Catholic Social Teaching on People Seeking Asylum and Refugees

Jesus was born into life as a refugee. Mary and Joseph had been forced to flee into Egypt from their own land to save the life of their child. This was no accident but was central to the life of the Holy Family and would become a central teaching of the Church – hospitality and protection for the stranger in our midst. Catholic Social Teaching, from Scripture, through the example of the saints throughout history and from formal teachings of the Church have emphasised the importance of welcoming the outsider, especially the ones who are poor and marginalised.


When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34)

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:9-10)

He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

The teaching of the Old Testament was affirmed in the words of Christ, whom we should see in the face of every refugee as Christ himself had to flee to another land to escape persecution.

Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open our doors to God, and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself.

Pope Francis, Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016

The lived tradition of welcoming those seeking refuge

St Alban

Alban lived in Britain during 200-300AD, when it was still under Roman rule. One day, before he became a Christian,Alban met a Christian priest fleeing persecution and harboured him in his home. Alban was so inspired by the priest that he converted to Christianity. A rumour circulated that Alban was harbouring a Christian priest and the authorities came to capture the priest. When they did Alban swapped clothes with the priest and went before the judge who asked him to denounce the faith but Alban refused, even after being whipped. His execution was ordered, but before it was carried out two miracles occurred, one of which converted one of his would-be executioners.

St Peter Claver

Saint Peter Claver was sent to Cartagena in 1602, South America’s chief slave “market”. He was so appalled at the condition of the African slaves (most slaves of this era could be considered forcibly displaced people) being brought in on the ships that he declared himself “the slave of the Negroes forever”; he dedicated the rest of his life to alleviating their suffering. Accompanied by interpreters and carrying food and medicines, he boarded every incoming slave ship and visited the slave holds, where he nursed and comforted the captives and brought them the Gospel. Despite strong opposition from many quarters, Peter persevered in his mission for 38 years.

St Frances Cabrini

At the suggestion of Pope Leo XIII, Frances Cabrini went to serve the Italian immigrants in New York, despite the fact that she had wanted to go to China. She founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her sisters organized catechesis classes and schools for immigrant families, and founded hospitals and orphanages. They soon travelled all over the United States and beyond, following immigrant families and founding institutions to assist them in whatever way they could, but especially in keeping their Catholic faith.

Monsignor Hugh O Flaherty

Monsignor Hugh O Flaherty was an Irish priest who was serving in the Vatican during World War II. He wasresponsible for hiding and helping to escape to safety thousands of Jews, allied prisoners of war and refugees, with the help of various religious and lay people throughout Rome.  By the end of the war he had helped more than 6,500 people escape. His memorial society is in the process of applying to Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre) to have him recognised among the “Righteous Among the Nations”.

Teaching of the Church

Pope Francis

“Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. So I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated. Please, let it not be repeated!” – Pope Francis, Visit to Lampuseda, Monday 8 July 2013

“Dear brothers and sisters, migrants and refugees! At the heart of the Gospel of mercy the encounter and acceptance by others are intertwined with the encounter and acceptance of God himself. Welcoming others means welcoming God in person! Do not let yourselves be robbed of the hope and joy of life born of your experience of God’s mercy, as manifested in the people you meet on your journey!” – Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016

Each of us is responsible for his or her neighbour: we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they live.

Pope Francis, Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016

Pope Benedict XVI

“Where migrants and refugees are concerned, the Church and her various agencies ought to avoid offering charitable services alone; they are also called to promote real integration in a society where all are active members and responsible for one another’s welfare, generously offering a creative contribution and rightfully sharing in the same rights and duties.” Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2013

Asylum seekers, who fled from persecution, violence and situations that put their life at risk, stand in need of our understanding and welcome, of respect for their human dignity and rights, as well as awareness of their duties. Their suffering pleads with individual states and the international community to adopt attitudes of reciprocal acceptance, overcoming fears and avoiding forms of discrimination, and to make provisions for concrete solidarity also through appropriate structures for hospitality and resettlement programmes. Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2012

The right of persons to migrate … is numbered among the fundamental human rights, allowing persons to settle wherever they consider best for the realization of their abilities, aspirations and plans.

Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2013

Pope John Paul II

“The consequences of this state of affairs are to be seen in the festering of a wound which typifies and reveals the imbalances and conflicts of the modern world: the millions of refugees whom war, natural calamities, persecution and discrimination of every kind have deprived of home, employment, family and homeland. The tragedy of these multitudes is reflected in the hopeless faces of men, women and children who can no longer find a home in a divided and inhospitable world.”  Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 24

“Today, therefore, I wish to invite you to an ever deeper awareness of your mission: to see Christ in every brother and sister in need, to proclaim and defend the dignity of every migrant, every displaced person and every refugee. In this way, assistance given will not be considered an alms from the goodness of our heart, but an act of justice due to them.” , Address to the Participants in the Assembly of the Council of the International Catholic Migration Commission

Any person at a frontier, who has a well-founded fear of persecution, has the right on protection and should not be returned to his/ her country, irrespectively whether or not they have been formally recognized as refugees. Refugees should be treated on the same level as citizens of the hosting country, or at least on the same level as other resident foreigners. They should be entitled to the rights which are ensured to them.

Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons,

Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

What has the Church in Australia said about the plight of people seeking asylum here?

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, in their 2015-2016 Social Justice Statement “For those who’ve come across the: seas Justice for Refugees and Asylum Seekers”, called:

  • for public debate to be characterised by respect for the dignity of people seeking asylum;
  • for Australia to process asylum seekers claims onshore;
  • immigration detention to be for the shortest possible period to carry out checks; and
  • for no child to be detained solely on the basis of their immigration status.

They also called for a substantial increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake and for further increases during global crises of displacement, for people seeking asylum who are already living in the community to be afforded work rights and to ensure that no one seeking asylum in Australia is deported back to a dangerous situation.