Towards a European Theological Ethics of Migration and its Implications for Catholic Social Thought

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Towards a European Theological Ethics of Migration and its Implications for Catholic Social Thought

Yves De Maeseneer

Anthropos Research Group, KU Leuven

On 29-31 October 2015, Johan Verstraeten convened an expert seminar at the Catholic University of Leuven on the theme ‘Towards a European Theological Ethics of Migration and its Implications for Catholic Social Thought’, which brought together international scholars and experts active in the field of migration to reflect upon this burning issue in the light of Catholic Social Thought. Johan Ketelers, Secretary-General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, Geneva opened the seminar by debunking some myths about migration. Kristin Heyer (Boston College) gave a programmatic introduction to the challenges that migration poses for contemporary theological ethics. She left us with a plea for radical solidarity and subversive hospitality, and with the critical question ‘which forces inhibit us from putting these into practice?’.


Gioachino Campese of the Scalabrini International Migration Institute, Rome deepened the analysis of the European context. Europe, he explained, is still not ready to recognize itself as a continent of migration. Accepting this new reality will involve theologians doing theology from the borderlands. This requires a new methodology, radicalizing the inductive turn, which Gaudium et spes encouraged fifty years ago. Several contributors suggested ways forward: Jorge Castillo Guerra (Radboud University, Nijmegen) emphasized the need for an intercultural methodology and a theology of affect. Regina Polak (University of Vienna) retrieved the concept of the signs of the times. Lawrence Pedregosa (KU Leuven) pointed to the paradoxes we are facing in the migrant experience of liminality, while Christian Henkel (University of Tübingen) urged us to listen to those who are marginalized.

Principles and legislation

Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, and founder of the Center for Migration Studies, gave a comprehensive presentation on how Catholic Social Teaching offers a consistent foundation for the right of migration and the duties this implies. Walter Lesch (Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve) provided us with a moral-philosophical complement, observing that while most ethical theories are converging towards a stance in favour of open borders, this is not without dilemmas. Drawing upon her interaction with lawyers and politicians, moral theologian Anna Rowlands (University of Durham) formulated the aporia (‘pathlessness’), which obstructs the translation of the high principles (human rights, the common good etc.) into operational norms and legislation – especially when we are confronted with draconian political measures.

Imagination and Testimony

A major topic during the seminar’s discussions was the role of fear as a major obstacle to a genuine moral response. Before we can discuss the principles and norms, there is a work of transforming the imagination about migration. In this light Daniel Groody (University of Notre Dame) offered an inspiring presentation of faith based responses to immigration in the USA. Elias Lopez (Jesuit Refugee Service) gave an impressive testimony of his life in a community of Hospitality for Sub-Saharan Migrants in Madrid. Graziano Battistella (Scalabrini Migration Center, Philippines) introduced the perspective from a context of an emigration country, disrupting the one-sided focus of Western ethicists to the countries who are on the receiving side.

From Reflection to Action

In the final panel discussion we turned to the question ‘What can the Church in Europe do?’, with the following contributing voices: Steven Vanackere (former Vice-Prime Minister, Belgium), Shannon Pfohman (Head Advocacy Caritas Europe),  Anne Dussart (Caritas International), Paul Lansu (Pax Christi International) and Linda Jones (Cafod, UK). Sociologist Asuncion Fresnoza-Flot (Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve) gave a remarkable synthesis of the seminar. We hope to share some of the contributions in printed form in a special issue of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought.


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