Christianity, Immigration, and the Religion of Humanity

The humanitarian proposal is hard to refuse, because it postulates that we can achieve justice if everyone simply becomes aware of their essential human likeness. The Christian proposal is hard to accept, because it affirms that all human beings are prisoners of an injustice from which they cannot escape by their own efforts.

For a number of years, a kind of shortcut—or short-circuit—has been set up in public opinion between “the Christian message” and “welcoming migrants.” It is as if welcoming migrants summed up the demands and urgency of the Christian message, as if “being a Christian today” found its touchstone in the unconditional reception—or at least the broadest possible reception—of migrants. I would like to question the merits of this perspective.

First, let me make a few very quick comments on migration as a phenomenon. The dominant opinion, which governs the governors, maintains that migration is a fundamentally moral problem—that the reception of migrants is a categorical imperative, tempered only by the limited possibilities of the host country. According to this view, we know what the right action is, and the debate can only legitimately be about our assessment of particular circumstances. But this emphatically moral perspective rests on a political presupposition that is rarely questioned: that migration constitutes the major social phenomenon of our time, the most significant phenomenon in relation to which all others should be considered. This is the argument behind the Global Compact for Migration, the UN agreement covering all dimensions of international migration that was adopted by the General Assembly in 2018.

Moral Evidence or Political Postulate?

Migrants constitute a small percentage of the world’s population, which continues to live mainly in constituted states. No serious reason has yet been given to subordinate the needs and wishes of non-migrant populations—who are not necessarily less needy—to those of migrants. By urging states to do everything in their power to facilitate migratory movement, we immediately deprive bodies politic of that essential part of their legitimacy that consists in freely determining the conditions of accessing their territory and their citizenship. Even urging them to watch how their citizens speak about migration claims the right to regulate public conversation in all the countries of the world.

Thus, in the name of a moral evidence that is only an arbitrary political postulate, we weaken the legitimacy, and thereby the stability, of constituted states. This effect is most pronounced on the states that are most sensitive to this argument: the democratic countries that today receive a large number of migrants and are by far the most active when it comes to bringing them aid.


Our democracies make numerous and very diverse people live in a favored condition of peace, liberty, and even conviviality that remains the envy of large populations, whose social condition, education, religion, opinions, and lifestyles are extremely varied. This social cohesion, the fruit of great effort over a long history, is not unlimited. No one knows how far a body politic can go in accepting growing heterogeneity without breaking up. This is not only a question of self-preservation, of defending what is one’s own, however legitimate that concern may be. It is a question of preserving and if possible improving the conditions of living well and of a common education.

Migrants themselves do not escape from this primacy of citizenship. They were active citizens in the country they left. They often retain rights of citizenship or nationality in their country of origin. They received a more or less complete education there, a human formation—in short, a form of life. It is therefore a very superficial view to look at migration exclusively from a humanitarian perspective and to see migrants as simply “like us.” Undoubtedly migrants are like us, and we are required, if they are in danger, to come to their aid according to our means. But they are also citizens who have been instilled with social or religious rules, which can sometimes be directly contrary to our principles of justice.

The duty of helping here and now the migrant who is in danger does not in any way include a duty to facilitate his migration, much less that of making him a fellow citizen. All of this depends on many various considerations and finally on a judgment that is not only moral but political—or rather on an ethical judgment in the old sense of the term: a prudential judgment in which the common good of the community of citizens is the principal, though not exclusive, criterion.


Which “Christian Message”?

I now come to my second point. What exactly do we mean when we speak of the “Christian message”? The answer is all the more difficult because over the course of a long history the Christian proposal has found quite diverse expressions depending on evolutions of the Church, the world, and the interactions between them. In particular, it appears that the modalities of the Christian proposal are very different depending on whether the Church is in a position of command or authority, as she was during a large part of European history, or in a position of marginality or subordination, as she is today.

We constantly encounter among us traces, remnants, or signs of the once central and commanding position of the Church. But if we look at things as they are, we see that the Church is increasingly pushed to the margins of European society, including French society. The institutional Church, and Catholics in general, have long become accustomed to this diminished condition, but at the cost of a growing difficulty in bearing the Christian message. How can we make others hear the breadth and gravity of the Church’s call to humanity, without overstepping her modest boundaries? The Christian proposal is addressed to all men; it concerns the whole of man, and the mission of Christians is to bear this call. But even if the Church continues to fulfill this mission by guiding her active members through her liturgy and sacraments, she no longer knows how to formulate it in the public square.

In effect, the sovereign state has gradually imposed its point of view on all participants in our common life, including the Church. From the point of view of the state, Christian faith is one opinion among others, an opinion whose freedom the state guarantees, but which does not deserve any special consideration—as the state wastes no time in reminding the Church when she intervenes in the public square. However, even if the Church today does not demand any special consideration, she could not renounce her reason for existing. How can she address humanity, and first and foremost all the members of the civic body, when an increasingly rigorous interpretation of secularism leads the state to exercise an increasingly meticulous surveillance over any public expression that can be linked to religion?


It is therefore a great temptation in the Church to seek out the ear of the public and keep her audience by linking her own proclamation with the prevailing opinion today, by confusing the Christian proclamation with that “religion of humanity” that envelops Europe and North and South America, and by reducing charity to this “feeling of likeness” that Tocqueville already saw as the deepest and most powerful psychological wellspring of modern democracy. This is a temptation because—like all temptations—it is easy, and it is a lie. Indeed, the religion of humanity proclaims one human family virtually united and healed. It invites us to perceive the presence of one humanity without division or separation under the still virulent separations that exist, a humanity in which the likeness of men would be visible and sensible under their differences.

We understand the attraction of a perspective promising the unification of humanity through the contagion of a pleasant feeling. We must also point out the cost. Once it has taken root, this point of view implies a relaxation of all our ambition, a renunciation in principle of our common actions, since there could be no ambition or common action without an effort to distinguish ourselves from those who do not share this ambition, or who have no part in this common action. A humanity that claims to unite by the contagion of the feeling of likeness is a humanity that has given up on acting, since, as Rousseau explains, as soon as we act we must “take into account the differences that we find in the continual use we have to make of each other.”

The Religion of Humanity

In the eyes of the Christian, the religion of humanity is superficial because it does not understand the depth of what separates men and where their enmity is rooted. How can we imagine that they will find the healing of their divisions in that feeling of sympathy that, reduced to itself, has little strength and constancy? Moreover, it is because the human capacity for sympathy is naturally limited that compassion is prolonged, stretched out, and distorted into political projects that introduce new divisions by seeking out new enemies. How can we fail to see the political and ideological passion behind the project of a world “without borders” that presents itself as the necessary conclusion of becoming aware of human likeness?

The humanitarian proposal is hard to refuse, because it postulates that, in order to enter into justice, it is enough for everyone to be aware of the evidence of human likeness. The Christian proposal is hard to accept, because it affirms that all human beings are prisoners of an injustice from which they cannot escape by their own efforts, and that in order to escape they must accept the mediation of Christ, who is both God and man—a mediation of which the Church in turn is the mediatrix. This is a lot of mediation indeed, especially when the religion of humanity offers the immediate feeling of human likeness. Yet Christianity opens up an incomparably more instructive and demanding way of perfection, since its end is God himself, in whose image every human being is created.

It would be unfair to underestimate the virtues and positive effects of humanitarian compassion. In fact, the gestures of charity are in part the same as those of compassion. But in the face of the imaginary powers bestowed on compassion—this religion of compassion that has established its authority among us—it is important to underline its limits. Christians would lose the sense and the intention of their faith if they could no longer distinguish between compassion and charity.


Infatuation with the “Migrant”

After having sketched a political perspective on migration, I have just emphasized the specificity of the Christian message. The two approaches aim by various paths to deliver us from a vertigo that sweeps away many of us, Christian or not. From a vertigo or from an infatuation, an infatuation with the “migrant,” a figure that sums up humanity because he is the loss of the human, as Marx more or less said of the proletarian—a Christic figure who tends to substitute for Christ as the object of the intention if not of the faith of Christians. However, the attraction, the spell cast by the figure of the migrant on one part of public opinion inevitably finds its counterpart in another part of public opinion, in the form of a more or less vehement rejection of migrants. This makes the reception or refusal of migrants one of the most powerful sources of political and moral division in our countries.

I have tried to suggest that migration does not force us to change the character of our political regime or the meaning and standards of the Christian religion. That said, if migration does not fundamentally change the political condition of men, it exerts pressure on our countries that deeply affects both our political regime and, if I may put it this way, our religious regime. This pressure is at once the cause and the effect of the surprisingly rapid progress of this “religion of humanity” that is profoundly transforming the conditions of our common life.

This new political religion has delegitimized our representative republic by imposing the idea that there is something radically unjust in a community of citizens who govern themselves, because, in so doing, they separate themselves from the rest of humanity, and thereby exclude all those who are not a part of their community. As much as it wants to be democratic, our community of citizens is considered radically unjust, since the rights that it grants to its members are not granted to all those who ask for or claim them. The only just law is that which applies to mankind in general.

According to the same logic, the religion of humanity has tended to delegitimize the Christian religion, which—as a community sharing objects of faith, criteria of judgment, and a form of life that are its own—separates itself from the rest of humanity. In fact, any community of action or of education—in short, just about every community that humanity has been able to produce—is delegitimized by the religion of humanity, which only wants to see people who are alike where men have created great, different things.

The difficulty is this: the perversity of our situation is concentrated in the relationship between migration and the religion of humanity. The latter commands us to open ourselves to migrants without asking for anything in return; we should certainly not ask them to open themselves to our own form of life. Yet are we not “others” for them? In truth, there is no question here of equality or of human likeness. The encounter to which we are invited is that between someone presumed innocent and someone presumed guilty; it is ordered by a moral inequality of principle. This is because the religion of humanity has not been produced by united mankind but by the old Christianity weary of itself or in revolt against itself. Humanitarianism is not only a weakening of Christianity: there is, at the root of the religion of humanity that has taken possession of Europe, a hostility and resentment specifically directed against the Christian religion.

This state of affairs concerns non-Christians as well as Christians, in different ways. While Christianity seems to be withdrawing from European life, another religion has taken hold of consciences, depriving Europeans of any right to govern themselves and to preserve a form of life that is their own. If Europe persists in erasing the last traces of Christendom, nothing can hold it back from disappearing into a humanity without form or vocation.

This essay was originally a paper from the Catholic Academy of France’s conference in February 2021 on Christianity and migration. We are grateful to Pierre Manent and La Nef for their permission to publish it in English here, and to Nathaniel Peters for his translation.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!