The Needy Immigrant, Nationalism, Globalism, and the Universal Destination of Goods


The current debates on immigration between liberal globalists on the one hand and populist nationalists on the other raise fundamental questions about the nature of political community and solidarity. Neither side offers satisfactory answers to these questions. Immigration naturally raises such fundamental questions, since the extent to which new members are admitted to a community varies widely depending on how that community understands and sustains its own internal unity. Thus a nomadic tribe, living in easily breachable tents, and depending on close bonds of trust will approach the integration of strangers differently than a city-state with stone houses, locking doors, speculative philosophy, and law courts.

The vast numbers of persons currently fleeing the incessant wars in the Levant or economic hardship and disruption in the global south (disruption caused in part by the dynamics of the globalization of neoliberal capitalism), and trying to enter the prosperous and relatively stable countries of Europe and North America, have thus brought the debates between nationalists and globalists to a head. The globalists favor a liberal immigration policy, not only out of compassion for the needy, but also as a means to the destruction of the remnants of homogenous national cultures, in order to make way for a fully liberal, multi-cultural future. The nationalists, on the other hand, favor protectionist immigration policies, often with callous disregard for the needs of refugees and migrants.

In this essay, I do not propose a complete solution to the questions raised by the globalist-nationalist debate, nor do I offer a complete account of an immigration policy from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching. Rather I first offer first a brief sketch of the origins of both nationalism and secular globalism, origins which call their respective ideas of solidarity into question. And second I explain an important principle of natural law as expounded by Catholic Social Teaching that has to be constantly insisted on in the current debate. The principle is that wealthy countries have obligations toward needy migrants that stem from the universal destination of goods.

The debate between globalism and nationalism is in many way reminiscent of a debate raised in ancient philosophy by the conquests of Alexander the Great: is man a political animal or an imperial animal? That is, does the nature of man limit him to the small scale communal life of the ancient city, in which he can know most of his fellow citizens, and a solidarity based on friendship can bind the community together? Or does the universality of reason rather incline him to hold, as Plutarch put it, “that his friends and kindred should be the good and virtuous [of all mankind], and that the vicious only should be accounted foreigners”?

The Christian Middle Ages were, to some extent, able to achieve a synthesis of those two ideals. Christendom was ideally a universal community in which all the baptized were considered friends and fellow-citizens of the City of God, and only Muslims and Jews were considered foreigners. The whole of Christendom was united by the authority of Pope, who entrusted the temporal sword to the emperor. But that order was subsidiary with many common goods pursued at the lower levels of kingdoms, duchies, counties, abbeys, towns, villages etc.

Medieval Christendom was always fraught with tensions— between spiritual and temporal powers as well as between various temporal authorities— and it began to break down at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. The conflict between King Philip the Fair of France and Pope Boniface VIII was in part a conflict between the old ideal of Christendom and the emerging strong territorial monarchies. The new monarchies transferred many of the claims of the Church on to themselves— thus the French monarchy was seen as “mystical body” headed by the King, and those who died for France were seen as martyrs (See: Ch. 5 of Ernst Kantorowicz’s enduring classic The Kings Two Bodies). The classical idea of patria, the fatherland, which had previously been applied either to the Heavenly City, or to the village where one was born, was now applied to the Kingdom of France. This had in part to do with the rediscovery of Aristotle’s Politics in the 13th century. Aristotle’s teaching on the polis was now applied to the Kingdom, seen as complete society arising from natural inclination, and thus receiving its authority from God through the natural law, rather than through spiritual power.

Thus began the development of the modern nation-state, whose severance from the ideal of Christendom was solidified in the 17th century at the Peace of Westphalia. The nation state combines the worst features of political and imperial communities. It lacks the advantages of a small community founded in friendship and mutual trust among citizens actually living a common life, but preserves the communal egoism and hatred of outsiders typical of such small communities. It lacks the capaciousness and ability to unite many nations typical of ancient empires, but has all of their militarism and libido dominandi. The absurd spectacle of modern “imperialism” (abusively so-called) shows a form of human solidarity that lacks the most important political goods, and replaces the pacific goods of empire with endless unjust wars of conquest.

It cannot be denied that such nation states were at times able to serve the common good to some extent, and one cannot fail to praise the heroism of such true patriots as St. Joan of Arc. But on balance the rise of the nation state seems to have brought more harm than good. The ever more idolatrous political theologies and ever more internecine wars of self-sacrifice with which nation states have tried to bolster their internal solidarity culminated in the horrific slaughter of World War I and World War II.

After the horrors of the World Wars of the 20th centuries, a new ideal of global solidarity founded in a secular, liberal conception of human rights came to the fore. This aridly rationalistic global liberalism cannot, however, provide true universal solidarity which can only be found in the Social Kingship of Christ. Thus we are left with the current situation in which the heirs of Enlightenment rationalism press their unrealistic dream of a secular end of history against the no-less ugly heirs of the ideals Philip the Fair, Henry VIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Bismarck. Much depends on how this struggle will end. In the meantime, however, it is important to try to follow the natural law as best we can in the present situation.

An important precept of the natural law, perennially taught by the Church, is the obligation to help refugees and needy immigrants. This obligation is inextricably linked to the principle of the universal destination of goods. In an address to American bishops cited in his Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana, Pope Pius XII taught the following:

The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people. For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth [publicae utilitati], considered very carefully, does not forbid this.

In this passage Pope Pius traces the natural law demand for allowing the immigration of the needy of other parts of the world into a polity to the principle that “the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all.” This is a perennial principle of Catholic Social Teaching: “the universal destination of goods.” One of the most famous witnesses to that principle was given by St. Ambrose of Milan in On Naboth:

It is not one poor man, Naboth, who was slain; every day Naboth is struck down, every day the poor man is slain. Seized by this fear, the human race is now departing its lands. Carrying his little one, the poor man sets out with his children; his wife follows in tears, as if she were accompanying her husband to his grave. Yet she who mourns over the corpses of her family weeps less because she [at least] has her spouse’s tomb even if she has lost his protection; even if she no longer has children, she at least does not weep over them as exiles; she does not lament what is worse than death—the empty stomachs of her tender offspring. How far, O rich, do you extend your mad greed? ‘Shall you alone dwell upon the earth’ (Isa. 5:8). Why do you cast out the companion whom nature has given you and claim for yourself nature’s possession? The earth was established in common for all, rich and poor. Why do you alone, O rich, demand special treatment?

External things such as food, fuel, and shelter, and also the land which is necessary for the production of such things, are given by God to the whole human race for the sustenance of life. The tradition recognizes that private property is lawful insofar as it is conducive to such sustenance (see: Summa theologica IIa-IIae, Q 66, A 2), but those who have property beyond their needs owe it to those who are in need. Thus St. Thomas teaches that “fringsen” (to use the post-war German term for taking from the superfluity of others when one is oneself in need) is permissible:

According to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals: “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.” Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery. (IIa-IIae, Q 66, A 2, c).

Pius XII’s teaching on immigrants is a specific application of this general principle. Wealthy countries that have a superfluity of external goods, owe a share of those goods to the needy who flee less fortunate countries on account of war or unemployment or hunger. This is a matter of justice, not merely of voluntary generosity.

Pope Pius XII of course recognizes that a country needs to preserve its common good. The demands of justice in a concrete situation will depend in part on the demands of the common good. And of course the common good includes the social bonds in a society on which its internal unity and peace depend. Thus the demands of the common good will vary depending on what sort of social bonds are necessary to hold a particular society together: the very point at issue in the globalist/nationalist debate. But one thing is certain: it is not acceptable for a wealthy country to frame immigration policy exclusively in terms of “what benefits us.” The wealth of the world has been given to the whole human race, and we owe the needy a share in it.

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