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Catholic universities pledge to support undocumented students

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The letter, signed by dozens of presidents of Roman Catholic universities, is both an echo of student calls from secular schools to establish 'sanctuary campuses' and an extension of Catholic social teaching on immigration.

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    Graduating students arrive for commencement at Boston College in Massachusetts on May 20, 2013.
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More than 70 leaders of Roman Catholic universities pledged their support for undocumented students in a statement made public on Wednesday, vowing to assist vulnerable members of their campus communities in "confronting legal and financial uncertainty and in managing the accompanying anxieties" in the months and years to come. 

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities statement, signed by the presidents of schools such as Boston College, Villanova University near Philadelphia, and Chicago's DePaul University, comes as many universities across the country have begun to grapple with how best to protect their undocumented students under the Trump administration as Inauguration Day – and the potential threat of mass deportation – grow closer. 

The pledge of support from Catholic university presidents published on Wednesday aligns, in many ways, with Pope Francis's past calls to humanize the issue of immigration and US bishops' push for comprehensive immigration reform to increase "lawful means for migrants to enter" the country.

But, observers say, Catholic universities have a number of advantages over other church figures and institutions when it comes to the ability to spread, and translate into concrete action, Catholic social teaching on immigration. And, as the United States enters the era of Trump, they could shape up to be an important force in the national immigration debate. 

"It is impossible to ignore the role of Catholic colleges and universities in the USA in this particular moment of the country and of American Catholicism and Christianity," writes Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa., in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "The anti-authoritarian resistance that used to come from Christian-democratic parties in Europe, now in the USA could come from the Catholic school system." 

The pope and US Catholic bishops "have been taking a strong stand on the Catholic community’s obligation to care for migrants and refugees" for years, says David Hollenbach, S.J., a professor in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who has collaborated with the Jesuit Refugee Service. Signing the statement of solidarity, he tells the Monitor in a phone interview, is an effort on the part of Catholic university presidents "to say that we’re committed to these values." 

But universities also have the ability to take their support for Francis's more abstract messages on immigration, and the US bishops' official stance on policy, a step further by directly providing assistance to a vulnerable population. In signing the statement, university leaders have pledged to assist undocumented students through "campus counseling and ministry support, through legal resources from those campuses with law schools and legal clinics, and through whatever other services we may have at our disposal." 

The key difference between the influence of a university president and that of a bishop, according to Fr. James Heft, S.M., a religion professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, comes down to this: "The president has the students. A bishop doesn’t."

"A bishop is the official moral voice," he says in a phone interview. "A president of a university is a practical strategist who deals with a very concrete set of circumstances." 

In the wake of President-elect Trump's victory, Professor Faggioli of Villanova University believes that universities may have not just a practical advantage over bishops – who, he says, "have become a very isolated elite of Church leadership" – but an ideological one as well. 

"[T]he election of Trump signals that the wave of populism could invade everywhere, including the Church, very soon and threaten [bishops'] institutional role," he says. "Catholic schools and universities represent a narrower population than the bishops, but they are more in direct touch with the reality and especially with the younger generations."

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