The Catholic Church’s stance on the issue of migration, which today has an unprecedented high profile and directly concerns over 220 million people, can be explained in two ways.

The first is an ecclesiastical interpretation relating to the Christian identity and based on the teachings of the gospel: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The church is inspired by this message in its day-to-day pastoral work as well as with extraordinary initiatives during moments of acute emergency. It would prefer to focus on the anthropological wealth, before even the confessional value, of this constant and silent work carried out by many thousands of Catholics, both clergy and lay persons.

The other interpretation is to refer to the actions of the Holy See, which, it should be remembered, is an organisation with its own international juridical identity tasked with translating the Pope’s majesty into international and interreligious relationships.

The year 2018 promises to be a crucial one. In December the United Nations is due to approve the Global Compact on migration and refugees, a double agreement that has been two years in the making. The UN representatives talk of an ambitious and innovative agreement. While it certainly is ambitious, its innovativeness is more questionable given that it does not manage to move beyond the established distinction between refugees and so-called economic migrants. While migrant flows today are increasingly mixed, the specific emphasis on the issue of international protection for refugees from war threatens to discriminate against so-called “hunger refugees”, victims of the progressive enlargement of the disparity between the world’s richest and the billions of human beings that are getting poorer and poorer.

The Vatican was particularly involved in the work on the Global Compact, equipped with tools and a vision that provide a global awareness of the phenomenon as opposed to a national perspective. For individual countries, especially those that are the initial point of arrival for migrants, often short-term interests, closed attitudes, nationalist outbursts, explicit xenophobia and racism prevail.

The Holy See’s contribution to the search for solutions can be of particular value for Africa, fatigued as it is by a history of population movements that have almost always been forced, beginning with the slave trade that dates back not only to European colonisers but also to Arab traders. After half a century of decolonisation, at least on paper, there is no lack of local responsibility, but this context of deracination remains the main cause of the centuries old impossibility of Africans being truly able to take their destiny in their own hands.

That said, it should be underlined that in Africa migration is mainly an internal issue: less than a quarter of Africa’s migrants are refugees, around 5 million from a total of 20 million (a number which, in turn, represents less than 10% of the worldwide total) live outside of the continent, the majority in Asia. This fact shows that the idea of the “threat of an invasion” on the northern shore of the Mediterranean is clearly false and being exploited.

The ecclesiastical reality, especially for the missionaries, has always faced this phenomenon, with a notable proximity to the victims, even if historically there has been no lack of de facto complicity with colonising powers. Of course, after the Vatican Council II, this concern has grown and become more defined; since the end of the East-West divide, the Catholic church has been increasingly active in defending the peoples of the disadvantaged south of the planet and in particular, Africans. There are numerous examples in daily actions, both in Papal documents and in diplomatic relationships, of the conviction that “the multiplication of armed conflicts, as well as the dramatic situations concerning refugees and immigrants, are the bitter fruit also of globalization,” as can be read in the final declaration of the meeting held in the spring between African and European bishops.

The globalization in question is one that is perceived as being dominated by predatory finance that has led to the disproportionate increase in economic suffering as well as social and political discrimination. So far the international community has been unable to counteract the iniquitous outcomes of globalization with an effective push towards a globalization of rights. Since the 1990s, from Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis, the focus of the political action of the Holy See has been on constructing a new global “new social market economy”. As Pope Francis has been repeating frequently of late, it is inequality that produces instability and violence, including those situations linked to migration, which no political force is able to repress or even contain in the long term.

A specific Pontificate Council is responsible for human mobility, in particular, for the pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people. Established by the Vatican Council II, it is mainly a think tank but its effects in terms of a pastoral care and support and guidance for local churches on a social and international level, has always been relevant, in particular during the first decade of this century, with its coordinator and guiding light, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, as its secretary. It is no coincidence that Marchetto is a diplomat with lengthy experience of historical and juridical issues, in addition to being probably the greatest living exegete on the Council.

This small Council has contributed much to the positions with which the Holy See will tackle the discussion of the Global Compact in December at the United Nations. For some time Vatican representatives have been illustrating its content at international forums, in particular with the European institutions, in the hope that the EU manages to unite once more around its own founding values. In the spring at a meeting of the UN in Geneva and again with the European Parliament, the Holy See presented a list of 20 action points based on four crucial requirements: to welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants. The document includes, in addition to established principles such as non-refoulement, recommendations to establish safe and legal channels for migrants and refugees, forms of welcome that are responsible and dignified, procedures that safeguard minors and family reunification, plus the promotion of national policies that enable access to education, training and the employment market. A crucial point is the right to citizenship, including the jus soli for second-generation migrants.

It should be noted, however, that in spite of the undoubted global interest in the Pope, the church’s capacity for communication and persuasion does not appear to be sufficient. From the infinite documents on the subject produced over the last forty years, few have succeeded in reaching a wider public. This may well be the outcome of the Holy See’s endeavours with the Global Compact, the success of which is far from guaranteed. Like all UN agreements, it relies on states themselves to make it function. Nowadays, more or less everywhere, the prevailing sentiments seem to reflect some of the negative attitudes mentioned above, which are then exploited by political forces that in many countries have enjoyed a rise in popularity, even winning power in some cases. To cite just one example, concerning the multinational approach that is indispensable in dealing with such a global issue, the transformation of the United States has had a notable effect as Trump has withdrawn support for the Global Compact that Obama had endorsed.

The same can be said also for Europe, where elections in various countries, including Italy, have demonstrated an acceptance of the logic that “more migrants means less security”, in spite of the Catholic Church denouncing the connection as false and perverse. Following the Italian elections, for example, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, underlined that security and the welcoming of migrants are “two crucial requirements” that must be reconciled and not considered mutually exclusive. “The Holy See knows that it must work within the current conditions, We cannot have the society that we would like,” explained Parolin, but the church “will continue its work,” because it is important “to succeed in educating the population and to pass from a negative attitude to one that is more positive when it comes to migrants, to dissipate prejudice and fear and abandon the dominant culture of refusal and rejection,” according to an expression dear to the Pope.

In the end, the two ways cited at the beginning of this article of explaining the positions of the Pope and the church on the issue of migration, actually coincide.

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