FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (RNS) — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened its spring meeting this week with a stern reproach of the Trump administration’s latest immigration policies, with the group's president suggesting the new rules on asylum are a “right to life” issue.
Some bishops followed by urging protests, including "canonical penalties" for those who carry out the administration's new rules.
Within minutes of opening the USCCB’s biannual meeting in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday (June 13), Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB and archbishop of Galveston-Houston, read aloud a statement deeply critical of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent announcement regarding asylum qualifications.
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” DiNardo said, reading from the statement. “The Attorney General’s recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection.
“This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence," DiNardo continued. "We urge courts and policy makers to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.”
On Monday, Sessions reversed an immigration appeals court decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had claimed domestic abuse in her home country. His ruling effectively overturned an Obama administration practice of allowing women with credible claims of domestic abuse or those fleeing gang violence to seek asylum in the United States.
DiNardo also criticized the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, announced in May, which calls for prosecuting all those who cross the border illegally and separating children immigrating with parents from their families.
“Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together," DiNardo said.
"Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral,” he added.
When he finished, DiNardo asked bishops to clap if they approved the statement. The room erupted in applause.
During a question-and-answer session about immigration issues later in the day, several bishops suggested bold strategies for countering the policies, including two from states along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, N.J., proposed that a group of bishops be sent to the border to inspect the detention facilities where children are kept as a "sign of our pastoral concern and protest against the hardening of the American heart." Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., suggested "public gestures" such as prayer vigils in front of federal courthouses.
Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Ariz., made a bolder suggestion, raising the possibility of implementing canonical penalties for Catholics “who are involved in this,” referring to children being separated from their families at the border. Canonical penalties can range from denial of sacraments to excommunication, though Weisenburger did not specify what he intended beyond referring to sanctions that already exist for "life issues."
"Canonical penalties are there in place to heal," Weisenburger said. "And therefore, for the salvation of these people's souls, maybe it's time for us to look at canonical penalties."
The immigration policies have triggered widespread outcry from faith leaders across the religious spectrum, including Catholics. Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley who has been praised by Pope Francis for her work with migrants, told USA Today that separating families is “inhumane” and “cruel.”
The bishops are meeting in Fort Lauderdale through Thursday.