(RNS) — On Sunday (Dec. 5), Pope Francis, visiting the Greek island of Lesbos, made an emotional pitch for European states to be more welcoming to foreign migrants. The pontiff called on Europeans to stop ignoring their suffering, insisting that Jesus “is present in the stranger, in the refugee, in those who are naked and hungry.”
“I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes,” he said.
Francis is clearly leaning on the faith of his listeners to motivate his audience to see refugees as neighbors and to work toward what he has called “the miracle of an ever wider ‘we.’” But how common is it for faith to drive compassion toward refugees? Does religiosity make people more welcoming — or more suspicious — of the stranger?
Sociologists of religion have been wrestling with this question for years. Some researchers have suggested that religion promotes altruistic norms that encourage people to help strangers, pointing to faith-based organizations that play crucial roles in partnering with or even pushing governments to welcome refugees.
Other researchers have argued that increased religiosity is actually linked to stronger prejudices against migrants, particularly when a majority religious group feels their position is being threatened by newcomers.
The efficacy of Francis’ message depends largely on his listeners’ religious contexts and personal religious practices, according to Kenneth Vaughan, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied the links between religion and anti-immigrant sentiment.
In a study published in the fall journal issue of the Sociology of Religion, Vaughan examined how religiosity influenced Europeans’ attitudes toward refugees.
After sifting through 2016 data from the European Social Survey (ESS), a large-scale, cross-national study, Vaughan found that most people, including the religiously unaffiliated, were more supportive than restrictive when asked about admitting refugees into their countries. But some characteristics were more likely to foster welcoming attitudes than others.
Attendance at religious services is one factor, Vaughan said. Christians and Muslims who attended services frequently tended to favor more generous policies toward refugees than their co-religionists who attended less frequently. This trend was particularly noticeable among Catholics.
But even this is complicated. Overall, Vaughan found, Catholics prefer significantly more restrictive policies than the unaffiliated. It was only Catholics who attended church frequently who had more generous policy preferences than the unaffiliated.
Vaughan suggested that European Catholics — the largest religious grouping in several of the countries surveyed — may “have the most to lose” from demographic change.
Unless these Catholics are “imbued with religious messages from communities they identify with,” Vaughan wrote in the report — i.e. occupy the pews regularly — “European Catholics may be more likely to think of themselves in terms of demographics as opposed to religiously-oriented goals.”
Vaughan also found that religious minorities were more open to receiving refugees in their countries than other religious groups and the unaffiliated. Since Muslims comprise a large share of Europe’s most recent refugees, they could be more prone to empathize with fellow newcomers, Vaughan said.
Europeans were more likely to support generous refugee policies in regions where a higher proportion of the population is Protestant or Catholic. This appeared to be true regardless of what their own religion is or whether they identified with a religious tradition at all.
As a sociologist and a Christian, Vaughan told Religion News Service that the results he uncovered were “encouraging and humbling.”
“It tells me that our religious traditions do provide us with something worth celebrating and something that offers practical help to the needy coming to our shores. On the other hand, it also tells us that there are myriad avenues for our less and non-religious peers to be a part of this, too,” he said. “And the risks of falling into dangerous patterns of nativism are equally real for religious populations and secular populations alike.”
Vaughan cautioned that, while the data provided a snapshot of Europeans’ attitudes in 2016, national and regional conversations and ideas about refugees and other topics can change rapidly.
“While I see very clear and strong effects coming from religiosity here, I would not want to lean into universalizing statements about one group being more amenable to refugees than others,” he said.
Other researchers have proposed different ways of measuring religiosity’s effects on attitudes toward migrants.
Verena Benoit, a lecturer at Germany’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, suggested that religiosity should be evaluated alongside other factors, such as people’s attachment to values like altruism and benevolence on the one hand, or tradition, power and security on the other. She also wants to know whether respondents express feeling threatened by immigrants, realistically or symbolically.
In an analysis of ESS data published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in May, Benoit found that respondents’ concerns about the threat that immigrants posed had a much stronger direct effect on their attitudes, followed by their values. Religiosity actually had the weakest direct effect. (Benoit explicitly focused her study on immigrants, not refugees.)
Benoit, who leaned on self-reported levels of religiosity for her study, said that these patterns held firm even when she re-evaluated the data using respondents’ frequency of service attendance and frequency of prayer.
Vaughan said that in nations with high levels of Catholic religiosity, where national and regional leaders are actively communicating Francis’ message to Catholic laity, the pope’s trip to Lesbos could re-energize activism around refugees. But this is not guaranteed, he said, pointing to Poland, a country with a significant Catholic population where anti-migrant rhetoric is becoming increasingly popular.
“Pope Francis inspiring compassion toward migrants among the Polish Catholic laity constitutes a major political risk for certain politicians,” he said. “I would not expect Francis’ messages to be unmatched there.”
The pope’s visit comes as European countries overall are adopting tougher stances on migration from Muslim-majority countries in response to a new wave of refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of the country this summer. In the past, Muslim immigrants’ presence in Europe has caused consternation among some Christians — in a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2017, about 27% of European Catholics and 20% of European Protestants said they felt like strangers in their own countries due to the number of Muslims present there.
After his first trip to Lesbos in 2016, Francis brought three families of Syrian refugees back with him to Rome — all of whom were Muslims. To mark his recent visit, Francis plans to have 12 asylum seekers from Cyprus relocated to Italy, according to the Associated Press.
Of course, studying data on religiosity can only reveal part of the picture. On an individual level, the faith-driven impulse to care for migrants has the potential to radically alter a person’s life. This is what happened to Ewa Pliszczak, a Polish-born Catholic sister who had worked as a youth counselor in the United Kingdom since 2002.
After several encounters with refugee families she had met through her religious congregation, The Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit, Pliszczak felt called to do more. So she packed her bags and moved 2,000 miles to Greece to volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
Whether she’s interacting with refugee children in Athens’ Victoria Square or chatting with parents who stop by JRS’ donation center to pick up clothing, shoes, diapers and toys, Pliszczak said she is constantly thinking of the story of the Good Samaritan — a parable Jesus told about a man who goes out of his way to care for a stranger in need.
“This passage is echoing in my heart daily, ‘Who is my neighbor today?’” she said.
Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.