One of the running themes of Pope Benedict’s addresses during his visit to the United States has been that of the condition of recent immigrants, with a particular outreach to the Latin American communities. The New York Times, in a recent article, described his stance as calibrated with care, and there were certainly no direct criticisms of United States policies or specific recommendations for legislation.  Nevertheless, again according to the New York Times, there was enough there for the Republican Tom Tancredo to accuse the Pope of ‘faith-based marketing’ and suggest that it was not the Pope’s job to engage in American politics.

In fact, much of what Pope Benedict said echoes the message of John Paul II and the position articulated in the United States Bishops’ 2003 document ‘Strangers No Longer’ (see Both Popes have supported the US Catholic Church in its local response to a global situation of conflict between legality and justice, between the demands of states and the needs of the poor.  That there is a balance between the right to migrate in search of a better life and the right of states to protect their borders was already articulated by Pius XII in 1952. To find that balance is something that every economically developed state is struggling to do today.  But Benedict has again taken the opportunity to remind the States of its special status as an immigrant nation and accordingly its unique tradition of welcome for the stranger.

So what did he do?  Clearly he spoke to the US President about the issue, with particular reference to ‘humane treatment’ and families whose lives are disrupted by the new Mexican border controls.  That is an important piece of advocacy on behalf of the voiceless. When he spoke to the US bishops he encouraged them in their Christian duty to welcome immigrants and ‘support them in their trials’.  That has been gratefully received as confirmation of the work in political advocacy and pastoral support that the US Catholic Church has undertaken.   He spoke in his interview on the way to the US of the need to look for a global solution to economic migration. Well, the elephant in the boardroom for any immigration-obsessed state is the global economic inequity which makes people risk lives and dignity just to stay alive.  Finally, he spoke directly to the Hispanic community most affected, affirming that the Christian message is in harmony with our human aspirations for a life that is full and free. He offered his people hope and encouragement in their hardships.

Was it his job to engage in American politics?  At the White House, the Pope touched on that theme which is so sensitive for every secular state, but rooted it in the logic of the very origins of the US: ‘a commonwealth in which each individual and group can make its voice heard’.  Catholics in the US have a right to be heard just as much as anyone else.   And when their spiritual leader visits, he becomes their voice.