Welcoming Refugees and Migrants: U.S. Catholic Issues

By: David Hollenbach

April 17, 2023

Historically, the Catholic community of the United States has been an immigrant community from its first days in this country. The Church created institutions in many domains of life to support recently arrived members who faced prejudice. These institutions included parishes, schools, hospitals, and many other support systems for migrants. What began as a school here and there evolved into a vast educational network to educate recent Catholic immigrants. Today, this network includes 150,000 primary and secondary educators serving two million students and 200 Catholic colleges serving just under one million students. Similar institutional initiatives occurred in health care. Today’s Catholic health care network includes 600 hospitals, and one out of every six hospitalized patients in America is being cared for in a Catholic hospital. The scope of this network arose from the recognition of the needs of immigrant Catholics and the faith conviction that the church should help them.

Despite these extraordinary past achievements, the Catholic picture today is mixed. On the positive side, Church leaders raise their voices on behalf of migrants, and many Catholic institutions continue effective ministries that aid them. Nevertheless, some institutions are less well-positioned for this role today than they were in the past. The number of priests and sisters, parishes, and schools has declined over the past decades.

Lay attitudes are also mixed. Some U.S. Catholics agree with the pro-immigrant norms communicated by the pope and the bishops, while others do not. One article published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science suggests that Catholics are less likely to follow Church leaders who support a path to citizenship for immigrants compared to members of other U.S. Christian churches. 

There is also a correlation between the race and ethnicity of U.S. Catholics and their stance on migration. For example, during the Trump administration, 41% of all Americans favored building a wall with Mexico, compared to 45% of all Catholics and 56% of white Catholics and in contrast to the 26% of Hispanic Catholics who supported the wall. Another survey published in the Social Science Quarterly suggests that Catholics hold opinions on migration and refugees that are not very different from the broader U.S. population. White Catholics, however, are a bit less likely to have welcoming attitudes toward migrants than the U.S. population as large. Indeed, the negative attitudes toward immigrants are higher among white Catholics than in any other religious ethnic group except white evangelicals.  

The data raise the question of whether attitudes of white Catholics toward migrants are an expression of straightforward racial or religious prejudice or whether class differences (income and education) are more influential. In my view, we will have to consider the class factor as we seek to develop strategies to lead the Catholic community to respond more effectively to the displaced. Also, the clergy sex abuse crisis may be making U.S. Catholics less responsive to Church leaders. Further examination of why some Catholics hold views on migration and responses to the displaced that are different from the stance of Church leadership is clearly needed. 

What can be done? Here are several suggestions: 

First, we should call Catholics to remember their history and how much they were able to help refugees and migrants in the past. 

Second, we need to recruit larger numbers of recent immigrants, particularly younger immigrants, to leadership positions.    

Third, the Catholic community should strengthen its educational programs on refugee and migration issues among its members in the pews, especially among those in the white community. The success of many Catholics today whose ancestors were migrants and refugees shows that today’s migrants and refugees can also become successful.  

Finally, the current crisis of leadership in the Catholic community due to clergy sex abuse and other sources of Church division, including stances toward women, needs to be overcome.

The Catholic community has a very positive history of an effective response to the needs of migrants, and it continues to make important contributions today. But today’s needs call for an even more effective response. It is hoped that what has been said here will stimulate some further reflection on how to improve our response today. 

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges.

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