Last month, the Nothing More Beautiful presenters at the basilica spoke a powerful social justice message. One quote from Lesley-Anne Knight, the secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis, struck a special chord with me.
She said: "I am sometimes asked why, as a Catholic organization, we (Caritas) deliver aid to people of other faiths, Muslims and Buddhists. My answer is always that we help people not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholics." Interestingly, this is the quote that was chosen for the highlight summaries of that evening in the weekly archdiocesan electronic newsletter.
In my experience, this is very much the spirit behind Catholic social outreach to poor women and men in Edmonton. I have never heard of a local situation where a person in need is asked "Are you Catholic?" as a qualification for being offered needed food, clothing or shelter.
Recently, I heard this same issue raised at a workshop that the Office for Social Justice helped organize on the issue of refugees and parish refugee sponsorships.
We heard about the world refugee crisis where over 175 million men, women and children are displaced from their homelands. We also heard about the present desperate situation of Iraqi refugees, where hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee for their lives from their home country. A significant number of these Iraqi refugees are Christians.
We learned about the federal private refugee sponsorship program. Over the 30 years of this program, we heard how Catholic parishes across Canada have supported tens of thousands of refugees of different faiths settling into local communities escaping the threats of persecution and death.
A representative from an Edmonton area parish sponsorship committee told the heart-warming story of how his parish recently sponsored a Muslim refugee family, and how this had been a challenging, but rewarding experience for the members of his parish committee.
At one point in this workshop, the question was asked about whether future Catholic parish refugee sponsorships should be confined to Christian refugees because of desperate plight of Iraqi Christians.
This is a difficult question. Catholic social teaching (CST) can help provide some guidance. CST sees the right to migrate as a basic human right. Human rights in Catholic theology are rooted in respect for the dignity of each and every human person created in the image and likeness of God. These human rights are universal, not limited to one gender, ethnic or religious group.
The Canadian bishops, in their 2006 Pastoral Letter on Immigration and the Protection of Refugees put it this way: "Based on the principle of the fundamental dignity of each human person and the consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church is uncompromising on the rights of refugees."
Catholics around the world, sharing a common Baptism and celebrating at the same Eucharistic table, share a strong common bond and solidarity with each other. Mutual assistance among Catholics and within the broader Christian community has a long history.
Think of the Knights of Columbus which started as a mutual aid society for working class men and their families. Certainly it is right for Canadian Catholics to reach out to their fellow Catholics at this time of desperate need.
However, I wonder if something fundamental about our Catholic faith risks being lost if we only reach out to our own to the exclusion of others in equally desperate need. What are we saying about our "catholicity," and our living as witnesses to the universality of God's saving love?
The parish refugee sponsorship issue provides a most difficult test case for Christian charity, especially compared to the example I started with of providing emergency food to those who are hungry in Edmonton. The demand for parish sponsorships is great. The supply is limited. Most parishes can sponsor only one family every year or two.
Reaching out to our brother and sister Christians in need is a sign of the strength of our global Christian community. Respecting the fundamental dignity of all human beings, especially those who appear different and even threatening to us, is to live as a powerful witness of the universal saving love of the God we worship and love. This should not be a question of "either-or"; rather it must manifest a commitment to a Catholic "both-and."
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)