Balancing Moral Calculations: Checking in on Refugees and National Security

The most disconcerting thing about much of what passes for public debate, these days, is that positions seem to be instantly hardened.  For instance, even in Rhode Island, where it has proven largely irrelevant as a practical political matter, the topic of Syrian refugees has become an issue on which right-thinking people feel compelled to proclaim a stance.

The political value for progressives is easy to understand.  Consider, for example, this front-page article from The Rhode Island Catholic, giving prime name-recognition space to two legislators who (it’s safe to say) actively oppose the Roman Catholic Church in just about every belief they hold:

Close to 100 people took part in a rally in support of accepting Syrian refugees for resettlement in Rhode Island held at the State House last Thursday afternoon, including faith leaders, refugees living in Rhode Island, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence’s Office of Immigration and Refugee Services and representatives of Dorcas International Institute.

Senators Joshua Miller (D-Cranston/Warwick) and Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) hosted the event. Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, spoke on behalf of the Diocese of Providence.

It would be a mistake to read too much into any photograph, because it’s just a quick snapshot in time, but it illustrates an important point to look at the primary photo accompanying the story.  As Fr. Bernard Healey speaks, the folks sitting in the front row — identified as “immigrants resettled by the diocesan Office of Immigration and Refugee Services” — are paying polite attention, but look behind the priest at the public figures and activists.  Of 21 listeners visible in the shot, only three or four look like they’re paying supportive attention.  Nine are looking anywhere but at Fr. Healey, and the rest have closed eyes or exhibit stages of disinterest or even disgust.

Some not-insignificant number of these people loathe the Catholic Church and everything it stands for.

Now, Catholics should never push away people who hate us and our beliefs simply because they hate us and our beliefs, but moral judgment is more complicated than that.  With absolutely no bill, executive order, or any official policy currently on the table in Rhode Island that would have any effect on Syrian refugees, one could argue that this particular stand did more damage by helping anti-Catholic activists in general than it did good by reducing bias against hypothetical the refugees.

As for the didactic lessons to be drawn — which might suggest taking a stand on a public issue to help Catholics frame their thinking on it — there’s a moral hazard in bigotry and hatred, yes, but there’s also a moral hazard in pride and vanity.  These lessons need to be balanced.

We desperately need the deeper discussion that carries from principle to facts and back again.  Today, for example, Politico reports on, as the headline puts it, the “‘unprecedented’ support in U.S. for Islamic State.”  Meanwhile, CNSNews is reporting that not a single one of the 132 Syrian refugees admitted to the United States since the Paris attack has been a Christian or other religious minority, but rather, 100% Sunni Muslims, 30% of them in the military-aged male range.

This isn’t (necessarily) an indication of anti-Christian bias in the federal government:

One possible reason for this is that most refugees considered for resettlement in the U.S. are first referred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – but according to Christian relief groups Christians flying the conflict are often afraid to register with the U.N. and generally avoid U.N. refugee camps because they are targeted there too.

It’s fair to suggest, I think, that we could use a bit more deep thought and reasoned conversation about different aspects of this issue.  There may be circumstances in which the Church should stand with people who hate her for the benefit of other people who are, at the very least, gaining advantage from persecution of Christians in their homeland and among whom aggressive and possibly violent proselytizers for another religion may be mingling.

I just haven’t been persuaded that we currently face such circumstances.

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