Catholic moral theologians have responded to Steve Bannon's accusation that the U.S. bishops are economically motivated in their stance on immigration, calling the former White House chief strategist “rash” in his take on the issue. But what's more, they say Catholics should not treat the guidance of the bishops as just another “guy with an opinion,” as Bannon said — even when dealing with situations that are applications of the Church's doctrinal teaching.

“I absolutely reject Bannon's way of formulating it in general,” Dr. Kevin Miller, a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, told CNA. “In teaching about matters dealing with faith and morals: even when the bishops are speaking in a prudential way, in a non-magisterial way, they're not just some other guy in the conversation,” he said.

“There's a certain kind of appropriate deference that is due there, even if one is to end up disagreeing with what they say or do there.” “But I also disagree with Bannon because I think he's making an artificial distinction between, on the one hand, the realm of faith and morals, and on the other hand, the realm of politics,” Miller added. “Politics has to be engaged in morally and the Church has something to say — and has said a great deal over the centuries — over what that means.”

Miller's comments came in response to remarks by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, during an interview with CBS News' “60 Minutes” host Charlie Rose, posted online Sept. 7. The full interview aired September 10. In the clip, Bannon criticized the U.S. Bishops' immigration policy stances and said that the bishops support undocumented immigration because of a cynical “economic interest.”

Rose asked Bannon about the Trump administration's recent announcement to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA). After Bannon defended the decision, Rose pressed further, noting that Bannon is a Catholic and that New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan — along with other leaders — have opposed the move.

DACA was established in 2012 by former President Barrack Obama to create a pathway to legal residency for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children so that qualifying individuals can work or continue their education. After challenges on the executive order’s constitutionality — which was partially upheld— the Trump administration responded to pressures from numerous state attorney generals to repeal the program. Currently, around 800,000 persons are part of the DACA program.

“The bishops have been terrible on this,” Bannon responded. “By the way, you know why? Because [they have been] unable to really, to come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens,” Bannon said. “They need illegal aliens to fill the churches. It's obvious on the face of it.” He continued, saying that while he respected the bishops on elements of doctrine, “this is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation.” “And in that regard,” Bannon said, “they're just another guy with an opinion.”

In response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying that the bishops' stance on issues including life, healthcare and immigration reform “is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ rather than the convenient political trends of the day.” “It is both possible and morally necessary to secure the border in a manner which provides security and a humane immigration policy,” the statement said. “For anyone to suggest that it is out of sordid motives of statistics or financial gain is outrageous and insulting.”

Cardinal Dolan also responded to the interview, calling Bannon's insinuation that the bishops' teaching is based on an economic incentive “preposterous.” “That's insulting and that's just so ridiculous that it doesn't merit a comment,” the cardinal said.

Both Dolan's comment and the statement from the bishops' conference referenced long-standing Church teachings highlighting the Christian duty to care for one's neighbors, as well as to protect the vulnerable within a society. Miller explained that while there is an element of truth in Bannon’s statement, in that the statements of bishops' conferences “don’t share in the magisterium,” or the official authoritative teaching of the Church, that does not mean the bishops' statements or positions on policy should be disregarded.

The lack of official magisterial weight of a statement like the bishops' Sept. 5 comments in defense of DACA “doesn't mean it doesn’t require significant, significant deference.” Miller said it would be “rash” to disregard the guidance of the bishops, and that often, when a bishop comments or signs a statement, it's generally “a fairly clear application” of teachings the Church does hold.

The professor also discussed the issue of prudential judgement, and that Catholics are able to disagree on matters of prudence in how a situation is handled or implemented. Dr. Miller acknowledged that in situations like immigration, there is a prudential component in determining how best the Church's teachings should be applied. Yet, he continued, the bishops' statements and judgement still require deference. The prudential character of subjects the bishops might talk about, Miller stressed, “doesn't mean that you can feel free to ignore them and they're like some guy next door.”

Miller also pushed back against the distinction Bannon made between matters of prudence and matters of “dogma.” He said that while Catholics can, in good faith, disagree on matters of practicality and approach, the bishops' moral voice still has relevance to politics. “Although there's this difference between basic moral principle and prudential judgement about how to apply it in sometimes complex cases, I don’t think that that distinction is as neat as people sometimes think it is in at least some cases.”

Miller explained that the Church has long spoken on the moral duties of nations, and their obligation to serve the common good. While states can do some things in the name of “sovereignty,” he continued, they must act in the interest of the common good — particularly with an eye towards the most vulnerable.

Joseph Capizzi, professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and executive director of the school's Institute for Human Ecology, told CNA that while there may not be a definitive, set doctrine on immigration itself, there is a consistent teaching within the Church “on principles that pertain to immigration.” He pointed to scriptures and to traditions reaching back to the earliest centuries of the Church that highlight the Church's concern for “the poor, the outcast, refugees, orphans — the physically vulnerable.” “Those are the first people who get our attention. We're supposed to care for them.”

Capizzi also pointed to the Church's tradition of care for one’s neighbor and those within one's community. The care for individuals of that community must be promoted in concert with the common good of the community and its people, he explained.    

The issue of immigration is not one that is new for the Church in the United States, Capizzi said. “When many of our parents and grandparents came into this country, they faced very similar antagonisms,” and many of the same arguments used against immigration today were used in previous decades and centuries, he noted. “The Catholic bishops are only articulating the same defense of good Catholic people that was articulated on behalf of their parents and their grandparents, and in some cases, themselves, over the course of the history of this country.”

The positive contribution of Catholic immigrants and immigrants in general to the Church and to the United States should outweigh the concerns raised by Bannon's “crass” and “unprovable” statements, as well as those of a decline of Christianity in the United States and the West. “There's no question the Catholic Church benefits from the presence of hard-working, faithful young Catholic men and women who are coming into this country seeking better lives for themselves and their children,” Capizzi said.