Living With(out) Borders

Catholic Theological Ethics on the Migrations of Peoples

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Agnes Brazal, María Teresa Dávila
Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For a compact volume, Living With(out) Borders covers a wide range of issues. Its international collection of scholars deals with migration to, from, and within, more than a dozen countries, including the European Union and the United States. It explores issues related to Sudanese refugees in Egypt, the exploitation of migrant women working as domestics, and the impact of U.S. practices of detention and deportation on immigrant families and many more topics. The twenty-two chapters are loosely organized around seven headings ranging from human right to gender issues, and theological reflections.

An introductory essay by Saskia Sassen, a noted scholar of globalization, provides a helpful context for the subsequent essays by debunking certain myths about migration. Even in the nineteenth century, when there were virtually open borders, there was never an “invasion” of peoples. Only small proportions of people from sending countries emigrated. Return and circular migration remain the preferred pattern of migration for many, except when borders are militarized. Poverty alone does not account for who migrates. Migration depends on established social networks in the receiving country. Despite historical changes, one view of migration stubbornly persists: current arguments against immigration “are new contents for an old passion: the racialization of the outsider, of the other.” Each new group is seen as not fitting in, as “having bad habits and wrong morals” (19).

Among the numerous highlights garnered from these brief chapters, a few stand out. Christine Gudorf argues that the face of international migration is increasingly female and that temporary migrants are predominately women. Working largely as domestics, closeted from public view, these women are frequently subject to physical and sexual abuse. The Philippines is one of the sending countries that has taken significant steps to monitor the well-being of its citizens who have temporarily migrated while other nations, dependent on a continued flow of remittances, have turned a blind eye. However, Mauricio Alarcon Burbano focuses on how Haitian immigrants in Ecuador have organized themselves into groups in order to adapt to their new home. They dispel the tendency to see migrants or refugees as simply victims. Both an ethics of migration and actual assistance need to accentuate migrants’ agency.

William O’Neill shows how Catholic theological ethics negotiates a path between a communitarian ethics and modern liberal individualism’s concern for human rights to develop an ethics grounded in hospitality and solidarity. David Hollenbach, for his part, gives a nuanced analysis of the question, “[D]o national borders have moral status and, if so, what sort of status do they have?” (226). Hollenbach develops his position through a critical analysis of Martha Nuaabaum’s cosmopolitan ethics and he employs the principle of subsidiarty to give relative weight to the role of national borders. Among his interesting points is his contention that we owe a special moral obligation to those whose forced migration was, in part, created by our actions, particularly our military engagements. The United States honored this principle in the case of the Vietnamese boat people. Now we owe it to many Iraqi refugees.

Peter Phan talks about the importance of refugees remembering where they came from despite the trauma of migration. Remembering is a divine command, a way of acknowledging that the God of Exodus is “a migrant God” (177). Because this is an international group of scholars, theological and ethical reflections do not rely solely on resources from Western traditions. For example, Nontando Hadebe uses the concept of Ubuntu to develop “an anthropology of relatedness, community, difference and oneness” in conjunction with a Trinitarian theology. This in turn leads him to a critique of xenophobia in South Africa (214).

If these examples seem scatter shot, that is the weakness, as well as the strength, of this book. Each of the topics addressed is worthy of more extensive examination. Think of this work as akin to pointillism in art. We need to step back if we are to catch a glimpse of a unified picture. What is that picture? In Pope Francis’s words, this work attacks the “globalization of indifference.” If there is one criticism that I would make, it is that this book does not give sufficient attention to the structures of global inequality which force the movement of peoples. To be sure, a sense of injustice pervades these brief articles but we are left on our own to deduce from its many manifestations its generative forces.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles R. Strain is Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Agnes M. Brazal is former President of the Catholic Theological Society of the Philippines (DaKaTeo), co-author of Intercultural Church: Bridge of Solidarity in the Migration Context, and co-editor of Faith on the Move: Toward a Theology of Migration in Asia. She is a professor at the St. Vincent School of Theology, Manila.

María Teresa Dávila is a lay woman in the Roman Catholic tradition.  She is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in New Centre, Massachusetts.



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