It was just before Christmas and Fr. Rivers Patout wouldn't take nyet for an answer. As a chaplain to Houston's Apostleship of the Sea, he wanted to tend to the spiritual needs of the crew on a Russian ship that had just floated in to the Houston Ship Channel. Fr. Patout had Christmas gifts to hand out, but the captain would not let the good priest on the ship. "We have nothing to give," the captain said. "You have vodka, don't you," Fr. Patout asked. After a few drinks together, the captain finally allowed Fr. Patout aboard.
The Archdiocese of Houston's Daniel Cardinal DiNardo likes that story. He thinks it illustrates how determined his priests are to alleviate the plight of seafarers and migrants. He says he's no less motivated about the issue. Earlier this week, I sat down with the newly elected Vice President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for a brief chat after he spoke to DePaul University's Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology. We jumped right into discussing a bishop's authority, immigration, and the so-called Pope Francis effect.
RealClearReligion: Is it beyond a bishop's competency to offer specific policy prescriptions on matters like immigration reform?
Daniel DiNardo: I would distinguish some issues from others. The bishops have been involved with knowledgeable people who come to us, for instance, on immigration reform. Bishops in Texas have had to deal with this issue for 35 or 40 years. When we deal with this, it's certainly a prudential judgment, but there is the human person at the source of this. The abuse of immigrants is well documented.
As Pope Francis has said, to truly understand something, you sometimes have to be with the people. I've always tried to say something balanced, but obviously pushing in favor of the immigrant. Is that a prudential judgment in terms of the politics of it? Sure. But the moral estimation of it all is too significant for me to be silent.
RCR: Do you think the recent Mass at the border politicized the Mass?
DD: The Mass at the border has been a constant fixture at one of those towns across the border for the past six or seven years. I don't think it's overly politicized because if they just celebrate the Mass, it's a sign in and of itself. I would not favor a homily that became too political. I would favor a homily that speaks about the human person and how the stranger, the immigrant is to be loved.
You have to be cautious in a homily when you ask for a specific action. Every now and then, in my column I might ask for a specific action. I've done this on a pro-life issue. And I might do it on an immigration issue. Before we do that, we have to think: What is the possibility of winning? But, I would remind myself and others that these are prudential judgments. Our judgments do carry a little weight, I would say that much.
RCR: Was Sean Cardinal O'Malley right when he said that immigration is "another pro-life issue"?
DD: Yes, I think it's a pro-life issue because it deals with the human person. We have to make distinctions. Pro-life issues are relative to the beginnings and ends of life. These are the two pillars that are critical, but it doesn't mean that we can't speak about some of the other pro-life issues in between.
RCR: Do you believe borders have a moral meaning?
DD: I don't know if I quite understand that, but in some fashion borders can be a moral issue in terms of how they're handled. Rule of law is important. We have a right to protect our borders, but we don't have a right to do it in such a way that human beings are treated badly. I have a problem with the idea of a wall. You know they want to build a 10-foot wall? You'll find ladders that are 15 feet tall. Walls will not keep immigrants out!
RCR: Have you seen any evidence of the so-called Pope Francis effect?
DD: Everybody comes up to me and tells me, "He's wonderful!" That's Catholics and Protestants. That effect I do see. To what effect he's affecting the people's practice of the faith? That's more difficult to say.