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Do Catholic Voters have “Non-Negotiable” Issues?

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Matthew Bradley CC

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 10/30/14 - updated on 06/08/17

What are they, and where did they come from?

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Voting season is upon us. And if your parish is like mine, you might see various flyers or pamphlets urging you to put the non-negotiable issues first in priority as you enter the voting booth. One announcement advertised a talk on "The Five Non-Negotiable Issues: Abortion, Euthanasia, Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Human Cloning, and Homosexual Marriage." Reading this I wondered why there were five, why these five, and where they came from. So I poked around a bit and tried to find out.

It turns out that this advertised list of five non-negotiables comes from the Priests for Life Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics 2004. I will admit here to being a little amused at the euphemism "serious" which is meant to signal, I guess, that non-serious Catholics do not want or need a voter’s guide. In any case, this "guide" has a solid discussion of intrinsic evils – but provides no framework for why these particular intrinsic evils are the Catholic non-negotiable issues.

For example, the list makes it clear that the destruction of human embryos is a serious problem, but fails to cite the most common way in which human embryos are abused, which is through IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). So, while I wouldn’t dispute with the five issues listed, I could object that they are too narrow. I could almost agree with Michael Sean Winters at the NCR – and that is really saying something – why only five? So I looked for other sources on the language of non-negotiable, turning next to two official documents from the U.S. Catholic Bishops.

First and more renowned is Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Published in 2007, revised in 2011, its 36 (!!) pages aim to “help Catholics make sound moral judgments about public choices.” Combing through it, I could find no mention of the term "non-negotiable." However, what I did find, buried in nos. 21-46, is a fine treatment of the notion of intrinsic evils and our duty to oppose these evils in public choices. These paragraphs help to set general priorities related to family and life issues as well as to religious liberty.

The guidelines make it clear that in these grave matters – such as abortion or euthanasia – there is no possibility of the weighing of other goods against these evils in some kind of moral calculus. This would amount to "doing evil so that good may come," or using the ends to justify the means.

However, the FCFFC document appears to stumble a bit when it shortens and summarizes its own arguments. (Click the link to see the much-circulated two-page summary.) The summary headings include "Seven Key Themes" ranging from life and marriage to rights of workers and care for the environment. The only real merit here is brevity – but the seven general themes are too broad to be helpful, and provide no special insight as to how to rank the themes in importance.

The second and older document from the US Bishops that I consulted is Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. Written in1998, at the end of the ad limina visits of the U.S. Bishops to John Paul II, it is a splendid teaching document devoted largely to the life issues in an American context. While deftly handling the force of the so-called negative moral precepts, it puts these precepts in the context of larger questions about American public life, such as whether the Church’s guidelines amount to a sectarian intrusion into secular society. 

As to the use of the term non-negotiable, the 1998 document only makes use of the opposite, saying that Roe v. Waderendered the definition of human personhood flexible and negotiable” (No. 10).

Which left me still wondering – is the language of non-negotiable really an invention of the GOP – with no real reference point in Catholic teaching? Turns out the answer is no. In 2006, Pope Benedict addressed some members of the European parliament to this effect:

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:
  • protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;
  • recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defense from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;
  • the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.

Benedict’s treatment is welcome for at least three reasons: it is commendably brief, it is clear, and it is balanced. By balanced I mean: it is narrow where it should be narrow – no long lists of themes which seem to include all areas of public life – and it is broad where it should be broad, rightly recognizing the threats to education as inextricably bound up with the threats to life and family.

In the end, I’m not a big fan of the term "non-negotiable" used in this context. To me, it conjures up an image of some kind of soft political terrorism, where the Church sets out to impose her religious beliefs on a pluralistic society. But the contrary is really more accurate: the Church advances these principles in order to save pluralistic society from her own ruin. Or as Benedict put it, to neglect these minimal contributions of the Christian tradition is to threaten “democracy itself, whose strength depends upon the values that it promotes.”

Imagery aside, this is what is really at the heart of the non-negotiable principles. And this is why they’re worth preserving with your prayers and votes next week.

Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010).  She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.

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