More Than a Slogan

By John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe


“Did you say that pro-life activists who are also conservative Republicans don’t care about racism or justice or anything like that? You are so ignorant! Conservatives are always more generous giving money and time to help – to help in every way you can think of! Check the data any way you want to slice it!”

Whoo-ee. I hear the anger and frustration.

I’d like to explain something. It’s not a bumper sticker slogan: the explanation will take a little time.

The history of hospitality in the Bible and the Church for the past 3,000 years has five distinct phases. To understand why liberals and conservatives who are serious about helping their neighbors are at each other’s throats, it may help to look at the five stages.

  1. Old Testament: a national approach
  2. New Testament: a personal approach
  3. early Christian life (325 to ~1400): an ecclesial approach
  4. Reformation to 1891: era of excommunication, serving “us” not “them”
  5. Social Gospel: a global approach


I think that I can explain a huge part of the deep anger between good people, by reviewing attitudes in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Hospitality is an issue I understand; I think other issues follow the same pattern, but I don’t know that. So this is in part about immigration, but what I’m after is more general – making it easier for pro-lifers and social justice activists to understand each other.


There are five different approaches to welcoming strangers that are all in play today; and if you understand only one approach, or maybe two, then you may resent and resist the other three or four.


First: the Old Testament approach was national. The Law that Moses laid down included personal hands-on service, but it was national. Moses commanded: “Welcome strangers, because – remember! – you too once were a stranger in a strange land.” He asks us to recall a national memory, and draw inspiration and insight from it. I personally was not a slave in Egypt, nor were you; but “we” were. The nation of Israel was oppressed by the nation of Egypt, and God punished the nation of Egypt to save the nation of Israel. And later, when the nation of Israel abused strangers, God punished the nation of Israel by sending Israel into exile in the nation of Babylon.

One other example: the Book of Ruth. Her story is about hospitality, especially the welcome (and love) that one man named Boaz offered to one woman named Ruth. But remember her song: “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” National.

Second: New Testament approach is much more personal and individual. Jesus affirmed the teaching of Moses unequivocally, but applied the command to individuals, not the nation. The nation was under occupation, and asking the nation to act properly was meaningless. So when Jesus talks about welcoming strangers, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, one individual who helped one victim of one robbery. And when Jesus described the Last Judgment, his words can be read as applying to societies, but they seem to be personal – at least at first glance: “I was a stranger, and you (singular) welcomed me.”

Another example: look at St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, about freeing a slave. Some people insist that the letter is not applicable to the social evil of slavery, because Paul appealed to one slave-holder (Philemon) on behalf of one slave (Onesimus). I think that’s pernicious nonsense, and that the principles that Paul lays out (treat your brother as a brother) can be extended to society. But it is certainly true that the letter – and indeed the New Testament – deals with problems on an individual basis.

Third: the approach in the Patristic era and for centuries afterwards was ecclesial. The early Church built squarely and explicitly on Scripture, Old and New. However, the pattern of response to strangers was not the same as that of Moses nor of Jesus. The Church responded as a church. St. Jerome offers a clear example: he built a hostel attached to the monastery in Bethlehem. The hostel served pilgrims, obviously, but also served all visitors and guests and strangers.

Jerome was explicit and forceful about universal welcome, pointing to Virgil’s “Aeneid” to explain. He wrote: “I am forced to cry out against the inhumanity of this country. A hackneyed quotation best expresses my meaning:


     What savages are these who will not grant

A rest to strangers, even on their sands!

They threaten war and drive us from their coasts.

[Aeneid, Book I, 539-541]


Jerome continued: “I take this idea from a Gentile poet so that anyone who disregards the peace of Christ may at least learn its meaning from a heathen.” (The excerpt is from Jerome’s letter to the Presbyter Marcus, in Philip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.). Jerome’s hostel set a pattern for the Church. It was an institution built by the Church to serve those in need. St. Benedict adopted Jerome’s idea, and Benedict’s Rule makes hospitality central in monastic life: strangers are to be received as Christ.

St. Ambrose affirms the requirement to welcome strangers. It’s noteworthy that Ambrose writes about hospitality in a work devoted to the duties of the clergy – not the nation, and not every individual, but specifically the clergy.

Some centuries later, this pattern as still in place. St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that the precepts of Jesus, including the command to welcome strangers, are mandatory, and that a failure to obey these precepts is mortally sinful. But Aquinas made clear that some duties, including this one, are usually delegated – in this case, to a church-run hostel attached to a monastery. So the duty to welcome strangers can be fulfilled by supporting a monastery that welcomes strangers.

It’s immensely important to see and understand this third pattern of response to strangers! Many Christians today hold up the example of Jesus, and insist that we today should follow that example. What Christian wants to say no to that? But when you understand that Moses and Jesus and the Fathers all demanded, unequivocally and forcefully, that we welcome strangers – and then you also see that they responded in a variety of ways – then you can move ahead determined to get the job done, without being tied to a single model.

Fourth: during and after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, hospitality was often side-lined by a new emphasis on EX-communication. During the era of excommunication, there was a pattern of defensive retrenchment in our tradition that must be acknowledged and understood. In my view, it wasn’t a healthy response; it was a contraction, not a positive development. But good or bad, there was a period of several hundred years when the Church’s hospitality was different from the Old Testament pattern, different from the New Testament pattern, and different from the Patristic pattern. The Church turned inward, and focused on serving her own members – and often refused to serve others. Far from welcoming each other, Catholics and Protestants made war on each other. The command to welcome strangers shrank; the Church worked to shelter the homeless in our midst, but turned away from Protestant or Jewish or Muslim or other strangers. It was a time when excommunication was in vogue, and may have been more important that community in the thinking and practice of many people. For many Christians, the first and sometimes only service that we offered to non-Christians (or to non-Catholics) was proselytization.

The pattern of defensive suspicion rather than reflexive hospitality is perhaps among the greatest evils of the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In my view, the division in the Church damaged a great treasure in ways that we are still struggling to understand and reverse.

This is grossly over-simplified. Many great things happened during this period. But look at the teaching of a great hero of hospitality, Pope Pius XII. Many efforts to explain the Church’s approach to welcoming immigrants start with his encyclical about life in exile, “Exsul Familia Nazarethena.” The letter opens saying that when Joseph and Mary took Jesus and fled to Egypt, they became the archetype of every refugee family. The Pope said that when they fled to escape the fury of an evil king, they became, “for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind.” All … all … every … of whatever kind. The Pope said explicitly that this includes those who are compelled “by fear of persecution or by want.”

The letter is powerful and moving, and no one who supports care for immigrants will criticize the letter. Nonetheless, it’s noteworthy that as the letter proceeds, one of his major concerns is meeting the needs of Catholic refugees, and ensuring that Catholics have proper spiritual guidance. His concern is universal, but still he has a special concern for his own – that is, Catholics.

Fifth: the Church’s response to strangers today is global. This new pattern began to emerge in 1891, and burst forth in the Second Vatican Council.

In the past century, there has been a revolution in the Church’s understanding of who we must serve. Pope Leo started the revolution in 1891, with his encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” Leo was committed to the principle of subsidiarity, the idea (roughly) that the smallest social unit capable of handling a problem should do so, without interference from others. (There’s far more to be said …) If a family can deal with a problem, the village should stay out of it. If the village can handle a problem, the state should stay out of it. If the nation can handle a problem, the world should mind its own business. Fine. But Leo also saw clearly that there are some problems that cannot be solved locally or even nationally. The one that pulled him into action was the question of labor in an industrialized society. The dehumanization of workers, treating the children of God as cogs in a machine, was not something that could be solved by an employer and a worker over a beer. It was an international problem, and protecting the children of God required a global response. So the Church declared – addressing a global issue – that workers have a right to organize and strike, if all else fails.


Leo’s teaching was explosive. There are other problems that are global – problems that cannot be solved locally or nationally. And the Church is not silent in the face of these problems, nor restricted solely to pious prayers for divine intervention. The problems that creep across national borders include: plagues that refuse to obey no trespassing signs, drought and starvation, war, poverty, pollution – and migration. In response, the Church serves individual people in need. But also, the Church teaches and leads, when appropriate. Including: the Church asserts that there is a God-given right to migrate in search of a better life.

The change from previous patterns of response is made clear at the beginning of “Gaudium et Spes.” One of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council was this “pastoral constitution of the Church in the modern world.”  It opens: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

The problems that we consider “ours” – our own – are the problems of all humanity.



Is it useful to understand these five approaches? Consider the following (edited) exchange.


JCOK: Restricting immigration during a global refugee crisis will drive abortion way way up. There are about a million pregnant women on the road annually, fleeing persecution and war and violence. Have you ever anywhere heard a pro-life speaker talk about that?

MB: I would direct those women to my local pregnancy center [in New York City].

JCOK: We aren’t communicating effectively. These million pregnant refugees aren’t in America. You will not refer them to your local pregnancy center. Quite likely, you won’t let them get within a thousand miles of your pregnancy center.

MB: Oh, you’re giving us crap about border patrol. Last I checked we’re allowed to protect our borders.


A key problem in that exchange, I think, is that MB has one model of hospitality in mind: a personal, one-on-one encounter. No Christian in his or her right mind is going to criticize that approach! But you can’t deal with a million people that way. You need a national or international approach.

But many pro-lifers are attached to a slice of conservatism, and have learned to be suspicious of large government. AC, in the same Facebook exchange, remarked:


AC: I don’t know if a global/One World outlook is good either. It’s nanny statism on a larger scale.

But we need a global outlook. If you see abortion as the decision and act of one trapped mother and one abortion profiteer, it’s not possible to understand many aspects of abortion, and it’s definitely not possible to see how to end abortion. There are some problems that are complex and global, and they require a complex and global solution. One such problem is the scourge of population control, which includes restrictive immigration. If you restrict immigration into America, you must believe that America can’t sustain millions more people flowing in. We’re not mixed out, but we’re stretched. BUT: if you think America is crowded, then the world as a whole is vastly over-crowded. And if you believe that, then Planned Parenthood has a solution, and you support them, although you might want to tinker with the tools a little – maybe a little more contraception and sterilization and a little less abortion.

CS: Statistically, people who are pro-life – with abortion being the obvious crux of valuing life – do MORE in other arenas of social justice. To imply that somehow anti-abortionists don’t care about other social justice issues is creepily dishonest and meant to diminish dishonestly their actual contribution to the pro-life cause. Where does this myopic view of charitable humanity even come from?

I have spent most of my adult life amongst pro-life activists, and I consider myself blessed to have lived among heroes. However, the myopic view that CS refers to arises from a disagreement about the Social Gospel. I don’t think my pro-life friends are careless about other social justice. Rather, I am quite sure that they are often committed to models of thought and action that don’t fit our time. Global problems need global solutions.

We need new and renewed habits of understanding and cooperation.