(RNS) — On Sunday (Dec. 5), Pope Francis, visiting the Greek island of Lesbos, made an emotional pitch for European states to be more welcoming to foreign migrants. The pontiff called on Europeans to stop ignoring their suffering, insisting that Jesus “is present in the stranger, in the refugee, in those who are naked and hungry.”
“I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes,” he said.
Francis is clearly leaning on the faith of his listeners to motivate his audience to see refugees as neighbors and to work toward what he has called “the miracle of an ever wider ‘we.’” But how common is it for faith to drive compassion toward refugees? Does religiosity make people more welcoming — or more suspicious — of the stranger?
Sociologists of religion have been wrestling with this question for years. Some researchers have suggested that religion promotes altruistic norms that encourage people to help strangers, pointing to faith-based organizations that play crucial roles in partnering with or even pushing governments to welcome refugees.
Other researchers have argued that increased religiosity is actually linked to stronger prejudices against migrants, particularly when a majority religious group feels their position is being threatened by newcomers.
The efficacy of Francis’ message depends largely on his listeners’ religious contexts and personal religious practices, according to Kenneth Vaughan, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied the links between religion and anti-immigrant sentiment.
In a study published in the fall journal issue of the Sociology of Religion, Vaughan examined how religiosity influenced Europeans’ attitudes toward refugees.
After sifting through 2016 data from the European Social Survey (ESS), a large-scale, cross-national study, Vaughan found that most people, including the religiously unaffiliated, were more supportive than restrictive when asked about admitting refugees into their countries. But some characteristics were more likely to foster welcoming attitudes than others.
Attendance at religious services is one factor, Vaughan said. Christians and Muslims who attended services frequently tended to favor more generous policies toward refugees than their co-religionists who attended less frequently. This trend was particularly noticeable among Catholics.
But even this is complicated. Overall, Vaughan found, Catholics prefer significantly more restrictive policies than the unaffiliated. It was only Catholics who attended church frequently who had more generous policy preferences than the unaffiliated.
Vaughan suggested that European Catholics — the largest religious grouping in several of the countries surveyed — may “have the most to lose” from demographic change.
Unless these Catholics are “imbued with religious messages from communities they identify with,” Vaughan wrote in the report — i.e. occupy the pews regularly — “European Catholics may be more likely to think of themselves in terms of demographics as opposed to religiously-oriented goals.”