration is a business built on the lives of the poor, which must be stopped. Some say, “There are too many of them already; we simply cannot afford to accept more.” And still others worry, “Foreign influences could fundamentally change our way of life, or undermine our culture, or threaten our economic stability.” As Pope Francis puts it: “Local communities are sometimes afraid that the newly arrived will disturb the established order, will ‘steal’ something they have long laboured to build up.”[11] Unfortunately, initial negative reactions such as these often persist, in spite of the absence of any supporting evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence; they are endlessly repeated on both public and social media, and are exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

No one is immune from attitudes or reactions such as these. Pope Francis sympathizes: “These are fears which we understand and cannot dismiss lightly.”[12] He does not underestimate the difficulties or gloss them over. The Pope told community leaders and local authorities, “I understand the unease of many of your citizens at the sight of the massive influx of migrants and refugees.”[13] Pope Francis shows compassion for people’s real fears – and he includes the fears both of local communities and of migrants; the fears of one group should not be played off against the fears of another more vulnerable group.

“I realize that the waves of migration in recent years have caused diffidence and concern among people in many countries, particularly in Europe and North America, and this has led various governments to severely restrict the number of new entries, even of those in transit. Nonetheless, I do not believe that partial solutions can exist for so universal an issue. Recent events have shown the need for a common, concerted response by all countries, without exception and with respect for every legitimate aspiration, whether of states or of migrants and refugees themselves.”[14]

Although Pope Francis does not dismiss Catholics who express reservations about welcoming migrants, he promotes the activities of the universal Church aimed at welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating them, and has recently addressed the diplomatic corps on this issue: “All human beings long for a better and more prosperous life, and the challenge of migration cannot be met with a mindset of violence and indifference, nor by offering merely partial solutions.”[15]

[1] FRANCIS, Message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 14 January 2018.

[2] PEW RESEARCH CENTER, “Eastern and Western Europeans Differ on Importance of Religion, Views of Minorities, and Key Social Issues”, 29 October 2018.

[3] STORM, INGRID, “Does religion matter for attitudes towards immigration?”, University of Manchester, 16 November 2017.

[4] Fatto Quotidiano, “Sondaggi, italiani divisi sul respingimento dei migranti: quasi 1 su 2 è d’accordo. Ma è in aumento chi li considera una risorsa”, 28 June 2018.

[5] STORM, INGRID,”’“Christian Nations’? Ethnic Christianity And Anti-immigration Attitudes In Four Western European Countries”, Nordic Journal of Religion and Society. 2011, §24 (1).

[6] PEW RESEARCH CENTER, “Being Christian in Western Europe”, 29 May 2018.

Being Christian in Western Europe

[7] BIRCHEM, NATHALIE, “Catholics and migrants, hospitality and doubts”, 7 June 2018.

[8] MASCI, DAVID and SMITH, GREGORY A. , “7 facts about American Catholics”, 10 October 2018.


[10] GUIDOS, RHINA, “Catholics mobilize at border and around U.S. to help separated families”, 30 June 2018.

[11] FRANCIS, Homily, 14 January 2018.

[12] FRANCIS, Address, Presentation of Letters of Credence, 19 May 2016.

[13] FRANCIS, Address to the National Association of Italian Municipalities, 30 September 2017.

[14] FRANCIS, Address to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, 8 January 2019.

[15] FRANCIS, Address to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, 8 January 2019.

Cardinal Michael Czerny S.J. was the Founding director of AJAN 2002-2010,  and is now Under-Secretary, Migrants and Refugees Section,

  • Christopher Rupert
    Posted at 09:04h, 25 May Reply

    Bravo! Thank you for citing differences between “cultural catholics (a.k.a. non practicing)” and practicing catholics. And among both, there are those who discern and who do not discern.

  • Monica S.
    Posted at 09:54h, 25 May Reply

    Thank you for this well-researched article. The people who are most fearful and resentful of refugees are often those who have had no personal contact with them. Personal contact breaks down barriers. What can we do to break down barriers? Become involved with refugee services through our church or other organization and build friendships with newcomers. Then invite our families and friends to get to know the new families as well. It is on the personal level that bridges are built.

  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 12:12h, 25 May Reply

    What an incredibly interesting article on immigration. Thank you Father Michael. Even an old head tries to get the answers to this crisis – especially when I see the country of my birth refusing this immigration at all – in the name of patriotism and religion also. Wouldn’t it be great if we could devise a program where every family who takes a refugee family under their care for a year (financially, economically, socially and through careful, guided mentorship) – and gets a tax credit for doing so or their children get their first year of higher studies for free, or — or — or. At the end of the year each person in both families wrote a short essay on what they have learned. I did that when I was ten years old and still have the essay. Can you imagine the new immigration staff which would have to be hired to keep track of this ? Also perhaps the self sufficient clubs of each nationality that has these could become involved in each family within their membership. So many thoughts for people who need help.

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