Archbishop Discusses Catholic Church’s Position on Immigration

August 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
The first in a series on immigration in the United States features Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who is conducting a series of townhall meetings in northern Colorado to explain the Church's position on immigration.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the launch of “Immigration Insights,” a series of six conversations about an issue that has been on the front burner of debate for months here in this country. Just today, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Hispanics now account for more than 14 percent of household populations in the U.S., with big increases particularly in the Midwest and New England.

Our conversations are with people involved in immigration issues every day. Ray Suarez begins.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re joined by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. He’s conducting a series of town hall meetings in northern Colorado to explain the church’s position on immigration.

Archbishop Chaput, welcome.

CHARLES CHAPUT, Archbishop of Denver: Thank you, Ray. I’m glad to be with you.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what are you telling people at these town halls? What is the church’s position in the current immigration debates?

CHARLES CHAPUT: Well, in the particular format we’re using, I’m asking people to be very thoughtful and reflective before jumping to conclusions or arriving at positions.

I think that, right now, the most important thing for us to do as a church is educate our people about the principles underlying public policy and encourage them to be active in talking to their own legislators about doing something to make sure that we handle this problem in a way that respects the dignity of individuals and the common good of our country.

RAY SUAREZ: What is it about this issue that pulls the church in, in the first place, makes the church feel that it should be involved on this one?

CHARLES CHAPUT: The church has a long tradition of social justice teaching. And one of the things we reflect on as a church — and we’ve done this for years — is the issue of immigration.

We believe that people have a right to a living wage in their own country. They have a right to have secure homes in the places where they live. But if people are unable to support themselves and their families, there’s also a right to immigrate.

And we also believe that each country has a right to secure borders and to orderly immigration principles and policies, but making all that fit together is a difficult task that requires reflection. And we think a comprehensive approach to this is what’s really important.

Convincing people

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you say you're asking people to reflect and then act, but don't many people come to the town hall meetings with already made-up minds and hear what you're saying as a suggestion to support and comfort people who have broken the laws of the United States?

CHARLES CHAPUT: You're right. People do -- one of the issues that's raised at the beginnings of these discussions is these people who come here illegally have broken the law, and that's not appropriate.

And, of course, the church agrees with them: Breaking the law is never appropriate. And being an illegal alien is not good for the person who breaks the law, nor is it good for our country. It's a dangerous way to live. And to have a group in our society that isn't legal undermines the common good, too.

So the church is not in favor of illegal immigration. The church is not in favor of breaking the law. The church is in favor of changing the law so that they work, they make sense, and that they serve the common good and everyone's dignity.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, do you get the feeling that you're getting through? Do people bring the sometimes emotional ideas they have about this, the angry ideas they have about this, and when they hear what their pastor is telling them, do they reflect as you're asking them?

CHARLES CHAPUT: Well, I think certainly some of them do, and some of them don't. But I think every effort in that direction is worthwhile.

And sometimes, you know, a couple days after the town hall meeting, I'll get an e-mail or a letter from someone who was there challenging me to think differently or telling me that it's helped them to understand how serious and complex the issues are. So I find them very, very fruitful.

Of course, we're dealing with a small group of people, but each one of us has our responsibility in our own sphere to do something about making this issue clearer and then finding some way of solving the problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Tancredo, who is a congressman from Colorado and one of the leaders nationwide in the backlash against illegal immigration, has been very rough on the various Christian denominations who have come out against the proposed House bills to deal with illegal immigrants. And he's questioned the propriety of the church being involved in the way that it has been.

CHARLES CHAPUT: Well, you know, I've heard some of his comments. And I find some of them balanced. When he himself is challenged on the role of the church on this issue, sometimes his response has been a very positive one, so I don't want to characterize Congressman Tancredo as being on the other side and the church being on the side opposite him.

I think that it's important that the people in church talk to him, and that he talks to us, so that we understand one another and we can work together at solving this problem.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the...

CHARLES CHAPUT: So I don't want anyone to be a villain in this discussion; I think we all have something to say.

Personal stories

RAY SUAREZ: I think one of the consistent features, when you hear rank-and-file Americans talk about this, often it's the second thing they say, not the first. They start by telling you where they stand, and then they say, "Well, when I came, or when my parents came, or when my grandparents came to this country," and it shows that there's a personal dimension on this, an emotional dimension to this that there might not be with the level of taxation or whether to put in a new street light.

Are you drawn in the same way to this? Do you have a personal story?

CHARLES CHAPUT: Well, I do, in one sense. My ancestry on my mother's side is Native American, so from one perspective I look at this issue as an issue that affects the native people of this country in a unique kind of way.

But also, on my father's side, my family was French-Canadian. And for two generations, in this country they didn't really spoke English. They spoke French, because they lived in French-speaking communities.

And so the issues that we talk about today about learning English is an important issue, and I think everyone should learn English. But I think it's important for us to realize that our ancestors took a long time doing that. And we have to be patient with the newly arrived so that they can have enough time and enough generations passing to really learn the language and to become an active part of the mainstream culture.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that give you a sort of emotional bond, a psychic bond to the large number of Latinos in your own state? Do you see them through the eyes of your own ancestors?

CHARLES CHAPUT: Well, I see them through the eyes of a bishop of the church. Most of these people are Catholics, the ones who arrive from Latin America, and I have a responsibility to be their shepherd, and so I think that's the primary way I look at them.

I look at them as, you know, as fellow human beings, too, who share a common nature that requires respect and justice in the way we treat one another. So, you know, I look at the issue from various perspectives, primarily as a bishop. And I want to serve this question primarily as a bishop of our church by inviting the people of our church to be reflective and then to be actors in the discussion.

RAY SUAREZ: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, thanks for being with us.

CHARLES CHAPUT: I'm happy to be with you. Thanks for the opportunity.

JIM LEHRER: Our next immigration conversation will be with T.J. Bonner, a Border Patrol agent for 28 years. He's now president of the National Border Control Council.