Author Archives: John Barrie

Corpus Christi Procession 2016

A Corpus Christi Procession will be held on Sunday 29th May.

This year it will be even more exciting than ever, as we shall begin at the Assumption Church in Warwick Street, London and move north up Regents Street working our way back to Saint James’s, Spanish Place. We shall be in the public view as never before and we need to have a worthy turnout. Please ring the date in your diary and encourage anyone and everyone to come to make this a great act of witness.

The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, will be joining us so we know we have the blessing of Pope Francis.

EU Referendum 2016

The referendum on 23rd June is important. In former times, the issue would have been decided by great statesmen persuading Parliament by reasoned arguments in thorough debates. All those who would have to decide would be there to listen, to speak and to have their views tested in rigorous argument. A true statesman would look dispassionately at the world as it actually was and decide, having heard the debate and applied his experience to it, what, on balance, was in the best long term interests of the country and the stability of the world.

The way this issue is being decided is different. However, the criteria for making the decision and the responsibility of each person contributing to the decision has not. We are all being asked to be statesmen now. As Christians that should engage our consciences profoundly.

The purpose of this document is not to argue for ‘in’ or ‘out’ but to suggest a way that a Christian, conscious of his or her Christian civic responsibility might approach the referendum.

The simple question when one is in the voting booth seems to me to be: which option can I say with a clear conscience before God is, in my honest and properly informed opinion, in the long term best interests of the country and the peaceful stability of the world.

That question seems to me to engage at least the Christian virtues of humility and generosity of spirit. It requires reflection on at least the following things:

(a) Am I satisfied that I have properly informed myself of the facts? That is to say, can I honestly say that I know what I am talking about? The referendum involves taking into account considerations that even the most clever and successful of us may not, if we are being honest, have really thought about in any depth before. This requires humility and there are places to go to obtain independent information. The Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) website is just one example;

(b) When I am hearing or reading the opinions of a public figure or a piece of journalism, have I really examined whether the views expressed should be taken into account (or discarded) by me. Does that person have the real experience to make his or her views reliable? If I think that the person may be motivated by personal, political or commercial interests, do I have a basis for such an accusation? If I do, does that undermine the credibility of what they say ? Am I influenced by whether I like (or dislike) them or by whether they are from my political party or in the newspaper I usually read rather than by whether they might be right?

(c) When I am looking at a campaign, how is it being conducted ? Is the campaign genuinely attempting to grapple with the facts and inform the public or is it simply labelling and name calling. As the Archbishop of Canterbury (and the MATT cartoonist) has pointed out ‘fear’ of something detrimental is a reasonable reaction and accusing someone of promoting ‘fear’ without saying why the person is wrong does nothing to debate the issue. Allegations of ‘ambition’ or ‘bias’ are similarly unhelpful in the absence of any engagement with the issue the opponent is attempting to address;

(d) If I am considering voting on the basis of the strength of my views on one or two particular issues, have I asked myself two questions ? First, have I listened to the public figures with real experience of those issues before coming to my conclusions. We are in the very healthy position that many such figures have expressed their opinions on where the national interest lies in this referendum in speeches and in print (although not all have always reached the headlines) and these speeches and articles are mostly freely available on the internet. Secondly, have I properly assessed how important those particular issues are when balanced against the other issues in the debate. These questions require both humility and generosity of spirit;

(e) Is my decision based on my like for or dislike of particular aspects of the European Union or is it genuinely based on my honest assessment of whether as a matter of principle being a member is in the long term interests of the country and the peaceful stability of the world? On any view the decision to leave or remain has very substantial implications. It would not be right to take that decision on the basis that you disagreed with some of the rules or some of the structures (even where you were satisfied that you were properly informed as to how those things actually worked in practice), unless the disagreement or the rule or structure were really substantial. Would it be rational to vote for Scottish independence on the sole basis that you disagreed with an unelected House of Lords? Is there a danger of an ‘easy divorce’ mentality creeping into these decisions? That is to say are we leaving because things are not perfect when we should be getting stuck in, speaking to the other parties and trying to improve the situation ? Similar considerations apply in reverse, have I got too rosy a picture of the EU, am I blind to its flaws ? Have I adequately considered whether any of these flaws is really fundamental such as to outweigh the benefits I perceive in remaining;

(f) This decision will engage the head and the heart. It will raise emotions and prejudices as well as self interest. Have I examined my motivations in humility and generosity of spirit? Is my decision as dispassionate and realist as I can make it?

(g) Finally, but by no means least, in light of my Christian duty to consider my neighbour, have I considered how the outcome of the referendum one way or the other will affect other countries and international institutions and, as already said, the peaceful stability of the world? Have I considered which option will really lead to the UK’s ability to influence world affairs for the good? Have I considered what kind of country and world my decision might help create for my children and grand children ? None of us, alone, can possibly answer those questions without properly taking into account the views which, objectively, could be regarded as having some credibility on them (again, they can be found on the internet).

This is a genuinely important event and one we cannot approach except with seriousness. Our Christianity demands no less.

Charlemagne Prize 2016

Pope Francis, on Friday 6th May 2016,  received the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, Germany, from Marcel Philipp, the Lord Mayor of the German city. The International Charlemagne Prize is awarded for work done in the service of European unification. The Prize is named for Charles the Great (Charlemagne), the Franconian king revered by his contemporaries as the “Father of Europe.”

For the full text of the Address of His Holiness Pope Francis upon the Conferral of the Charlemagne Prize please click here

His Holiness Pope Francis visits Lesbos

On Saturday 16 April 2016, His Holiness Pope Francis visited Lesbos to see for himself the conditions that refugees were living in. He was accompanied by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronymus II

The Holy Father said
We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution.  As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf.  We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity’
To read the full statement made by the Holy Father and by the Patriarch and the Archbishop please click here

Summer Gathering 2016

The 2016 Summer Gathering was held on Saturday 25 June 2016 at St. Mary’s University.

Strawberry HillThe day’s events started with Mass at the University’s chapel, which His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI visited during his visit to the UK in 2010. Mass was celebrated by Rev Fr John Dickson SDB. David O’Mahony, chairman of the Union spoke about his visit to Rome. Next was Tony Cole, chairman of the Parliamentary and Public Affairs Committee (PPAC). Since the last gathering the Liverpool Care Pathway has been dropped, the Physician Assisted Dying Bill was defeated in Parliament by a vote of 330 to 118. However the issue has not gone away and the BMA debated the matter again only last week and decided to maintain their opposition .

Another issue is modern slavery with which Teresa May the Home Secretary (now Prime Minister) and Cardinal Vincent Nichols have been involved. The scientific section of Laudato Si the Pope’s exhortation deals with climate change. Abortion is back on the agenda and there is a Parliamentary enquiry into abortion law. The question of Genocide should be referred to the UN Security Council, while HM Government maintains that it is a matter for the courts to determine. On a positive note we had a small victory in keeping the Sunday trading laws without amendment. Last to speak was Sir Edward Leigh, President of the Union. He explained how hard it is to have a Catholic perspective on many issues which come before the House of Commons.

Strawberry Hill (2)Luncheon with wine was served in the splendid Waldegrave Drawing Room. Following lunch, some of the attendees toured Strawberry Hill House, which adjoins the University’s buildings. This house was owned and developed by Horace Walpole, politician, writer,  collector and son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister.


Religious Freedom – The Catholic Approach


By David O’Mahony

Chairman – The Catholic Union of Great Britain

Talk given to the Ecclesiastical Law Society on 12 March 2016


 I should make plain at the beginning that I am neither a theologian nor a church historian, and I do not represent the catholic church. What follows is merely my understanding of the key documents and some of the key interventions by the church on this topic of the last 50 years.

  1. In writing this talk I have used a collection of the church’s statements on religious freedom published by the Caritas in Veritate foundation in Geneva. (Caritas in Veritate is of course, the title of Pope Benedict’s last encyclical and translates as ‘Charity in Truth’). This foundation is concerned with the social doctrine of the church and seeks to support the work of the Holy See and other catholic bodies at the United Nations. Anybody interested in the church’s position on this and related issues will find some useful material on the foundation’s website.


  1. I have arranged this talk under three headings:
  • A short history of the church’s current position on religious freedom;
  • The content of and the philosophical / theological basis for that position;
  • Some more recent statements by the church applying that position to particular problems;


  1. The church has been reflecting on the proper relationship between religion and the state since its earliest times. Tertullian (c 155 – 240) who is said to have coined the expression ‘libertas religionis’ or ‘religious freedom, wrote at the beginning of the third century:

‘it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to their own convictions’

  1. And some of the statements by early Christians when trying to persuade their fellow citizens that their Christian faith was an asset which made them trustworthy candidates for public office rather than people to be feared show that there may not be too many new problems in this area.
  1. In more recent times and in Europe the upheavals of the last few centuries complicated the catholic church’s position vis a vis the wide variety of states in which it existed. One reaction to this was a strain of thought within Catholicism which came to be labelled ‘error has no rights’[an unfortunately all too common temptation for all ‘causes’ or belief systems]. This strain of thought came under serious pressure from the great theological movements of the twentieth century (and, indeed, although I am by no means an expert, from the writings of our own John Henry Newman in the nineteenth century). In so far as religious freedom was concerned, these culminated in the great statement by the Second Vatican Council: Dignitatis Humanae (literally translated as: ‘On the Dignity of the Human Person’) (in 1965).
  1. Interestingly for those of us raised in the Anglo Saxon tradition of liberal democracy and the rule of law, this new statement on religious freedom owed much to the writings of an American Jesuit (who was also involved in drafting DH): John Courtney Murray SJ the title of one of whose works was: We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Courtney Murray’s view was that the church should learn from the United States (1st Amendment) tradition of religious liberty and that this approach provided a firmer basis for a healthy relationship between church and state.
  1. This debt to the United States experience and tradition was acknowledged again by the Holy See’s permanent observer to the UN organisations in Geneva, in a speech he gave in Washington in 2012 [which also bears reading for anybody interested in these matters]. As we shall see, while it is emphatically not for the church to say how her general principles should be reflected in particular laws, there is at least a reciprocal echo between some of the statements by the church and the approach taken by the US Supreme Court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 1993[1].
  1. Of course, many of those attending the second vatican council, particularly from continental Europe would also have been influenced by their recent experience of living directly with atheist ideologies of various kinds and by those thinkers who attributed the cataclysms of the twentieth century to the specifically atheistic elements in these movements. One can think of Henri de Lubac’s (one of the aforementioned great mid century theologians) Drama of Atheist Humanism of 1944. A tradition which, would, of course, find its most pithy expression much later in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Templeton prize speech ‘men have forgotten God, that is why all this has happened’[2].


  1. The starting point must be dignitatis humanae This document seems to me to have two broad themes. It addresses the State and sets out the limits of State power (what could be called a vertical aspect) but also addresses every Christian and demands that all Christians respect the consciences of others, both inside and outside their communities (what could be called the internal and horizontal aspect).
  1. I hope it will not be too tedious if I read out what I regard as the most important parts of it. It seems to me that there is merit in hearing what the church actually said rather than my paraphrasing of it. I apologise in advance for the exclusively masculine references.
  1. The document begins with a definition:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

  1. And then, crucially, says why:

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature… the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

  1. And sets out the content of the right:
  • It is a right of individuals but also, because of the very nature of religious belief, it is also a group right;
  • It should give absolute freedom to religious groups to choose their own ministers and to have their own buildings;
  • There is a right not to be hindered in teaching and witness ‘However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonourable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others’;

 There must be no prohibition on religious people freely expressing their views in the public square;

 The rights of the family, in particular, as regards the education of their children and choice of schools should be respected.

  1. As I say, it must be clear from the above that the focus of the document is not only on the State, it says that everyone has an obligation to uphold religious freedom and it is religious freedom for ALL:

Therefore the care of the right to religious freedom devolves upon the whole citizenry, upon social groups, upon government, and upon the Church and other religious communities, in virtue of the duty of all toward the common welfare, and in the manner proper to each.


Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility. Furthermore, society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion.

  1. These precepts are biblically based:

It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will…God calls men to serve Him in spirit and in truth, hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom He Himself created and man is to be guided by his own judgment and he is to enjoy freedom…He refused to be a political messiah, ruling by force


  1. It seems to me that the following themes emerge from the more recent statements by the church on this issue:
  • That religious freedom has a special position in the protection of human rights;
  • That religious freedom is essential to peace and the fight against extremism;
  • That religion has an important function in any society and society is impoverished if it is not allowed its proper space;
  • That there is a difference between a healthy secularism and pluralism, which the church advocates and an aggressive secularism, which the church opposes as being of the same nature as other forms of extremism, such as religious extremism.
  • The Centrality of the Right to Religious Freedom

17To me at any rate, and I imagine many who come from the western liberal tradition, some of the statements by the church as to the centrality of this right in the calendar of rights, seemed surprising when I first read them. However, when one analyses the statements, the content of the right (both its vertical and horizontal aspects) and ordinary human experience, I for one, begin to see that the church might have a hint of a point. It may not be a coincidence that arguably the most freedom loving nation on earth (the United States) has taken a robust approach to this topic.

  1. Pope John Paul II, a man with deep personal experience of both of the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century said that ‘in a certain sense, the defence of this right is the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights’. Pope Benedict in an important speech for the world day of peace in 2011 said that: ‘Respect for essential elements of human dignity, such as the right to life and the right to religious freedom, is a condition for the moral legitimacy of every social and legal norm…religious freedom is not the exclusive patrimony of believers, but of the whole family of the earth’s peoples [it] …cannot be denied without at the same time encroaching on all fundamental rights and freedoms, since it is their synthesis and keystone’. In speaking to the UN Human Rights Council, the Holy See’s observer to the UN organisations in Geneva described religious freedom as ‘…a bridge for and to all human rights [because] …human dignity…is rooted in the unity of the spiritual and material components of the person’. While the same man, in the Washington speech I refer to above, said that: democracies are built by respecting, through personal and institutional choices, this freedom of conscience and religion…the United States bill of rights embodies a principle that remains a test for genuine democracy: the free exercise of religion’.
  1. Indeed the church appears to be fond of quoting Alexis de Tocqueville’s aphorism that ‘despotism may be able to do without faith but freedom cannot’.
  1. When one reflects on the nature of a healthy religious belief (and it is to be remembered that the church’s teaching in this area is predicated on the belief being a healthy one and to some extent define what a healthy religious belief should look like) one can see where these statements might come from.
  1. If human beings are both spiritual and material, if they are also moral beings whose nature impels them to search for truth by reason and experience, if all cultures worth the name admire and protect those who act according to their honest conscience no matter who might disagree and if religion has social, familial and community aspects which imprint themselves on the very identity of individuals, then one can see the wide variety of rights and freedoms that are affected once freedom of religion is denied or reduced.

[The previous Vatican secretary of state, put it, somewhat picturesquely: ‘Wherever religious freedom blossoms, all other rights germinate, develop and flourish; when it is threatened, they too are weakened’]

  • Religious Freedom and Peace

 22Once it is understood that the catholic approach to religious freedom is an obligation both of the State (what might be termed its vertical aspect) and of religious people themselves (what might be called its internal and horizontal aspect) its role in ensuring peace and stability can be seen. Respect for religious freedom by the State is crucial in order to protect the state from the feelings of injustice and disenfranchisement which inevitably (and probably rightly) arise when one’s most deeply held convictions (both in their internal and external) aspects are interfered with.  However, this vertical aspect also assists the internal and horizontal aspects by respecting open expressions of different religions so that the two together can encourage harmony and guard against what Pope Benedict in his Westminster Hall speech called: distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism,

  1. I would argue that it is when religious belief is not allowed its proper oxygen or can be linked to feelings of injustice that it begins to be used for ends foreign to its authentic nature.

[All recent defenders of religious freedom appear to quote the American sociologists J Grim and Roger Finke whose mathematical model in a book entitled ‘The Price of Freedom Denied’ is said to show a direct correlation between the denial of religious freedom and hate crimes against religious minorities. I have not read that book and cannot say whether it is a credible study but I mention it here for completeness.]

  1. The Church’s statements to this effect have been frequent. Pope John Paul II described religious freedom as ‘a strong deterrent to the violation of human rights by communities that exploit religion for purposes that are foreign to it…[it] …is therefore seen to be a most effective means for guaranteeing security and stability’. While Pope Benedict whose speech for the world day of peace in 2011 which I refer to above also bears reading, described it as ‘an authentic weapon of peace’.
  • The Important Place of Religion in Society

25. It seems to me that the view that religion is generally a bad thing and a threat to everything we are supposed to hold dear has gained a degree of respectability in public discourse. This is not a new phenomenon, the early Christians faced similar views and, to pick a spot in history, we find writers like Chateaubriand in his great work The Genius of Christianity published in 1802 attempting to answer such charges.

  1. The church’s approach to religious freedom is supported by its assertion that while there are great wrongs committed in the name of religion (and its horizontal approach addresses that), the balance sheet is overwhelmingly in favour of the positive effect that religion has had and continues to have on society. The church has focused on three main areas:


  • The charitable work of religions and religious people. One does not have to travel too far or to go back too far in history to see the role of the catholic church in educating the poor, caring for the sick and helping the poor and marginalised. The centrality of church groups in the provision of social care comes across clearly in that much maligned report by the Commission on Religion and Public Life late last year;
  • The contribution to culture, as Pope Benedict said in 2011: ‘How can anyone deny the contribution of the world’s great religions to the development of civilization ?’ Who can imagine European high culture without the catholic church or the paintings of Rembrandt without Dutch protestantism or the Islamic world without the sublime beauty of its mosques and religious arts and architecture;
  • The contribution the church can make to the major questions with which any society has to grapple. The church would say it has been around a long time and engaged with all cultures and intellectual currents and at the same time has real contact with all categories of people in virtually every place. In the words of Pope Paul VI, it is ‘an expert in humanity’. The church’s role in this area, again if properly understood, is a positive rather than a negative one. The proper role of religion, in this respect, in the catholic view is to be found in Pope Benedict’s speech in Westminster Hall:

The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles… This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.

  • The Nature of Secularism
  1. In the catholic view, a healthy secularism or a healthy pluralism is a positive good. I will not go through the many statements on this, but suffice it to say that religious freedom is regarded as essential to both.
  1. However, in recent times, the church has also made statements about what constitutes a ‘healthy’ secularism what Pope John Paul II described as ‘disciplined and balanced in the expression of their secular nature’ and warned against what it has come to see as an ‘aggressive secularism’. These are my words, but it might be that there is a distinction between secularism as a healthy political principle and secularism as an ideology. Pope Benedict, as we have seen, a man whose approach to religion in the public square is one of dialogue and respect for the different competencies of the state and religions, would, it seems to me go so far as to say that some forms of ‘ideological atheism’ have characteristics one also finds in religious extremism and both are to be condemned. In his 2011 world day of peace address, he said:
  1. The same determination that condemns every form of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism must also oppose every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life.

It should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity. Both absolutize a reductive and partial vision of the human person, favouring in the one case forms of religious integralism and, in the other, of rationalism. A society that would violently impose or, on the contrary, reject religion is not only unjust to individuals and to God, but also to itself


  1. So, in conclusion, the Catholic church has a rich tradition on religious freedom. This tradition is based on the essence of what it is to be a human being, the inviolability of conscience and the good of society. In the catholic view a healthy secular or pluralistic state must take a robust approach to religious freedom if it is to be true to itself. And, importantly, the church warns (from her own experience) that extremism is not only to be found among those who profess religious belief but in ideologies and that freedom of religion, properly understood is the best antidote to these.

[1] Prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability unless the government ‘demonstrates that application of the burden to the person- (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest’ and that the government’s burden is a substantial one.

[2] More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.


2016 Catholic Women of the Year

Nominations for the 2016 Catholic Women of the Year are invited.

Any Catholic woman can be nominated – we are looking for the “unsung heroines”: these may be women who are active in their local parish or  community, in visiting the sick or imprisoned, in preparing children  for First Communion or helping with projects for the aged or  housebound. There are women upholding Catholic values in education or  in public or professional life. There are Catholic women who raise  funds for charity, take sick pilgrims to Lourdes, or are simply good  friends and neighbours to those in need and joyful examples of
Christian living at work and at home. Nominators may think of women
who have been particularly helpful to them in their own journey of
faith or, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, women who particularly
exemplify one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.

All that is required is a letter, setting out, ideally on one page,
the reasons why the person concerned is worthy of nomination. We are  glad to receive nominations for women of all ages and backgrounds –  single, married, consecrated religious.

There is no financial reward, but the chosen Catholic Women of the
Year are special guests at the annual Luncheon, which will be held in
the Autumn.

Nominations should be sent to:
Catholic Women of the Year 2016
33 Ashburnham Tower
Worlds’s End Estate
London SW10 0EE

or by completing the form on our website: [1]


Patti Fordyce
Catholic Women of the Year Committee

Syrian Refugees


17 January 2016 was celebrated by the Catholic Church as the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.  Many people will think immediately of the current refugee crisis affecting the Middle East and Europe, but the concern of the Church for migrants and refugees is rooted in the Gospel and has a long history. For example, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) was founded in 1951, in the wake of the massive human displacement caused by the Second World War.  The ICMC is an international non-governmental organisation and in 2008 was officially granted public juridical status by the Holy See (see

Christian concern for the welfare of migrants and refugees is part of the Gospel injunction to love our neighbour and it has a further expression in the principle of “solidarity” articulated in Catholic Social Teaching: “The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of “friendship” or “social charity”, is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood” (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1939).  The “principle of solidarity” is also referred to in Article 80 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and states that in the field of border checks, asylum and immigration, the “policies of the Union…shall be governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including its financial implications”.

So in the light of that background, what is the Catholic Church saying about the current refugee crisis?

Pope Francis

Pope Francis issued a Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees which he entitled “Migrants and Refugees Challenge Us.  The Response of the Gospel of Mercy”.  The Message describes the current plight of migrants who are increasingly the victims of violence and poverty and says that

Today, more than in the past, the Gospel of Mercy troubles our consciences, prevents us from taking the suffering of others for granted, and points out ways of responding which, grounded in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, find practical expression in works of spiritual and corporal mercy…Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, exploitation and the unjust distribution of the planet’s resources which are meant to be shared equitably by all.  Don’t we all want a better, more decent and prosperous life to share with our loved ones?”.

At the same time the Holy Father recognises that the “presence of migrants and refugees seriously challenge the various societies which accept them.  Those societies are faced with new situations which could create serious hardship unless they are suitably motivated, managed and regulated.” He goes on to say that it is important to view migrants as people who are capable of contributing to progress and the general welfare and “this is especially the case when they responsibly assume their obligations towards those who receive them, gratefully respecting the material and spiritual heritage of the host country, obeying its laws and helping with its needs”.

The Pope also calls for assistance for the countries which migrants and refugees leave and refers to “solidarity” and “international interdependence”.  He adds that “in any case, it is necessary to avert, if possible at the earliest stages, the flight of refugees and departures as a result of poverty, violence and persecution”.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Cardinal Vincent Nichols speaking in November last year said that “so much more needs to be done” in the UK and Europe to respond to the refugee crisis. He said that he appreciated the Government’s initiative to bring 20,000 Syrian refugees to the UK but that progress was slow and the plight of refugees could not wait.  The Cardinal has referred in particular to the refugees camping near Calais and said that the conditions of the camp “dehumanise those living there and rob them of their dignity”.  He has recently questioned the Government’s policy of taking refugees from camps run by the UN in the region given that many Syrian Christians are not in those camps but prefer to be in camps run by Christian faith groups.  Last year, Church of England bishops called on David Cameron to increase the number of refugees that the UK would accept to 50,000 but this appeal was firmly rejected.

Proposed Solutions to the Crisis

 In September last year, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) identified five actions required to end the current crisis, relieve the burden of host countries in the region and facilitate greater numbers of migrants and refugees.

  1. Dialogue must be intensified among all governments involved in the politics and conflicts of the Middle East and North Africa to terminate the conflict, reduce the impact of ISIS, rebuild stability in Libya and support humanitarian responses.
  1. Governments worldwide should reconsider their maximum capacity to contribute to present humanitarian budgets and establish a more sustainable system of fixed contributions to respond to major and protracted crises.
  1. The international community as a whole must come up with an organised mechanism for safe, legal and orderly migration – perhaps like the Comprehensive Plan of Action in the 1970s and 1980s in respect of Vietnamese Boat People – to provide refugees and migrants with genuine alternatives to risking fatal journeys as their only hope for survival.
  1. Pope Francis has encouraged every Catholic parish to welcome at least one Syrian family. As a corollary, cities and communities in Europe and elsewhere need to be provided with means to allow for more arrivals, including access to services and integration programmes in simplified and fast track procedures.  Imposing quotas of refugees without providing corresponding resources, information-sharing and capacity-building merely relocates and prolongs the crisis.
  1. Clear, confident choices should be made to integrate the local population, resident diaspora and civil society actors of all kinds in the increasing, often spontaneous efforts to host refugees and migrants. Many of today’s local initiatives remain uncertain due to residence, working and other permits either not immediately available or not permanently granted to refugees and migrants.

At a meeting in November last year at the International Organisation for Migration, John Bingham, Head of Policy of the ICMC reiterated the call for a Comprehensive Plan of Action including a substantial Orderly Departure Programme and recalled how the world – not just one or two regions – stepped up with a combined global response to a similar movement of people forty years ago in South East Asia.  Much the same number of refugees and others were moving desperately, without legal channels, in dangerous journeys by sea or land, with enormous suffering and death.  The Comprehensive Plan of Action drawn up then was regarded as successful and has been described as “a model for multilateral co-operation, built on the principles of international solidarity, burden sharing and proper acceptance of responsibilities”.

Meanwhile in the EU, an attempt at a regional plan of action is contained in the “Juncker plan” (embodied in Council Decision 12098/15 of 22 September 2015) under which Member States will be obliged to take part in a relocation system that assigns 120,000 refugees according to GDP, population size, unemployment rate and the number of refugees already resident in the respective Member State.  The Decision was (unusually) adopted by Qualified Majority Vote against opposition from Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia who claimed infringement of their sovereignty and their wish to maintain cultural and religious homogeneity in their respective countries.  The UK Government has said that it will not participate in this relocation scheme but take the 20,000 people it has undertaken to resettle directly from refugee camps in the region.

On 4 January 2016, the leaders of 27 leading charities including CAFOD, Christian Aid and Caritas Social Action Network wrote an open letter calling on David Cameron to “approach this new year with new resolve to address the appalling plight of refugees in Europe”.  The letter welcomed the leading role the UK played in offering international aid to places affected by conflict, especially in the Syria region and commended the UK for providing assistance to those helping refugees in Greece and the Balkans but said that the UK’s offer to settle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years was “too slow, too low and too narrow”.

The letter endorsed what it called four refugee principles as follows:

-The UK should take a fair and proportionate share of refugees, both those already within the EU and those still outside it;

-Safe and legal routes to the UK, as well as to the EU, need to be established;

-Safe and legal routes within the EU, including the UK, should be established;

-There should be access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for international protection wherever it is sought.


No-one can deny the enormous complexity of the current migrant and refugee crisis.  Every element of a solution carries risks of further problems, including the poor human rights situation in some countries of refuge, the activities of human traffickers, and how to cope responsibly with the understandable political reactions to terrorist outrages like the attacks in Paris.

On the other hand, this crisis is not unprecedented, the Catholic Church and lay organisations such as the ICMC, Catholic Relief Services, Aid to the Church in Need, CAFOD and the Jesuit Refugee Service continue to work to apply Catholic principles to alleviate and try to bring an end to this crisis.

We can all play our part and fulfil our duty of solidarity through prayer, by donating to the various charities working in the field and calling on the UK Government to play the fullest possible part in bringing this crisis to an end.

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