Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Anti-immigrant Congressman converts to Catholicism

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) was received into the Catholic Church in a private ceremony in the Chapel of St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee on Monday.  Conversions of a political big shots do not tend to be overlooked by the hierarchy, and I’m told that the congressman, who has represented a wealthy district north of the city for 35 years, had no fewer than three eminences on hand: former Milwaukee archbishop Cardinal Tim Dolan, present Milwaukee archbishop Jerome Listecki, and Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison.

Sensenbrenner had previously identified himself as an “Anglican Catholic,” so jumping the Tiber was for him not much of a leap religiously. One one matter of public policy, however, he’s seriously out of step with American bishops: immigration reform.

In 2005, he led the way for the House of Representatives to pass the “Sensenbrenner Bill,” a draconian piece of legislation that, among other things, would have made it a crime to assist a an undocumented immigrant to remain in the United States. Fortunately, the bill died in the Senate.

Last year, Sensenbrenner denounced the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill as “the most radical amnesty proposal in our country’s history.” By contrast, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration, declared, “I commend the U.S. Senate on the vote and for the bi-partisan cooperation displayed during the legislative process. I urge the House of Representatives to follow the U.S. Senate’s lead and pass a comprehensive reform bill as soon as possible.” And Cardinal Dolan, in his capacity as president of the USCCB, wrote a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner urging the House to follow suit.

I’d like to think that Dolan et al. did not let this week’s opportunity slip to persuade Sensenbrenner to get with the program on an issue that really is central to the social teaching of his new church. Even though immigration reform looks dead in the House this session, the conversion of Jim Sensenbrenner might actually make a difference.

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About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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