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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 111, December 2009




Co-operation Between Church

and Civil Institutions for the Well-being

of Migrants and Refugees 


                       Dr. John M. Klink 

President of the International Catholic Migration Commission - ICMC


Your Beatitude, Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Monsignors, Fathers, Sisters, my Brothers and Sisters in Christ:  


I would like to thank Your Excellencies Archbishop Vegliò and Archbishop Marchetto for their kind invitation to address you today on this topic which we know to be vitally important given the global nature of migration concerns and the requisite need for the widest possible involvement of the Church with civil institutions to effectively respond to those needs to promote a Culture of Welcome and Protection. 

Historical Background

It is important to note at the outset that the Church’s interaction with civil society ever since the collapse of the Roman Empire is a relationship and process of responsibility-sharing. While initially this included the establishment of monasteries, hospitals, schools and universities, in a host of countries, the Church continued its humanitarian services to the extent that in the “New World” of the Americas it became the largest private social service provider – a remarkable achievement by any standard.

And as we all know, it was not always smooth sailing as subsequent persecutions and historical challenges bear witness. The changing nature of the Church’s relationship with civil institutions can be seen in some of the new challenges which it faces wherein the Church’s humanitarian work has become the subject of scrutiny by those who would deny inter alia, the Church’s right to refuse to provide services that are contrary to its teachings, or its right to provide humanitarian assistance to particularly marginalized people. And so, one must ask, in the context of this history and current challenges, what is the most effective means for the Church to continue and intensify its cooperation with civil institutions for the benefit of all mankind, and specifically of migrants and refugees?

Part of the answer lies in the firm support that the Holy See has given for the establishment and strengthening of civil institutions, including the establishment and enhancement of the role of the United Nations, as well as countless international and non-governmental organizations. In the Church’s vision, it is never the Church institutions vs. Civil institutions, but rather, it is a process of broad pastoral engagement wherein it is recognized that just as no one is a stranger to the Church, the Church should not be a stranger to civil institutions, since she embraces “every nation, race, people and tongue.” [Rev. 5:9]

Caritas in Veritate

This embracing vision of engagement is seen most recently in His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate that elaborates further the Church’s teaching on integral human development teaching that is so profoundly interrelated with the phenomenon of migration. For the right of people to enjoy the fruits of their labors and remain in the land of their birth is often eroded and superseded when, due to lack of opportunities of economic, social, cultural and human dimensions at home, they must seek opportunity in other lands. Indeed, forty-one years after Populorum Progressio, Pope Benedict reminds us how important work in the political arena is, and how every responsibility spelled out by social doctrine is derived from charity. He notes that every Christian is invited to practice charity within the pólis, or, in other words, act within the political field.  

Contributions of Holy See at the UN

As we know, due precisely to her history, and unlike any other religion, the Catholic Church, through the Holy See, enjoys particular access to the political field through its diplomatic relations with some 177 States. Additionally, through its Permanent Observer Missions to the United Nations in New York and Geneva and to international organizations such as the European Community, the Organization of American States and the African Union, the Church has an invaluable seat at the most international of tables where a plethora of international policies are born, debated and promulgated. Thus, for the purposes of our review, it may be illuminating to briefly examine some specific contributions made in recent years by the Holy See at the UN, and then some examples of parallel advocacy by Catholic non-government organizations, working in partnership with the Holy See quite intentionally in relation to civil institutions. These are intended as cases in point where the Church can and does fulfill its role of pastoral engagement by effectuating both indirectly as well as directly, positive changes for all people, and including specifically for migrants, refugees and trafficked persons.

It is relevant to note that the Holy See’s choice of Observer Status at the United Nations accurately reflects its purpose since its witness is not for the purpose of economic or political self-interest or politics, but rather as part of its global pastoral engagement at the epicenter of the world’s crossroads.

And as I mentioned previously, this engagement is not without its challenges. As the Holy Father clearly points out, the we must be wary of the dangers of a utilitarian view of man - of a world vision that lacks True Charity. Caritas in Veritate reminds us of the words of Paul VI in Populorum Progressio: “All social action involves a doctrine”. [30] Paul VI “had seen clearly that among the causes of underdevelopment there is a lack of wisdom and reflection, a lack of thinking capable of formulating a guiding synthesis, for which a clear vision of all economic, social, cultural and spiritual aspects is required.” [31] “It is here, above all,” writes Benedict XVI, “that the Church’s social doctrine displays its dimension of wisdom,” so important to combat “excessive segmentation of knowledge,” [31] worldviews and application. Through its formal interventions at the UN the Holy See often acts as a voice for the voiceless, and defends against temptations by the UN and others to segment and wander from a unitive vision which holds the defense of human dignity as the bedrock of all socio-economic development and of all universal human rights. 

UN World Conferences

Beginning in 1990 the UN began its sponsorship of a series of World Conferences on a wide variety of development topics starting with the World Summit for Children, and ranging through the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the infamous Population Conference in Cairo, the Beijing Women’s Conference, the Habitat Conference in Istanbul and on and on. Key to these conferences was the participation of the highest government officials – very often with representation at the level of head of government or head of state. Thus, the delegation of the Holy See was often headed by the Cardinal Secretary of State. I was privileged to participate in the negotiations of these conferences throughout my 16 years as an Advisor to H.E. Cardinal Martino in his then-capacity as Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN Headquarters in New York.

Unlike its normal observer role at the UN, during world conferences the Holy See acts as a full member of the Conference with rights equivalent to those of say Russia or the United States. The negotiations themselves lead to the adoption by consensus of a summary document of the Conference. And while these documents are not legally binding per se, they are nevertheless used increasingly to bring often undue influence to bear on individual countries – especially poorer states – to conform their own national legal framework with the accords reached. Partial or complete changes of socio-economic/moral positions – again what Paul VI called “doctrine” – can thus have enormous global consequences. Given the potential stakes at hand, negotiations tend at times to be highly contentious.

Some of the Holy See’s greatest influence in these processes can be seen on issues that are considered to be part of the most basic “doctrine” of the UN. A prime example of how the Church engages with civil institutions on other matters that affect migrants and refugees also – has been the contribution made by the Holy See at the string of world conferences beginning with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

As one might expect, while the preponderance of the language of the Rio conference’s draft document related specifically to ecological concepts, initial drafts of the document’s “Principles” section used language that veered ominously towards a singular focus on states and governments as the subject of interest and action. After careful consideration, the Holy See began proposing language which replaced states and governments with “human beings” as the subject of attention.

Thanks to the presence of the Holy See at the meeting and its continued insistence, the first Principle of the Summit became the following simple, but fundamentally important sentences: “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.” Further, once established at this Summit, this anthropomorphic basis for sustainable development was able to be brought forward to world conference after world conference and affirmed as the first or second principle for each of their own documents.

Indeed, two years later in the Cairo Programme of Action, the same principle not only appears but is further enhanced: People are the most important and valuable resource of any nation. Countries should ensure that all individuals are given the opportunity to make the most of their potential. They have the right to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing, housing, water and sanitation.” [Principle 2] While other aspects of the Cairo document were of sufficient concern to the Holy See to write and record a fulsome Statement of Interpretation, this principle was sufficient some five years later, at the so-called Cairo Plus Five Conference – held at the time of the Kosovo Crisis, to protect the right of refugees to food, clothing and shelter as basic rights for which a large group of donor countries were refusing to commit resources. The Holy See was able to convince these countries that this principle of basic necessities for human existence must not be abrogated and that further commitments to refugees’ needs must be made. 

Non Governmental Organizations

Continuing with the example of the Cairo conferences, even as the Holy See’s presence at those negotiating tables was invaluable, so too was the work of various non-governmental organizations responding to the rallying cry from Pope John Paul II alerting the world at large to the enormity of the risks at hand in the event that the conference documents (and those of other important UN processes) were allowed to stand as initially drafted. So great was his concern that he sent an unprecedented personal letter to each Head of State outlining his anxiety.

While the reaction amongst the states varied, what further occurred was a sea change: suddenly the UN was inundated with requests by pro-Catholic, pro-life and pro-family NGOs for credentials. The change even in the decorum of the proceedings was palpable due to two conspicuous dynamics: first, the mere presence of larger numbers of “witnesses” to the negotiations, which in turn translated into media reports back to the individual countries; and second, a far greater scrutiny by individual governments’ constituents of the actions being taken by their representatives. Further, the importance of various issues was continually brought to the attention of the delegates through the lobbying efforts of the individual NGOs. The effectiveness of the collective efforts was inspiring.

Ironically, while States of the developed world in general had previously been extraordinarily strong advocates of the active presence of NGOs – even at times suggesting that they participate almost as the equivalent of states – several conferences later, at the time of the negotiations for the foundation of the International Criminal Court in 1998, the same States seemed alarmed at the preponderance of pro-Catholic/pro-life NGOs and began to seek to limit their access to the previously transparent process. Interestingly, many of these same Western States who evince strong support for NGOs in general, and in their active participation for particular issues with which they are in agreement, have shown themselves to be just as cool to the participation of NGOs at some of the newer global processes focused on migration issues.

Other basic issues missing from UN documents prior to the interventions of the Holy See were, for instance, a document on housing which failed to have a single mention of the word “family”, and a conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth which failed to mention either “parents” or “marriage”.  It needs to be noted that these were not simply matters that were inadvertently overlooked –rather they became the subject of extraordinarily heated battles wherein time and time again procedural maneuvers were used to seek to preclude the Holy See and its allies from inserting these basic concepts in the documents at hand. Obviously the importance of the “habit” of including these human fundamentals in international documents is imperative to the success of the Church’s efforts on migration matters as well, aimed for instance, at family reunification and the protection of unaccompanied children (“again all social action involves a doctrine”).

Interestingly, while the official policies of some of the governments were in complete opposition to the Holy See’s efforts, the Holy See delegates were repeatedly approached by individual delegates of many of these same countries expressing their personal gratitude for the Holy See’s labors. In this regard, the importance of the presence of Catholic or other like-minded persons in positions of influence should not be underestimated. Much like the presence of like-minded NGOs, the presence of a like-minded ambassador, delegate, or functionary can have an enormous impact on the needed sensitivity towards human rights including migrants/refugee/trafficked persons’ rights.  It is thus important for young Catholics should thus be encouraged not only to join migration related NGOs, or found them if needed, but to seek to share their talents with UN organizations, International Organizations and governments.      

The International Catholic Migration Commission

A concrete historical support by the Holy See for civil institutions, international organizations and Catholic NGOs focused on migrants and refugees can be seen in the creation of ICMC, the International Catholic Migration Commission which I am honored to head. Erected by Pope Pius XII in 1951, ICMC is a Catholic International Organization whose membership is formed of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences. Wisely situating it in Geneva, Pius XII wanted to emphasize the importance he attached to being at the international round table of refugee matters.

Since its founding, ICMC, together with various partners such as Migration and Refugee Services USCCB has not only resettled over a million refugees in the United States alone, but continues to have a direct presence in over 40 countries and specific field operations in 7, where it focuses on the needs of the most vulnerable amongst refugees, migrants and other displaced persons – particularly, at the moment, Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey The greater part of these operations – a most concrete example of cooperation between Church institutions and civil institutions, totaling some $22 million worth this past year – have been funded through contracts with government and intergovernmental organizations, principally the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

ICMC is a specific institution link between the Holy See and the civil institutions where migration issues are concerned, reporting both to the Second Section of the Secretariat of State and to this Pontifical Council. ICMC serves as a dynamic link in developing expertise to serve both the Church and civil institutions. As Pope Pius and his Pro Secretary of State, the future Pope Paul VI intended, and as Pope Benedict has again called for, ICMC participates in the Church’s broad pastoral engagement through political interaction that is grounded in Catholic social doctrine: it asserts the profound dignity of each human being and their labour, regardless of their migratory status; it asserts the inalienability of the human rights of migrants, refugees and trafficked persons, as well as their reciprocal duties; it asserts the central role and value of family unity; and it asserts the principles of solidarity and the common good in all contexts of displacement and migration. One of the rewarding challenges this past year has been for ICMC to be among those working to bring the Catholic-inspired international non-government organizations to one table around this shared social doctrine.

Indeed, rarely alone, ICMC works to fulfill its advocacy role in close cooperation with the Holy See, the Bishops Conferences, and other Catholic organizations as well as with civil institutions of both governmental and non-governmental natures, at international, regional and national levels.

As partial examples only, I would like to cite some instances of how ICMC and its various partners have advocated in the past, and continue to advocate, on migration with civil institutions at international levels:

  1. Through daily and often deep engagement with relevant governmental and intergovernmental bodies, in particular the UN High Commission for Refugees, together with the Bishops’ conferences, the Caritas and Jesuit Refugee Service networks and others, ICMC works with and for refugees all over the world to provide protection and durable solutions, including respect for the unity of refugee families pursuant to family protections added to the 1951 Refugee Convention at the insistence of the Holy See. This work entails daily and often deep engagement with relevant governmental and intergovernmental bodies, in particular the UN High Commission for Refugees.
  2. Pope John Paul II repeatedly exhorted States to ratify the UN Migrant Workers Convention, a call amplified in multiple global, regional and national fora by this Pontifical Council and by ICMC among others. Continuing this promotion with a spectrum of civil institutions of all kinds, ICMC was a founder and currently serves as co-chair of the International NGO Platform on the Migrant Workers Convention;
  3.  Picking up the Church’s unrelenting commitment to migrants who are especially vulnerable in circumstances of irregular migration, and witnessing the suffering of boat people who had crossed his diocese in Djibouti on the way to the ports and boats to Yemen, Bishop Giorgio Bertin prompted ICMC to launch an international campaign for standards of assistance and protection for the men, women and children injured or traumatised crossing dangerous borders. Addressed today in particular to the governments of Europe, that campaign has grown to involve UN and international bodies including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Federation of the Red Cross-Red Crescent and the International Organization for Migration.
  4.  As part of its leadership in social and ethical teaching, the Church has been a central actor in pushing migration to the top of the international political agenda, and building processes for related dialogue and policy development. Bishop Nicolas Di Marzio of Brooklyn, former Executive Director of Migration and Refugee Services USCCB and a long-time member of ICMC’s Governing Committee, for example, was one of 19 international commissioners on the Global Commission on International Migration, which published an acclaimed report in 2005 that paved the way for unprecedented international discussion on migration, both within and outside of the UN system. The Holy See, largely through this Pontifical Council, ICMC, and a number of Catholic organisations have actively participated in one such process, the Global Forum on Migration and Development, along with high level representatives of some 165 governments, numerous international and non-government organisations and leading members of academia and the private sector. In fact last week Archbishop Marchetto headed the Holy See Delegation to this Forum in Greece.

A conclusion that can be drawn even from these limited examples is that what is discussed at international fora in New York or Geneva or anywhere else today can have an extraordinary impact on migrants, refugees and trafficked persons in each country of the world. The converse is also of manifest importance: what is happening to migrants and displaced persons in each country needs to be highlighted at international fora through Church organizations such as ICMC. This can be seen to be directly in line with the reality point out in Caritas in Veritate that “No country can be expected to address today’s problems of migration by itself.” [Para 62]

Clearly with the ferocious pace at which globalization, or what Caritas in Veritate describes as the “explosion of worldwide interdependence” [33], is currently evolving, the challenges for the Church as well as the civil institutions involved with migrants, refugees and trafficked persons become greater and greater. For its part, since inception, the Church has attempted to respond creatively to each new challenge as it continues its role of broad pastoral engagement and responsibility-sharing with civil institutions at each turn in the road. In order to do so effectively as regards migration issues, it needs to utilize all of the means at its disposal, and to do so in as unified a manner as is possible. Indeed, as Pope Benedict states, “The development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side.” [53] This implies a political involvement on the part of all segments of the Church, from the Holy Father’s statements, to the Secretariat of State, to this Pontifical Council, to the Holy See’s work at the United Nations, the bishops’ conferences and nuncios with their respective governments, to NGOs who can provide migration services and/or advocacy, to the faithful, to together build a Culture of Welcome and Protection parallel to the Culture of Life continually advocated by John Paul II.

It is fittings to conclude with the words of Erga migrantes caritas Christi: “Migration brings together the manifold components of the human family and thus leads to the construction of an ever vaster and more varied society, almost a prolongation of that meeting of peoples and ethnic groups that, through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, become ecclesial fraternity.” [12]

In that spirit of fraternity, let all of us as Church rededicate ourselves to challenge and accompany those civil institutions who would seek to assist refugees and migrants and trafficked persons, coming together, in the words of Caritas in Veritate, in “a collaborative effort in the service of humanity.” [31] – a collaborative effort that must be based on an unqualified respect for the human person and the likeness of Christ that we find in the stranger whom we are called to welcome and protect.