Archbishop Marchetto's San Diego University Address

«Migration Is One of the Signs of Our Times»

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SAN DIEGO, California, JAN. 27, 2009 ( Here is the address Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, gave today at San Diego University. The address was titled «Religion, Migration and National Identity.»

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Migration is one of the signs of our times, a dramatic sign of our troubled times. It is a vast phenomenon that some institutions and governments would like to control, even stop, until they realize that it is a structural component of present-day society’s socio-economic and political reality (See «Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi» — henceforth, EMCC — No. 8). It is therefore useless to try to eliminate the phenomenon, but look at it in the face and concentrate all efforts in responding to the challenges that it presents and identifying the benefits that it could bring. Migration — Pope Benedict said — is not only a problem but also an opportunity, a challenge.

Migrants’ identity

When people migrate, they carry with them not only their capacity to work and produce, but also their personal characteristics, traits, education, convictions, social conventions, customs, traditions, beliefs, religion, and that is, all those stable and enduring elements, as well as those changing and contingent features that mark a culture, their culture.  

People are characterized by the culture in which they are born and brought up, through their family and the social groups around them, through the education they receive and the various types of influence they get from their milieu, and even through the relationship that they have with the environment in which they live. A human being’s personality, especially at the initial stages of life, is structured by his/her own culture. Based on this profound bond with their own roots — at the level of the family, territory, society and culture — people acquire a sense of their nationality, too, and culture takes on a national configuration, providing people with a national identity (cf. Pontifical Message, World Day of Peace — henceforth WDP — 2001, Nos. 5-6).

Obviously, when people leave their motherland and cross the frontier of another country, they come in contact with another nation, other people who have grown up in a different environment, received a different kind of education, are used to different social conventions, even speak a different language and eat a different kind of food. The contrast could be disorienting, especially because the migrant would see himself/herself different from the majority. It is for this reason that the Catholic Church has been emphasizing the need to prepare people for migration, through pre-migration programmes of formation and instruction, so that they would be in the position to cope with such a situation (cf. EMCC, Juridical Pastoral Regulations, art. 18, par. 1).

Migrant and host society

Thrown into a new environment, the migrant’s reaction could be a «powerful re-emergence of a certain ethnic and cultural consciousness, as it were an explosive need for identity and survival» (John Paul II, Address to the 50th General Assembly of the United Nations Organization, 5 October 1995, No. 7). Migrants become «more aware of who they are, especially when they miss the persons and values that are important to them» (Pontifical Message, World Day for Migrants and Refugees — henceforth WDMR — 2005, No. 2). They therefore generally look for company and security in those who come from their own nation and culture. In this case, if they do not slowly open up to the life and culture of the host society, but reject instead the other cultures which, they believe, endanger their own identity, they could adopt an attitude of closure, leading to the formation of ghettos with their co-nationals and, unfortunately, to their marginalization.

The opposite extreme is «the slavish conformity of cultures, or at least of key aspects of them» (WDP 2001, No. 9), adopting the local cultural model without in the least attempting to evaluate its consequences on the way they conduct their own lives. In this case, the assimilation of migrants takes place. Having neglected or unconsciously suppressed their own cultural identity, they become almost a «copy» of the local residents, depriving the host society of the enriching contribution that their culture could have given to it. Certainly it is important for the migrant to take «the necessary steps towards social inclusion, such as learning the national language [of the host country] and complying with the laws and requirements at work, so as to avoid the occurrence of exasperated differentiation» (WDMR 2005, No. 1). However, this must be done with due respect for his/her own cultural heritage, without forgetting or discarding it.

What, then, is the proper relationship between migrants and host population? The way to take — suggested Pope John Paul II — is the path of genuine integration, with an open outlook that refuses to consider solely the differences between immigrants and the local people (WDMR 2005, No. 2), but is rather open to the others «in order to welcome their valid aspects» and thus «shape societies and cultures, making them more and more a reflection of the multi-faceted gifts of God to human beings» (WDMR 2005, No. 1). «Different cultural identities are thus to open up to a universal … understanding, not abandoning their own positive elements but putting them at the service of the whole of humanity» (EMCC, No. 34).

Intercultural Integration

Of course, integration is a lengthy, but not a one-way, process. It is the responsibility not only of the immigrant but also of the host society, which would discover the «secret» of the other through contact with him/her (cf. WDMR 2005). Both sides must be willing to go through this process, since dialogue is the engine of integration (See Extracts from the various Documents of our Pontifical Council published in «People on the Move», No. 96, December 2004, pp. 37-51). True integration takes place when interaction between immigrants and host population comes about, not only at the socio-economic, but also at the cultural level, in an «atmosphere of ‘civic reasonableness’ that permits friendly and serene coexistence» (WDMR 2005, No. 3). When recognition is given to the immigrant’s positive contribution to the host society, through his culture and his talents, the immigrant himself would become better-motivated to find a high degree of interaction with the local population. This would then lead to a healthy intercultural integration.    

As Pope John Paul II stated in his last Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2005), there is a need «for a dialogue between people of different cultures that goes beyond mere tolerance and reaches sympathy. A simple juxtaposition of groups of migrants and locals tends to encourage a reciprocal closure between cultures, or the establishment, among them, of relations that are merely superficial or tolerant. We should encourage instead a mutual fecundation of cultures. This implies reciprocal knowledge and openness between cultures, in a context of true understanding and benevolence» (No. 3).

Dialogue protects the distinctiveness of cultures and sustains understanding and communion with each other (cf. WDP 2001, No. 10). The result is a mutual enrichment of cultures and society is transformed into a mosaic where every culture has its place in composing one single design, which becomes more beautiful as the multiplicity of cultures increases, according to the primordial design of the unity of the human race (cf. WDP 2001, No. 7).  

Certainly, «it is not easy to specify in detail how best to guarantee, in a balanced and equitable way, the rights and duties of those who welcome and those who are welcomed. Historically, migrations have occurred in all sorts of ways and with very different results. In … many civilizations, immigration has brought new growth and enrichment. In other cases, the local people a
nd immigrants have remained culturally separate but have shown that they are able to live together, respecting each other and accepting or tolerating the diversity of customs. Regrettably, situations still exist in which the difficulties involved in the encounter of different cultures have never been resolved, and the consequent tensions have become the cause of periodic outbreaks of conflict» (WDP 2001, No. 12).

However, we would find a recommendation of the Council of Europe helpful in this regard: «Integration policies should have the dual aim of providing immigrants with the means to function in the society where they live and develop their potential while preserving their cultural and ethnic identity, and familiarizing the non-immigrant population with the rights of immigrants, their culture, traditions and needs. … Member states should highlight the value of cultural, social and religious differences, but under no circumstances should it be possible to justify violations of human rights on the grounds of cultural tradition or religion. The respect for cultural and religious differences must rest on the respect for human rights by all those who live in a country, immigrants and non-immigrants» (Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1625 [2003]1).

Respect for immigrants

It is therefore «important to remember the principle that immigrants must always be treated with the respect due to the dignity of every human person. In the matter of controlling the influx of immigrants, the consideration which should rightly be given to the common good in a given State should not ignore the principle of the universal common good. The challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life» (WDP 2001, No. 13).

Moreover, «the cultural practices which immigrants bring with them should be respected and accepted, as long as they do not contravene either the universal ethical values inherent in the natural law or fundamental human rights» (WDP 2001, No. 13). In fact, «openness to different cultural identities does not, however, mean accepting them all indiscriminately» (EMCC, No. 30), although they are to be respected — because they are inherent in people — and, if possible, appreciated in their diversity (cf. EMCC, No. 30).

Regarding particular customs in the immigrants’ culture, «which may not be readily compatible with the customs of the majority of citizens», it would be important to have «a spirit of openness that, without yielding to indifferentism about values, can combine the concern for identity with the willingness to engage in dialogue» In other words, it is necessary «to ensure a certain ‘cultural equilibrium’ in each region, with reference to the culture which has prevalently marked its development [which], … even while welcoming minorities and respecting their basic rights, would allow the continued existence and development of a particular ‘cultural profile’, … [taken to mean] that basic heritage of language, traditions and values which are inextricably part of a nation’s history and its national identity» (WDP 2001, No. 14).

Indeed, «in the dialogue between cultures, no side can be prevented from proposing to the other the values in which it believes, as long as this is done in a way that is respectful of people’s freedom and conscience» (WDP 2001, No. 15).

Culture and Religion

Obviously, there is a strong link between culture and religion, as can be observed from the fact that for some religions, cultural and religious identity even coincide. Concretely, international migration has become a golden opportunity not only for dialogue between cultures, but also for inter-religious dialogue. Countries with ancient Christian roots are now home to multicultural societies. For example, Europe, marked by a long Christian tradition, has become a destination for people who profess other beliefs. North America, with its solid multicultural experience, hosts followers of new religious movements. On the other hand, India, where Hinduism prevails, has welcomed Catholic religious men and women who humbly offer useful service to the poorest in the country, in spite of the recent difficulties and persecution.
Right to Freedom of Religion

In his report dated 11 August 2008 (UN General Assembly Doc A/63/265), the UN Secretary General reiterated that the 132 Member States participating in the High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (New York, 14 and 15 September 2006) emphasized that international migration, a growing phenomenon, «could make a positive contribution to development in countries of origin and countries of destination provided it was supported by the right policies», and that «respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of all migrants was essential to reap the benefits of international migration» (No. 4). Among these rights is the right to freedom of religion. As article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: «Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.» If therefore society wants to benefit from international migration, then it must respect the freedom of migrants to profess, practice and even change their religion.

In line with a correct interpretation of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pope John Paul II affirmed that «sincere effort to dialogue presupposes, on one hand, the reciprocal acceptance of differences, and sometimes even of contradictions, and also a respect for the free decisions that people make according to their own conscience. It is therefore indispensable for each one, to whatever religion he may belong, to take into account the essential requirements of freedom of religion and of conscience» (WDMR 2002, No. 2).

As a Christian leader, John Paul II remarked, «I would like to express the wish that this kind of living together in solidarity may also take place in countries where the majority profess a religion different from Christianity, but where Christian immigrants live and where they unfortunately do not always enjoy a true freedom of religion and conscience» (ibid.).
In 1989, in fact, he wrote, «The right to religious freedom… applies to all religious communities, as well as to individuals, and includes the free manifestation of religious beliefs, both individually and collectively. Consequently, religious minorities must be able to worship as a community, according to their own rites. They must also be in a position to provide religious education through appropriate teaching programmes and to utilize the necessary means to this end» (WDP 1989, No. 8).
Furthermore, «it is very important that the State should effectively ensure and promote the observance of religious freedom, especially when, alongside the great majority who follow one religion, there exist one or more minority groups of another faith … Religious minorities must be guaranteed a legitimate freedom of exchange and contacts with other communities, both within and outside their own national borders» (ibid.).

At this point, the principle of reciprocity is worth mentioning. This principle «is to be understood not merely as an attitude for making claims but as a relationship based on mutual respect and on justice in juridical and religious matters. Reciprocity is also an attitude of heart and spirit that enables us to live together everywhere with equal rights and duties. Healthy reciprocity will urge each one to become an ‘advocate’ for the rights of minorities when his or her own religious community is in the majority.» (EMCC, No. 64).
«If , in the world of human mobility,» —  allow me to cite again Pope John Paul II  — «everyone would be animated by this sprit, almo
st as in a forge, there will arise providential possibilities of a fruitful dialogue wherein the centrality of the person will never be denied. This is the only way to nourish the hope ‘for warding off the dread spectre of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history’ and which have often forced many people to abandon their own countries. It is urgent to work so that the name of the one and only God may become what it is, ever more ‘a name of peace and a summons to peace’ (NMI 55)» (WDMR 2002, No. 2).


In his Message for this year’s World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that «we all share in a single divine plan: we are called to form one family» (No. 2). Pope John Paul II wisely suggested that «cultural diversity should therefore be understood within the broader horizon of the unity of the human race …  in the light of which the profound meaning of cultural diversity can be grasped. In fact, only an overall vision of both the elements of unity and the elements of diversity makes it possible to understand and interpret the full truth of every human culture» (WDP 2001, No. 7). We can therefore say that «plurality is a treasure, and dialogue is the as yet imperfect and ever evolving realization of that final unity to which humanity aspires and is called» (EMCC, 30).

Thank you.

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