Until You Have Paid the Last Penny

Among the factors that most impress me as indicative of the accuracy of the Roman Catholic faith is the mutual leaven of those influences that we are to consider when assessing the world in which we live. The individual conscience is sacrosanct, personal revelation possible, and compassion paramount, yet absolute truth exists, and organizational process — necessarily slow moving and impeded by the flaws of humanity — are institutionalized for applying that truth to the shifting world.
Conscience, revelation, and compassion are quick — like us, things of the moment. Hierarchy is cumbersome. Rooting decisions in ancient texts and slowly evolving catechismal documents requires that the ideas of the past be reckoned.
So, when I look to my Church for guidance, I look to these two practical sides of the belief system it proclaims, and with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ following RI Bishop Thomas Tobin’s lead, I see a surfeit of divine compassionate impulse and a dearth of divine staidness. I hear the call to forgive drowning out the warning not to teach others by our transgressions:

… if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

Granted, the context of this passage emphasizes personal example and the culpability of sinful thoughts, but the essential messages are that amends must be made, debts paid, and that ideas have consequences for ourselves and for those whom our decisions reach. What, then — proclaiming neither the primacy of immigration law nor the infallibility of our secular leaders — are we to make of Gustavo Cabrera?
Bishop Tobin’s answer would clearly be that we would be wrong to tear the illegal immigrant from his family — that disrupting their lives so dramatically would be immoral. But that result follows from Cabrera’s action, not ours, and taking his family as reason to waive the consequences, meaning deportation, is apt to make the establishment of a family a milestone in the passage of other illegal immigrants, just as the amnesty granted in 1986 has arguably contributed to the exponential increase in violation of our immigration law.
One can hardly fault Cabrera for his decisions. He took a risk when he left his tearful family in Guatemala twenty-five years ago, and acknowledging the opportunities that his children have been, are being, and will continue to be given, that risk paid off. No doubt his own parents understood that when they watched the fading taillights behind which their son lay. To remove the sense of risk, however, is to make a promise that Americans may quickly find catastrophically expensive.
The fact that Cabrera found it necessary to give his multipage story to the Providence Journal through an interpreter, even after a quarter century in this country, underscores his outlook on his venture. He has always known that his stay within foreign borders was likely to be temporary; now that he’s been caught, that straightforward consequence must be borne out. Perhaps he and his fellow returning expatriates will take the lessons that they’ve learned about governance back to the country that spurred them to leave — that made the sundering of families an attractive option for them.
On our end, we must remember the importance of ideas and that our own actions can have far-reaching ramifications. It’s a natural urge for a moral heart to forgive the Gustavo Cabreras in our midst; it’s a small thing, too, to say, “let them stay.” Indeed, we need bear them no malice, and we should wish them well, with the hope that they can help to uplift those societies to which they return. (What would be the effect of return only illegal immigrants who are of criminal bent?)
I daresay that the lesson is equally applicable to us. Surely, we do ourselves spiritual harm by reinforcing the notion that putting some length of time between our decisions and their foreseeable consequences, and making those who depend on us vulnerable to those consequences, ought to translate forgiveness into absolution.

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