Ever since the European migrant crisis began in 2015, Pope Francis has urged Europe’s Catholics to welcome “refugees who flee death from war and hunger.” Yet the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—central European countries with traditionally Catholic identities—have proved remarkably hostile to this counsel, showing continued resistance to EU resettlement quotas and voicing continued opposition to taking in Middle Eastern migrants. In the face of this reaction, it is worth asking: Why has the pope not been more critical of these governments and their refugee policies? In spite of Francis’ global profile and penchant for envelope-pushing pronouncements, when it comes to specific national policies he is often reticent. More than previous popes, he defers to the views of national bishops and favors decentralized decision-making in the Church, an approach that can be read in the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity.
BEHIND THE POPE'S SILENCE
In 2015, migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean Sea to the European Union, mainly from the Middle East and northern Africa, jumped from 5,573 in January to 130,849 in August. When in September the European Council announced quotas for each member state in order to distribute 160,000 migrants who had arrived in Greece and Italy, the numbers assigned to the so-called Visegrad Four (V4) countries of central Europe did not seem excessive. Yet the national governments pushed back all the same. Slovakia was supposed to accept 802 refugees but ended up taking in only 16. The Czech Republic was told to relocate 1,591—instead, it helped 12. Hungry resettled no one, despite a quota of 1,294, just as Poland resettled not one asylum seeker of its 5,082-person allotment.
V4 political leaders opposed the plan as a violation of sovereignty undermining national unity, security, and identity. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared, “We have a right to decide we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country … That is a historical experience for us,” referencing the Ottoman occupation of Hungary from 1541 to 1699. Czech President Milos Zeman said it
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