The Need for Criteria in CST

Gary Slater’s careful, rich development of an ethic for sanctuary cities should – like many other reflections on the issue of migration – remind us first and foremost that this problem is one that exemplifies a structure of sin. Despite decades of calls for “comprehensive immigration reform,” we continue to have a situation that in its many dimensions provokes rancor and conflict, and most importantly places millions of human beings in untenable conundrums of suffering. Those working on immigration would do well to attend to Daniel Finn’s foundational article, “What is a Sinful Social Structure?”, and its analysis that highlights the complex agency-structure interactions that must be mapped in order to identify what to do.

But Finn’s article also suggests that any such analysis requires something more:

The final step in this investigation of how social structures can be sinful requires a description—at best, a typology-that distinguishes good from bad structures of a specific kind, whether these are kinds of economic systems, school districts, or Catholic parishes. Such descriptive typologies may be available from professional social scientists or simply from insightful participants m those structures.

Slater’s article can help point us in this direction, but it also suggests what such an analysis would need from CST: a better articulation of criteria for judgment for determining just migration. Finn’s call for good descriptive typologies requires as a complement a clarification of “norms for judgment” on issues within CST itself.

There is much to be learned from Slater’s analysis. Most important is his intricate description of a sanctuary city as a “negative” space constituted by “a kind of intentional absence of state power,” one that both allows for and requires going further into a positive program of active neighboring, of “turning strangers into neighbors.” Slater probes the meaning of sanctuary in order to bring out the need for this positive action. These are all invaluable developments of Christian ethical reflection, and Jana Bennett’s previous post elaborates well on the deeper theological claims at work.

But Slater also identifies what he sees as a problem in what is otherwise “the most significant single source” for this approach, the joint work of the US and Mexican bishops, Strangers No Longer. Slater is concerned that there is a tension in SNL’s basic statement of the twin rights of migration and border security. He notes that the document indicates that these two rights “complement” one another, but he (rightly) worries that this complemntarity is not at all obvious in concrete practice. It is at this point that he recommended what is basically a turn to experience, and specifically the “concrete reality” of the “migrant experience.”

This turn to experience seems to me the most questionable part of the essay – Slater criticizes SNL for its abstract terms, but the dissection of experience also seems abstract, and it leaves out any sense that there are many stories of migration as well as many stories on the other side. Yet Slater is right to sense that there is an unresolved problem in SNL that endangers the whole enterprise, both positive and negative, of sanctuary cities.

Instead of experience, what SNL – and any treatment of migration – needs to provide is a clearer set of norms or criteria for judgment about just migration. As has been noted, CST has developed a threefold scheme first mentioned in St. Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens:

In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church. 

The scheme of principles, norms, and directives recurs in St. John Paul II and the Compendium. While some have criticized the scheme as vague and unclear (most recently, John Finnis), and while it is certainly the case that the tradition does not proceed by rigidfying these levels, it nevertheless seems very helpful to think about CST in this way. Such a scheme highlights the need to avoid a direct move from very general principles to very specific directives, as if a claim about solidarity or subsidiarity can directly be used to justify this or that action or policy. This is surely one of the reasons why CST seems caught in a perennial no-man’s-land between combatants who use the same principles to justify opposing solutions.

But more importantly for Slater’s case, it draws attention to a kind of unevenness in the tradition itself. For CST has developed quite clearly robust “norms for judgment” in some areas, while neglecting the task in others. Obvious examples of this level can be found in the just war criteria and the delineation of the content and conditions of just wages. Yet in other areas, there is no comparable clarity of development – for example, in migration. While these are obviously all different sorts of problems, it is interesting to note that all of them involve some sort of potential conflict, which the norms do not necessarily resolve decisively, but rather help all parties understand the parameters involved in solutions – ones that (even in the case of just war) aim at peace, harmony, and solidarity.

The problem with SNL is simply asserting the rights – this may look like an approach to criteria for judgment, but little is done with it. To be sure, SNL does say more, in a way that gets closer to norms: there is a “presumption” that the migration is necessary and a recognition that hospitality should be offered by the receiving country, unless it is impossible. But these are not spelled out in ways that might better clarify the fundamental question: the just actions of those who seek to migrate, despite the structure of sin. In one sense, Slater simply presumes this, but it is precisely the thing needed to justify all the rest of his analysis. There is a sense that he is speaking to those for whom sanctuary cities are already an obvious just response, calling on them to recognize what is needed for them to achieve their goal. But to justify the entire enterprise, Slater needs more clarity about the fundamental justice claims of the migrants – and thus needs recourse to an agreed-upon framework to judge this justice. The move in the paper to experience and sympathy, while certainly welcome by those of us who see the urgency of welcoming migrants, is much more problematic if addressed to those for whom this is less clear.

Thus, Slater’s article helps us in many ways, and one indirect way is to push ethicists to develop an ethic of “just migration,” with criteria that will help make clear a consensus. Also, Matt Shadle’s prior post quite helpfully unpacks how the principle of subsidiarity might be translated into more specifics than Slater realizes, ones that might also be developed in a “just migration” ethic. Without this, we are unlikely to be able to address the real problem of the ongoing structure of sin.