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Do Catholic Voters have “Non-Negotiable” Issues?

Matthew Bradley CC
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What are they, and where did they come from?

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).

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