A Thomistic Understanding of Immigration in the Context of a Catholic State

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The topic of immigration is one which has naturally become a “hot issue” given the nature and presence of the presidential election. There are many different policies and political comments that have been made by many candidates as to what is in the best well-being for our nation. This is furthermore an issue that many others have commented on and have tried to influence political policies. This is likewise an issue that has been expanded upon and talked about by many bishops and cardinals. To begin with obviously immigration is something that has naturally occurred throughout human history.

This can best be seen by reading literary history including the biblical account. This is first best seen in the migration of peoples throughout the world after the confusion of languages “The Tower of Babel” (Gen 11). This can then be seen in the separation of Abraham and Lot (Gen 13-14). Furthermore this can be seen in the Exodus of the Jewish people out of Egypt. Likewise the reality and even nature of immigration has continued throughout human history in such a way that it has become a “modern problem.” While this is a worldwide problem it is also a problem that has often best been seen in the political atmospheres of European and American cultures.  In this article I will offer some first principles in regards to the nature of immigration. This includes giving both a Classical as well as Catholic understanding in regards to the nature of government, and as to what this means given the nature of immigration. I will then offer some comments regarding the political implications of immigration given the context of a Catholic State.

It is then best if we start by taking the classical and even Thomistic view of government that was held by classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas who made some observations regarding the nature of government and specifically laws and political policies. For Aristotle and Aquinas the reality of governing and hence of making and administering law was something that 1) was an act based on the intellect and reason (the practical reason) 2) was done for the sake of the common good 3) was done by him who had care for the community (civil ruler) 4) and was promulgated as legally binding. (Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 90, 1-4). In other words laws and hence political policies should not be merely arbitrarily but rather based on reason and should be centered on the common good. Furthermore such laws are made and promulgated (put into legal effect) by him who is in charge and has care of the community.

We should then see the problems presented by immigration to modern society in this light. It would then help in seeing what the Catechism and furthermore what Saint Thomas Aquinas has to say about immigration given this understanding of the political dimension of society. Saint Thomas Aquinas has this to say about immigration:

Man’s relations with foreigners are twofold: peaceful, and hostile: and in directing both kinds of relation the Law contained suitable precepts. For the Jews were offered three opportunities of peaceful relations with foreigners. First, when foreigners passed through their land as travelers. Secondly, when they came to dwell in their land as newcomers. And in both these respects the Law made kind provision in its precepts: for it is written (Exodus 22:21): “Thou shalt not molest a stranger [advenam]”; and again (Exodus 22:9): “Thou shalt not molest a stranger [peregrino].” Thirdly, when any foreigners wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship and mode of worship. With regard to these 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 (Polit. iii, 1). 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. Hence it was that the Law prescribed 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 (Exodus 17:16): “The war of the Lord shall be against Amalec from generation to generation.1

There are many implications that Saint Thomas Aquinas is getting at as shown by the article What Does Saint Thomas Aquinas Say About Immigration? The first thing to consider is that a nation is literally a “national family” or a “national household and hence just like any household it has the right to say who can and can’t come into it. The State has a right to control the variations of its own population. This is true in regards to the safeguarding of its national safety, security, health, as well as morality, culture, religion, and language. This is similarly true to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in the second paragraph regarding immigration:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (CCC 2241) (Emphasis added).

Obviously as Catholics we should always be aware about the reality of immigration and as to the reasons for which it is caused. Furthermore we should always have the three non-negotiables of Catholic Social teaching in mind 1) Each human being is made in the Imago Dei (image and likeness of God) 2) The principle of solidarity 3) The principle of subsidiarity. However we should also be aware of the fact that the nation is indeed a national family and household.

Saint Thomas Aquinas first distinguishes between “peaceful” and “hostile” foreigners. Saint Thomas Aquinas states that due to the fact that the nation as being a national family and household then it is the duty of the State to care for the self-defense and security of its community. Hence the State has not only the right but also the duty to reject those elements of society that risk this security (e.g. criminals, traitors, enemies) and others who it deems harmful or “hostile” to its citizens. This is furthermore true when we talk about the danger of war and of a possible invasion. Hence the State has every right to take measures to protect its citizens. It also includes for example the attempt by individuals in making a wall around a given border and hence of border security. These are indeed legitimate actions that the State can do for the sake of national security.

Saint Thomas Aquinas then distinguishes between those simply traveling or desiring to stay temporarily in society in contrast with those who desire to become a permanent citizen of society and hence integrate into it. Saint Thomas Aquinas states given biblical principles that we should always be charitable and welcome strangers as scripture says: “Thou shalt not molest a stranger, nor afflict him; for yourselves also were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Exodus 22:21) and “Thou shalt not molest a stranger, for you know the hearts of strangers, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). Obviously this applies to any foreigner whether they desire to stay or not to stay permanently and become citizens.

However when it comes to those who desire to stay permanently and hence become citizens there are certain conditions that the immigrant must meet. This includes the desire of fully integrating into the new nation. Furthermore a granting of citizenship should not be immediate. People need to adapt themselves to the new nation. This is something that individuals like Aristotle said could take up 2-3 generations. It takes time to know the issues affecting a nation. 

“Those familiar with the long history of their nation are in the best position to make the long term decisions about its future. It is harmful and unjust to put the future of a place in the hands of those recently arrived, who, although through no fault of their own, have little idea of what is happening or has happened in the nation. Such a policy could lead to the destruction of the nation.”2

Furthermore when it to permanent immigration we should take into account as noted earlier the different factors of the State or nation being a national household and family. This included not only the unity but also the safety, health and morality, religion, language, and culture that makes up a particular nation. This presents the problem of having mass immigration and an open border policy in which anyone can come in. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, John Jay, observed this reality in The Federalist Papers when he talked about the importance of a united America and as to why an American federal union was able to work because there was:

A people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.3

Implications of immigration given the context of a Catholic State

There are many implications that one can take from this in regards to the attempt at forming the framework of a Catholic State whether it be here in the United States or elsewhere where it may exist or already exists. This is most definitely true when it comes to the Catholic culture of such a State or nation. This is true in regards to the unity, safety and most fundamentally religion and morality of such Catholic State. It would obviously put such Catholic State in harm of disintegrating if such State allowed mass immigration from places that were clearly at odds with the culture of such a Catholic State. For example allowing such mass immigration from regions in the world which are predominantly Muslim or Hindu would most likely undermine Catholic morality given the incompatibilities and differences between Catholicism and non-Catholic religions. Furthermore allowing such mass immigration from countries that are very hostile towards Catholic culture or at least at odds with it in terms of language, culture, and morality could undermine the safety, as well as cultural and religious unity of such a Catholic State.


  1. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica, the second part of the first part, question 105, article 3 (I-II, Q. 105, Art. 3).
  2. II, John Horvat. “What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?” Tradition, Family, and Property –. N.p., 4 July 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
  3. Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. “Federalist No. 2: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence.” The Federalist Papers. Charleston, SC: SoHo, 2012. 4. Print.


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