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St. Thomas Aquinas on Immigration and Xenophobia
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-08-24 12:38:58
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One of the most glaring fallacies of modernity and progressivism nowadays, is to think that the ancients and the scholastics had precious little to say, and consequently little to teach us, on contemporary problems. Those problems are considered too intractable and complex to be managed by ancient or old political-philosophical theories devised for more simplistic times. One such pressing contemporary problem is that of immigration, xenophobia, and refugee status which the EU is undergoing as we speak. In many ways, the issue of immigration has divided the continent, emphasizing its centrifugal political forces and putting into jeopardy the very harmony and union which had previously been considered a beacon of hope for a fractured world.


Indeed, xenophobia and racism seems to have raised their ugly head once again in Europe. Some ominously talk of the lights being turned off as in 1939. The irony is that the present crisis began in tandem with economic globalization presenting itself as the harbinger of universal peace and prosperity. Rather than resulting in greater unity and justice among European nations, it seems to have exacerbated its  centrifugal forces, resurrected ancient grudges, and further split people by increasing the gap between the rich and the destitute. This has indeed become a “global” problem and will affect everybody, not excluding the rich and comfortable who continue to ignore the problem. In Ethics the problem goes by the name of distributive justice. Indeed, when no justice exists in the land, peace begins to appear as an impossible dream.


The question arises: what might the foremost doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, a medieval man, have to say on the subject of immigration. As in many other subjects found in his master-work, the Summa Theologica which practically covers everything human and divine, what he said way back in the 13th century, still applies quite well to today’s EU immigrant and refugee crisis. Even non-believers, have to honestly admit that, at the very least, his proposals as stated in the Summa on many temporal political juridical matters are never repugnant to reason and common sense; that in fact, they usually help in arriving at reasonable  peaceful cultural-political solutions. This is something that the founding fathers of the EU were well aware of, and today’s politicians hardly remember, if at all.

Let us briefly examine this issue in the light of Aquinas’ Summa. In the first place we notice that Aquinas built his Summa’s rational side on Aristotle’s political-ethical foundations. He agrees with Aristotle that the very purpose of a State is to assure the common good and domestic tranquillity and most importantly, assure the peace, even when a defensive war may need to be engaged in. The intention and final aim, even in a war, must always be peace, not wanton destruction.


If we go search in the Summa’s second part of the first part of question 105, article 3, we find there a detailed analysis of the issue of immigration based on philosophical and biblical insights masterfully harmonized and quite applicable to present day circumstances. There Aquinas declares that “Man’s relations with foreigners are twofold: peaceful, and hostile: and in directing both kinds of relation the Law contains suitable precepts.” In making this affirmation, Saint Thomas affirms that not all immigrants are equal. Every nation has the right to decide which immigrants are beneficial, that is, “peaceful,” to the common good. As a matter of self-defence, the State can reject those criminal elements, traitors, enemies and others who it deems harmful or “hostile” to its citizens. The second thing he affirms is that the manner of dealing with immigration is determined by law in the cases of both beneficial and “hostile” immigration. The State has the right and duty to apply its law.


Aquinas goes on: “For the Jews were offered three opportunities of peaceful relations with foreigners. First, when foreigners passed through their land as travellers. Secondly, when they came to dwell in their land as newcomers. And in both these respects the Law made kind provision in its precepts: for it is written (Exodus 22:21): ’Thou shalt not molest a stranger.” Here Saint Thomas acknowledges the fact that others will want to come to visit or even stay in the land for some time. Such foreigners deserved to be treated with charity, respect and courtesy, which is due to any human of good will. In these cases, the law can and should protect foreigners from being badly treated or molested.


Then Aquinas quotes Aristotle directly in outlining the process by which an immigrant was integrated to his new society and became a citizen. It usually took two or three generations: “Thirdly, when any foreigners wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship and mode of worship. With regard to these a certain order was observed. For they were not at once admitted to citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 1).”

Aquinas recognizes that there will be those who will want to stay and become citizens of the lands they visit. However, without setting up any time parameters for such assimilation to occur, he sets as the first condition for acceptance a desire to integrate fully into what would today be considered the culture and life of the nation. A second condition is that the granting of citizenship would not be immediate. The integration process takes time. People need to adapt themselves to the nation. Notice too that Aquinas nowhere says that people should simply ignore and forget the old culture from which they ail. He talks about integration and enrichment of the existing culture; what today we would define as multiculturalism.


Aquinas then gives the reason for the long waiting time: “...if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.” This seems to be common sense even today.  The philosopher notes that living in a nation is a complex thing. It takes time to know the issues affecting the nation. Those familiar with the long history of their nation are in the best position to make the long-term decisions about its future. It is harmful and unjust to put the future of a place in the hands of those recently arrived, who, although through no fault of their own, have little idea of what is happening or has happened in the nation. Such a policy could lead to the destruction of the nation. As an illustration of this point, Aquinas later notes that the Jewish people did not treat all nations equally since those nations closer to them were more quickly integrated into the population than those who were not as close. Some hostile peoples were not to be admitted at all into full fellowship due to their enmity toward the Jewish people.

Aquinas goes on:  “Nevertheless it was possible by dispensation for a man to be admitted to citizenship on account of some act of virtue: thus it is related (Judith 14:6) that Achior, the captain of the children of Ammon, ‘was joined to the people of Israel, with all the succession of his kindred.’” That is to say, the rules are not rigid. There are exceptions that are granted based on the circumstances. However, such exceptions were not arbitrary but always had in mind the common good. The example of Achior describes the citizenship bestowed upon the captain and his children for the good services rendered to the nation. These are some of the thoughts of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the matter of immigration based on biblical principles. It is clear that immigration must have two things in mind: the first is the nation’s unity; and the second is the common good.

Immigration should have as its goal integration, not disintegration or segregation. The immigrant should not only desire to assume the benefits but the responsibilities of joining into the full fellowship of the nation. By becoming a citizen, a person becomes part of a broad family over the long term and not a shareholder in a joint stock company seeking only short-term self-interest. Secondly, Saint Thomas teaches that immigration must have in mind the common good; it cannot destroy or overwhelm a nation.


Indeed, most societies experience uneasiness caused by massive and disproportional immigration. An indiscriminate introduction of masses of alien people introduces a situation that destroys common points of unity and overwhelms the ability of a society to absorb new elements organically into a unified culture. The common good tends to suffer and is no longer considered. On the other hand, a proportional immigration has always been a healthy development in a society since it injects new life and qualities into a social body. The nation must practice justice and charity towards all, including foreigners, and refugees, but it must above all safeguard the common good and its unity, without which no country can long endure.


Also worth mentioning here, even if already implied in Aquinas guidelines, is that for any polity to preserve its unity and the idea of the common good it must first know itself, that is to say, it must know its cultural roots and identity (“know thyself” as Socrates enjoined which applies to communities too) which functions as a sort of cultural glue guaranteing its unity; and then it must know what the good is. The good is always conceived by the ancients in a harmonious relation to the True and the Beautiful. Perhaps, were we to know our own history, heritage and cultural identity a bit better, on both sides of the Atlantic, we would experience far less difficulties in solving our seemingly intractable problems of immigration and refugee status.



Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!

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