06 March 2018, The Tablet

British theologian criticises 'indifference' to migrants

A failure to welcome migrants signifies a failure of civil society, explained Anna Rowlands

Anna RowlandsPope Francis is concerned that the contemporary "culture of well-being" breeds indifference towards others, a leading British theologian said in a speech in Rome today, Tuesday 6 March.

The Pope believes a failure of compassion in the case of welcoming migrants signifies a failure of civil society as much as failures in state political leadership, according to Anna Rowlands, assistant professor in the department of theology and religion at the University of Durham.

Speaking the International Catholic Migration Commission global meeting on migrants and refugees in Rome, Dr Rowlands said: "Part of the culture of well-being is to become accustomed to the suffering of others. Our own transient cultural ways breeds indifference towards truly transient people. Thus globalisation, which creates ironically the transience of the settled, produces too as its by-product, the globalisation of indifference."

Describing this growing indifference to the suffering , she said there are "two sets of borders", one geopolitical and one interior to the human self, which must be read against each other. "Francis wishes us to see the deep, practical interconnections between these two sets of borders."

She also explained that an "emerging hallmark of Francis’ pontificate" is the notion that the social teaching of the Church should lead to a willingness to suffer as a form of solidarity.

"Francis’ contrast between a ‘well-being’ culture that seeks to protect the person from the suffering of others and a Christian social ethics, which seeks ways to take the suffering of others into the life of the self, is sharp and deliberate," she told delegates at the meeting, which is debating how best to serve migrants and refugees.

Dr Rowlands said her own experience of connecting to the social teaching of the church on migration came about ten years ago when she was working as a volunteer in an immigration detention facility in the UK.

"This was the first time I had come face to face with a range of individuals who shared with me their stories of a reality that was both intensely personal and also a structural, global reality," she said. "In fact it was facing migration as an issue defining of our times that enabled me to re-engage with the church’s social teaching on economic, political and social issues as a whole."

She talked about the need to recognise the challenge latent in populism, and to engage with the aspirations towards the good that mark the lives of local communities who feel a profound sense of cultural loss, as well as with the "goods" that migrants themselves seek.

"Our hope lies, I think, in being able to handle both these challenges. The migration question is not then, just about migrants – it's about whole communities in all their complexities of aspiration, innovation, need and loss." 

One of the striking things about Catholic social teaching tradition is that migration has been one of its most significant themes since at least the 1850’s, she added.

Catholic social teaching begins with the principle of peace and proposes a “right to stay or to remain” – the right not to be displaced. The Bible itself is a book that is full of migration stories.

But governments often fail in this task. Outlining a "moral requirement" that nation states receive the refugee, she added: "We all have an inalienable membership of a universal human family, and we seek membership of a political community in order to live well. The task of human government is to recognise both these goods – because I am a member of the human family I have a right to a place of safety."




Video of Dr Rowlands speaking at ICMC (34 minutes in)


Read Anna Rowlands' lead Tablet feature on the crisis in Syria – 'Turkey: A Crossroads for the Displaced'

Pic: Anna Rowlands courtesy of Anna Rowlands

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