Compassion, Victim-Blaming and Apologetics: A Reply to Dave Armstrong

Compassion, Victim-Blaming and Apologetics: A Reply to Dave Armstrong June 30, 2019


I’m a little too young to understand how Dave Armstrong got famous in the first place. He’s just one of those people who’s always been there in the Catholic Apologetics field, like Patrick Madrid.

I don’t really think about him very often.

Once he appeared on my blog’s facebook page to accuse me of “writing a hit piece on apologetics” because I had written a piece explaining that no amount of logical reasoning kept me in the Catholic Church when I had doubts; only finding someone who cared about me in the Church did that, and therefore I found the business of apologetics strange. Compassion, not squabbling or Socratic discussion, wins hearts.

I try not to say his name, for fear he’ll write one of his phony dialogues with me, but those are the risks one takes when one blogs at Patheos. I’m going to have to answer him just this once.

Dave has recently written a piece called “Illegal Immigration Cannot be Reasonably Discussed Anymore,” which is not an apologetic for the Catholic Church but for Dave Armstrong personally. Maybe he imagines himself to be the Magisterium. He was flustered and insulted because so many people were angry with him for sharing a meme that seemed to suggest that veterans deserved healthcare coverage and undocumented migrants did not. That’s what the meme said, to my recollection; he felt it was more nuanced than that, and he calls everyone who misunderstood him liars.

Armstrong brings up some points about Catholic teaching on immigration that are open to interpretation any number of ways. Certain practices are absolutely always wrong and certain practices are absolutely always right, but two faithful Catholics can squabble about exactly what a nation can ethically do to exercise the right to secure her borders while not disobeying the obligation to succor those who are less fortunate. Dave quotes the Catechism liberally while also inventing axioms of his own, like this one:

One can be compassionate regarding the plight of an illegal immigrant who is looking for a better life, but that doesn’t mean that they should be encouraged to break existing laws or to avoid all the usual penalties for same. If there is a law passed granting amnesty (such as with those who avoided the draft in the Vietnam era) then that would be a matter of new law. But that is the way to go about it: by the rule of law, not by non-enforcement of existing laws, and confused, contradictory, and (merely) politically-soaked policy, as we have today.

And this is not just open to interpretation; this is hooey.

It’s not a correct interpretation of Church teaching.

The Church does not teach that immigrants, or anybody else, must not ever break any federal, state or municipal laws or try to escape punishment if they do. Yes, she teaches that “Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens,” which Dave copied and pasted right from the Catechism in this same article. But she also teaches that an unjust law is no law at all, and that Catholics can have a moral obligation to break unjust laws. Not just Catholics who are natural-born citizens: all of us. The grateful immigrants as well.

Just as a starving man may shoplift bread to feed himself if he has no other choice, and that is neither theft nor a sin in the eyes of the Church, a person trying to save himself or his children may commit the misdemeanor of crossing a border. He ought to try to do it legally if he can, but if he can’t, he’s still allowed to try and save himself. He especially is allowed to do this if the laws governing that border are stacked so unjustly against him that he has no hope of crossing legally. We can squabble about whether or not any given law is unjust and ought to be broken, but we can’t deny that such an ought exists. We can squabble about how much danger is danger enough to merit the misdemeanor, but we can’t say that a person may not break the law to save himself.

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