The following is a partial report from a conference on "Charity and the Common Good," hosted by the Catholic Institute of La Roche sur Yon, in the Vendee region of western France. One speaker, Chantal Delsol, shed welcome light on the topic of the morality and politics of immigration. (Delsol is a prolific author whose works include "Icarus Fallen: the Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World" and "The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century.")
Delsol argued that the realm of politics includes the gravest of human responsibilities, since the preservation of a political community is the precondition for even a minimally satisfactory human existence, not to mention the attainment of the higher benefits of a civilization. Citing the great Roman orator and philosopher Cicero, the speaker compared the fall or dissolution of a state to the disappearance of a whole world. For this reason, it is inherent in the very purpose of a political and social order that it must strive to endure indefinitely; to preserve its world, a state must strive for immortality. The thought is a bracing one. It is true that we Americans have been fortunate enough, at least since our Civil War many generations ago, to live in a country whose continuation into the future we might easily take for granted. But it would be wiser in fact not to assume that the survival of our form of government is assured.
On the other hand there are the universal demands of morality, which know no political borders. From the universal moral point of view, inherited largely from Christianity, it seems difficult to defend a state's right to exclude a needy human being, and especially a refugee from disaster or persecution.
Thus there may arise a conflict between two equally valid and fundamental imperatives: the obligation of hospitality toward immigrants and the preservation of a particular political community, including its essential legal, economic and cultural pillars. The beginning of wisdom concerning the moral-political question of immigration is thus soberly to recognize the tragic tension between opposing concerns that are equally valid and inescapable. The demands of humanistic morality as well as Christian charity seem in principle to be limitless, but in practice we in fact reach limits, both as states and as individuals.
The speaker gave the example of friends with vacation homes in the French Alps near a mountain pass that has become a significant point of immigration from North Africa via Italy. Some of these prosperous residents have made the admirable but perhaps risky choice of opening their hearts and their homes to the desperate passers-by, giving them food and shelter for a night or more, sometimes sleeping on camping pads in order to offer their beds to strangers. But of course not all the homeowners have chosen to make such an offering, and even the most generous have not sacrificed their homes permanently to the needy immigrants. While we justifiably praise the most charitable, we in fact have no right to blame those who are more cautious. In the same way, we have no right to demand charity of other people, or to determine the reasonable limits of another country's openness to immigration.
Today's political debate is mostly divided between those who defend a country's interest in its own self-preservation and those who press the claims of our common humanity, which knows no borders. Both sides make scapegoats of the other, rather than recognizing the tragic tension inherent in the moral and political problem of immigration. Liberals are confident of occupying the moral high ground and give no weight to valid economic and cultural concerns of conservatives or populists. They need to grasp G.K. Chesterton's critique of irresponsible liberal moralism: "The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone." Conservatives, on the other hand, often refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the liberals' moral concern for the plight of immigrants.
The precondition of constructive discussion of the morality and politics of immigration would be to recognize the real weight of considerations on both sides.