Pope Francis shakes hands with Polish President Andrzej Duda at a welcoming ceremony at Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, July 2016.
Pope Francis shakes hands with Polish President Andrzej Duda at a welcoming ceremony at Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, July 2016.
Kacper Pempel / REUTERS

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.


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 was “practically impossible” to integrate Muslims, while Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico claimed that “Islam has no place in Slovakia” because Muslims risk “changing the face of the country.” The Polish government was initially acquiescent—which helped propel the anti-resettlement Law and Justice Party to a decisive electoral victory in October 2015.

This response to the crisis was almost completely the opposite of the approach advocated by Pope Francis, who has compared refugees’ plight to that of the holy family, for whom “there was no place … in the inn.” Considering the well-known influence of the Catholic Church in central Europe—Pope St. John Paul II is credited with inspiring the Solidarity movement in Poland, which helped start the chain reaction that brought down communism—one might think Pope Francis would feel comfortable intervening to prod these governments to embrace more open policies, especially considering Jesus Christ’s saying in Matthew 25:40, “[W]hatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Yet for reasons based on this pope's vision of ecclesiastical governance and the magisterium, the church’s doctrine and teaching authority, Francis is unlikely to intervene in a national or regional policy matter of this sort. First, the Catholic Church is far more decentralized than is imagined. It is not the pope but bishops—especially when working through a national conference—who are primarily responsible for weighing the morality of law and public policy, often employing subject matter experts when doing so. Applying universal doctrine to local circumstance, the bishops are supposed to encourage initiatives that foster a Christian vision of community, reserving condemnation for proposals or programs they find morally evil. Policies that promote harmony, solidarity, and the common good are favored. Pope Francis has been a particularly strong proponent of giving bishops a central role in decision-making, a model he refers to as a “synodal Church, which listens.” Thus, he could hardly ignore their opinions regarding migration, regardless of favoring a reflexive welcome as the ideal Christian response.

It is not the pope but bishops—especially when working through a national conference—who are primarily responsible for weighing the morality of law and public policy.

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is typically applied to political and economic matters, not to Church governance (since papal primacy is fundamental), but it can also help explain the pope’s deferral to bishops on migration. Subsidiarity means allowing communities closest to a problem to solve it. It privileges smaller decision-making units over larger ones, and suggests that faced with a social challenge, different communities, or nations, can find different approaches, each the result of the “prudential judgment” advocated in church teaching. This principle doesn’t curtail the pope’s authority to intervene when it’s a fundamental matter of Church governance or unity, however. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II implemented Ostpolitik between 1963 and the Cold War’s finale as a centrally coordinated strategy to gain space for local churches in duress and to assure the succession of bishops under communism’s thumb. And today, Pope Francis is personally calling the shots in negotiations with the government of China over a joint process for appointing bishops, disregarding complaints from a vocal minority that includes Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong.

Two of the most critical voices on the advisability of settling Muslim refugees in the Visegrad Four countries come from prominent bishops in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, respectively. Cardinal Dominik Duka, Archbishop of Prague, linked his reservations to what he considers to be Islam’s failure to recognize “the autonomy of the spiritual and civil spheres,” a worldview he considers irreconcilable with the democracy painstakingly built by the Czech people since communism. Duka, 74, is sensitive to the social conflict that results when rival ideologies clash in one territory: he was ordained a Dominican priest in the underground Church during communism, stripped of his ability to preach by the officially atheistic state, and forced to work in a car factory for 15 years, eventually serving jail time alongside dissent leader and future Czech president Vaclav Havel. As long as Muslim citizens comprise less than five percent of the population, Duka considers resettlement acceptable.

Duka’s counterpart, Archbishop Stanislav Zvolensky, 59, of Bratislava, president of the Slovak bishops conference, used similar arguments to oppose the EU resettlement plan: “The larger the Muslim community, the likelier the violence—in such a situation, it's legitimate to ask about the religion these people profess, and how beneficial it is to our society.” His and Duka’s fears track with political leadership in both countries, as well as public opinion. Polling data completed last year in the V4 found “terrorism” and ”immigration control” as the top two concerns in each of the four countries.

In Hungary, meanwhile, prominent clergy members are also hostile to resettlement. Archbishop Gyula Marfi told an Italian Catholic magazine, “Just because we love the wolves, as God’s creatures, doesn’t mean we let them enter among the sheep.” And Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo called the wave of migrants “an invasion,” writing a long letter to Francis explaining the problems Hungary would have accommodating people who he argued didn’t want to stay, found the local language difficult to learn, and had few job prospects. Kiss-Rigo responded to the crisis with an alternative approach, raising money in his diocese that he brought to Syria and distributed, through churches, in May 2016—an approach his government soon followed.

In contrast, a few leading bishops in Poland (although not many local priests) have begun criticizing the Law and Justice Party–led government’s policy toward those who arrived through Italy and Greece in 2015. At an outdoor Mass at Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland’s most sacred shrine, last September, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, Primate of Poland, gently chided Polish President Andrzej Duda and former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (mother of a Catholic priest), who were sitting in the front row. “We must be open and compassionate and ready to help those most needy, weak, and persecuted, migrants and refugees,” said Polak, secretary general of the national bishop’s conference. His flock, however, doesn’t seem receptive: last October, hundreds of thousands of Poles joined a national rosary recitation commemorating the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, when a Christian naval force gathered by the pope defeated a larger Muslim Ottoman fleet.

Reflecting respect for subsidiarity, a western European priest associated with the Swiss-based Council of the Bishops Conferences of Europe, representing 45 countries, was sanguine when discussing western and central Europe’s divergent responses to migration quotas: “Different countries have different ability. For Poland to cope with refugees from Syria is harder than for Germany. What is important is they sincerely try [to help], within their capacity. In Poland, for example, they care for over one million refugees from Ukraine. The Polish people have shown love for neighbors as they can.” Over one million Ukrainians have migrated to Poland in the last five years; in 2015–16, Poland took in about the same number of Ukrainian migrants as Germany did, although Germany is twice the size.


Another possible reason for Francis’ lack of criticism is that some of these governments have in fact provided other forms of assistance to help ease the crisis. Hungary and Poland, for example, have each developed a strategy of assistance for Middle Eastern refugees in their home countries, responding to Christian leaders from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon who begged the Church to provide in-country aid, in order to preserve Christianity’s ongoing presence in the Middle East.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, often working in concert with the Catholic aid organization Caritas Poland, has provided extensive assistance to refugees in Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as $13.5 million in 2016 for Syria-focused construction and repair of hospitals, homes, and schools damaged during the war. Meanwhile, at an August 2016 International Catholic Legislators Network meeting in Frascati, Italy, Orban was particularly moved by presentations from patriarchs representing the Syriac Orthodox Church in Damascus; the Syriac Catholic Church based in Beirut; the Maronite Church based in Bkerke, Lebanon; and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church based in Aleppo. Orban also met Pope Francis while in Italy. According to Eduard von Habsburg, Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See, Orban decided on the spot to create a government department dedicated to helping persecuted Christians in the Middle East within Hungary’s Ministry of Human Resources. The office’s original budget of $3.35 million tripled in 2017 to $10 million. Funds have been used to rebuild schools, churches, houses, and clinics. And last year, Hungary spent almost $2.5 million to help over 1,000 families return to their homes in Telsqof, a town on the Nineveh Plain that had been overrun by the Islamic State (or ISIS) in 2014.

The Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak governments have consistently opposed resettlement within their borders as the answer to the European migrant crisis, rejecting the quotas imposed by Brussels and favoring instead policies aimed at providing aid to refugees within their countries of origin. Although this hostility to resettlement runs contrary to what Francis has publicly advocated, it is a view shared by many in the Catholic clergy in these countries. This pope’s preference for a decentralized approach to decision-making means therefore that on the substance of the migration question, he has tactfully deferred to the national bishops.

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