Catholic bishops may or may not be wrong about immigration policy, but are they purely venal about it? Steve Bannon gives his first formal interview after leaving the White House to CBS’ Charlie Rose and lashes out at he US Conference of Catholic Bishops for their opposition to Donald Trump’s get-tough approach to immigration, both legal and illegal. “They need illegal aliens to fill the churches,” Bannon tells Rose, calling it “obvious”:

Bannon: The bishops have been terrible about this. By the way, you know why? You know why? Because unable to really – to – to – to come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That’s – it’s obvious on the face of it. That’s what – the entire Catholic bishops condemn him. … They have – they have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration. And as much as –

Rose:  Boy, that’s a tough thing to say about your church.

Bannon: As much as I respect Cardinal Dolan and the bishops on doctrine, this is not doctrine. This is not doctrine at all. I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine. This is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.

Let’s stipulate up front that Bannon’s being Bannon here, stirring up controversy for controversy’s sake. He wants to peel off conservatives from the USCCB on immigration with easy talking points rather than getting into a policy debate, and hopefully gain some attention for punching above his class (at the moment, anyway). And on the latter point, he’s correct — the issue has to do with national sovereignty and security rather than directly on doctrine, which are areas for prudential judgment.

His accusation about motivation doesn’t exactly gibe up with the facts, though. The best historical data for Catholic demographics comes from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which has tracked the Catholic population in surveys for more than 50 years. The number of Catholics has grown substantially in that arc, from 48.5 million in 1965 to 74.2 million in 2016. The number of foreign-born Catholics has plateaued over the last 12 years at 15 million, so whatever the issues of getting butts in pews may be, “unlimited immigration” isn’t solving them.

In fact, the bigger problem is a lack of participation from existing Catholics. In the same 12-year period, the number of former Catholics went up from 19 million to 30 million, a dramatic increase. At the same time, the number of baptisms fell from 929,545 to 670,481. That’s why the USCCB launched its Rediscover program in 2013 — to “re-evangelize” backsliding Catholics into regular Mass attendance, and to shore up enthusiasm among current regular or semi-regular attendees.

The USCCB has taken a more liberal stand on immigration, to be sure, but it’s not an open-borders policy per se. They put a high value on legalizing the immigrants already in the US for humanitarian purposes and retaining the family-based “chain migration” policies in order to keep the basic “church” unit intact, both of which do come from Catholic doctrinal positions, not from a “butts in seats” motivation. Matthew 25:35-36 would certainly be one basis for that doctrinal position, with Jesus’ direct admonition to welcome the stranger as a means of serving Him. That, however, does not necessarily mean that we can’t set up rational systems of welcome for strangers while taking the primary role of government — protecting its citizens — seriously at the same time.

Those policies are certainly open to debate on a prudential-judgment basis, but only when one debates the policies and the doctrine rather than assume the motivations behind both. Conservatives who have regularly been accused of racism for their prioritization of national security and rational management of immigration should certainly appreciate that point.

Addendum: Our friend and former colleague Larry O’Connor made a great point about Catholic bishops calculating political positions for maximum attendance:

Yes — if Catholic bishops wanted to pander at the expense of doctrine and principle, there are a lot of ways in which they could do so more effectively than sticking with the same immigration position they’ve held since at least Saint John Paul II.