This post is by Gary Slater, author of “From Strangers to Neighbors: Toward an Ethics of Sanctuary Cities.”

It has been a rich and rewarding experience to read the roundtable commentaries from Matthew Shadle, Jana Bennett, and David Cloutier in response to my article, “From Strangers to Neighbors: Toward an Ethics of Sanctuary Cities.” I do not have a background in Catholic moral theology, so as a newcomer to the discourse, it’s been particularly encouraging for my project to receive this level of engagement from scholars in the field. My thanks go out to the three commentators, as well as to Jason King, for making this conversation possible. Let me respond to each contributor in turn. 

Matthew Shadle observes that Catholic social teaching offers a “cosmopolitan ideal” that not only balances the limitations of state actors against supranational institutions like the Church, but also allows for agency to be exercised meaningfully at the sub-national level. What makes this cosmopolitan ideal responsive to local concerns is the principle of subsidiarity, which, as Shadle puts it, “calls on the state to make room for local, intermediate communities that can foster solidarity or fraternity.” For Shadle, greater attention to subsidiarity warrants a reconsideration of the joint pastoral letter Strangers No Longer, with the possibility that my concerns about problems in this letter might be addressed.

I share Shadle’s view on the promise of Strangers No Longer as an essential text for an ethics of sanctuary cities. I also see subsidiarity as a viable means of translating general principles from Catholic social teaching for local contexts. Where Shadle and I diverge, I think, is the extent to which subsidiarity itself may be seen to benefit from greater clarity in its application to sanctuary contexts. My thinking on subsidiarity treats this principle less as a means to repair tensions within Strangers No Longer—which I take to be Shadle’s view—than as an aspect of an ethical program applied only after those tensions have been addressed through other means. Aside from the figures mentioned in the article (Corbett and Agamben, most notably), such means include the theological practice of Scriptural Reasoning, which I believe offers neglected methodological resources for theological ethics. In brief, my view here is that tensions and excessive abstractions in a given theological text can be grounded in specific contexts through readings that do not attempt to smooth out their contradictions, but rather embrace and redeem the contradictions through an ordered sequence that runs from general principles to specific texts and applied practices. These thoughts are explored in my chapter in Bharat Ranganathan and Derek Woodard-Lehman’s Scripture, Tradition, and Reason in Christian Ethics, “Between Comparison and Normativity: Scriptural Reasoning and Religious Ethics.”

Jana Bennett asks a provocative and important question with respect to an ethics of sanctuary: why cities? Bennett calls for an ethics in which Christians are called to action in the face of the sufferings of undocumented community members. As Bennett puts it, “For sanctuary cities to work, there must first be sanctuary churches.” The thinking here is that focusing on subsidiarity alone, or perhaps an exclusively local-governance-oriented perspective alone, might allow citizens to pass moral responsibility on to someone else. In addition to her astute reading of Corbett, Bennett also suggests reading deeper into liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor as a way to activate Christians in their response to sufferings within migration environments.

To these points from Bennett I say: yes, absolutely. Christians should take responsibility to act as neighbors, and church communities do have a vital and indeed indispensable role to play in any ethics of sanctuary cities informed from Catholic social teaching. I am merely sceptical that one must accept the binary Bennett appears to advance: between attention to subsidiarity or to local governance, on one side, and attention to communities of Christians, on the other. As I see it, it is essential for both churches and local polities to participate in sanctuary politics and the ethics I’m describing. That is, the project I’m developing aim to highlight a vital space to be filled by religiously relevant neighborliness. Such a space is made possible only by political action, with local government policies an important manifestation of such action.

David Cloutier argues that migration is an issue in which it is both possible and appropriate to invoke the theological idea of sin. Given the complexity of the systems by which the suffering within migration is engendered, sin in this case exists at a structural as well as an individual level. Cloutier also takes issue with the attempt in my article to turn toward experience in response to the tensions and abstraction of Strangers No Longer. Such a turn, Cloutier fears, risks losing its impact in representing too narrow a view, falling short on empathy, or simply falling into exactly the same failing it was summoned to overcome, which is excessive abstraction. Instead of seeking a turn to experience, Cloutier recommends working out a set of criteria by which an ethics of sanctuary might be propounded and evaluated, thus articulating robust “norms for judgment” in a manner akin to discourses on such topics as just war theory.

In response to Cloutier, I want to call attention to Miguel De La Torre’s book, The U.S. Immigration Crisis: Toward an Ethics of Place, as an example of accommodating multiple perspectives via a turn to experience concerning migration. More than this, I want to advance the view that such a turn can coexist with the search for criteria—which I agree is much needed—and in view of social structures as sinful. I particularly appreciate the idea of a set of tiers for analysis; in a more fully developed version of the ethics of sanctuary I’m seeking, in fact, it should be possible to invoke a set of tiers that extends from general principles through specific texts into concrete experiences, rather than, as Cloutier puts it, making a “direct move from very general principles to very specific directives.” The turn to experience can and should be accompanied by a kind of analytical layering, from the general and abstract to the concrete and particular across a series of intermediate steps.

To draw this idea out a bit, let me highlight some aspects of my article not yet discussed within this roundtable. As explored in the article’s second half, there is a relationship between two distinct-but-related meanings of the sacred, sacer and sanctus, whose combination results in the notion of the sacrosanct. The theological power of the sacrosanct entails a profound mix of love and pain, representing a form of empathy so deep that, pace Gutierrez, there is nothing less than a divine presence in its enactment through neighborliness. As I put it in the article:

Recalling that sacer and sanctus each means in some sense “setting apart,” their combination in neighborliness suggests a deep capacity for empathy…Setting apart can mean harmony and protection by the city for its residents, or maybe for the residents by each other. But it can also mean a shared sense of alienation, of separation, and therefore compassion in the sense of living together.

The intersection of sacer and sanctus through neighbourliness represents the most immediate, resonant, and vivid point in a larger ethical landscape that includes lots of other critical discourses.

Yet other discourses, which include both politics and Catholic social teaching, are crucial. As I put it in the article: “sanctuary policies employ principles derived from civil law and politics to point beyond civil law and politics, calling for direct encounter in a way that is necessary to uphold natural law.” There is a profound link between direct experience, urban spaces, ecclesiology, and values applied from Catholic social teaching. If, as I claim in the article, the tension in the migrant experience really is matched by tension in the rhetoric around sanctuary, then this represents a compelling juxtaposition of tension and unity, in which tension within a given level of analysis is met by unity across levels. This sort of thinking—that is, reflection on relationships of unity and tension across levels of analysis—suggest a possible additional dimension to a theological ethics of sanctuary cities: ecology. Framed in terms of tension and unity, the separation between peoples inherent to the challenges of migration can also be seen as a separation between human and natural worlds.