When writing for Sightings I can look down from our residence window on two cathedral towers. A century ago, in the years after the Chicago Fire of 1871, those towers towered over a rebuilt cityscape, still of low-rise buildings. Cathedrals dominated the scene back then, but they are nestled among skyscrapers now. So, as an architectural theorist once advised, sanctuaries today have to stress substantive rather than dimensional references.
“Substance” relating to the U.S. immigration debate is currently on display from one of these structures, Holy Name Cathedral. Headlines in Chicago newspapers early last week were typical. “[Cardinal Blase] Cupich on immigration: ‘Let’s see where Christ is leading us’” was one, while the other headed an article by the cardinal himself: “It’s immigrants who have made America great.” He urged: “When so many want to make us afraid of diversity, of the migrant, of the immigrant… Let us not be afraid.”
In his characteristically mild and moderate but by no means timid way, the cleric counseled, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that publics should support the bipartisan legislation which addresses the situation. In his homily at mass for National Migration Week, he asked for constructive dialogue on the way to “[a] conversion. A new way of thinking about those who are strangers.” Five years ago, anticipating conflict over the then-debated legalization of marriage for same-sex couples in Washington state (where he was Bishop of Spokane), Cupich had “called for ‘a substantial public debate… carried on with respect, honesty, and conviction’ and asked for ‘careful consideration’ of the church’s position on” that issue. Earlier, in 2004, he had stood apart from hardline bishops who concentrated on abortion rights at the expense of support for broader social justice interests on Catholic terms: “We cannot cherry-pick particular issues. We have to be willing to talk about all issues.”
Respectful debate? Dialogue? Readers of responses to the cardinal’s stand on immigration might say, “Fat chance!” (or “Slim chance!”). One sample—many are available—is a vast collection that one can google from Free Republic. Sampling that sample from 2010, one can read an attack by someone who assumes that Catholics supported progressive immigration law reform so “the Church can make more money.” Others write: “Allowing our nation to be over-run, Northern White European influence destroyed, Christian religion to be relegated to subservience to Islamic beliefs, is not Biblical”; immigrants are “invading barbarians. The Bible doesn’t require you, or your nation, to commit suicide”; “God is a contract, blood, covenant God… He follows the Law.”
Here, now, are two headlines from Religion News Service about the past week’s congressional hearings featuring Senator Jeff Sessions: “Jeff Sessions needs a Sunday school lesson on immigration” versus “Jeff Sessions got it right on immigrants and the Bible.” The senator, defending his hardline views, cited Leviticus 19:33, about which debaters on immigration often fight. He argued that the text legitimated the figurative or literal building of walls against refugees and immigrants and “strangers.” We leave it to readers to look up the passage; they will soon be drawn into technical debates over the biblical Hebrew word ger and some not-quite-synonyms.
In the spirit of respectful debate and dialogue (and with only faint memories of the Hebrew language I studied in my seminary years), I would judge that the advocated “Sessions Sunday School Session” won’t solve or resolve much of anything. But it might at least distract the haters from following the counsel of two final respondents on Free Republic: “BOMB MEXICO!” and “I say we nuke it from orbit… it’s the only way to be sure.” To be sure. Can we start over, with Cardinal Cupich?
Sightings: Religion in Public Life is a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings as a twice-weekly email. You can also follow us on Twitter: @DivSightings.