Non-Negotiable Principles (Not Policies)

Non-Negotiable Principles (Not Policies) September 4, 2020

Geralt: Personal Group Shaking Hands /pixabay

In 2002, The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said that democratic societies must hold onto and employ basic ethical principles, principles which hold up society and allows it to persevere in difficult times: “Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.”[1]

Here we see the Congregation for the Doctrine of faith talking about “non-negotiables” as being principles which cannot be denied. This is because if they are denied, the good which is lost from their denial will lead to those defects in society which will be society’s undoing. The key to understanding ethical discussions concerning non-negotiables is to realize that these non-negotiables are principles which must be held, and when used in society, they must serve as the foundation for those policies a given society establishes for itself in its self-governance.

As the non-negotiables are principles, and not policies, this means we must not confuse disagreement in policies as necessarily demonstrating a rejection of those non-negotiable principles. It is wrong to confuse the two, to think that policies are themselves the same thing as the principles from which they emerge. Confusing the two will cause problems as policy decisions require prudential applications of those principles based upon the needs of the time and place in which they are enacted. If the principles are difficult, if not impossible, to entirely realize, for one reason or another, polices which help promote those principles and help society come closer to them, though imperfect, represent what must be done to engage those principles.

Government as it works out its policies, will have different people presenting different ways its foundational principles can be or should be implemented. Each person will have reasons why they think one kind of implementation is better than another. If people differ on such implementations, it would be dangerous and wrong to suggest that means they differ on principles. They might, but because of the difficulty which is involved in establishing ways such principles should govern society, it is quite likely the difference lies in prudence, not in beliefs and objectives. Some decisions will be better than others, as some people are wiser than others, but it would be wrong to assert people who hold different ways of engaging those principles as denying them: the only way to assert they deny the principles is if someone makes it clear that they do so.

Thus, when talking about non-negotiable principles, what is not under negotiation are the principles; their execution in society have always been engaged through prudence, and so, allows for government officials to negotiate with each other on how best to promote those principles.  That is, by calling them non-negotiable, we must not think that this means there will be no difference in opinion on how to act out those principles, nor that there will be no negotiating in the establishment of such policy decisions, but rather, the principles themselves are not under negotiation. That is all.

Those who try to suggest someone’s objection to a particular way of embracing a principle as objecting to the principle, that they reject a “non-negotiable,” do so through equivocation and usually do so for propaganda purposes. This can be seen in the way they quote (or misquote) discussions concerning non-negotiables. For example, some will point out the preservation of life is a non-negotiable, and so abortion is to be rejected. They will next suggest, because it is a non-negotiable principle, one cannot vote for someone who is “pro-choice” because such a vote suggests that the principle is negotiable. But that is not the case: one can reject a politician’s political stand on abortion and vote for them for other, proportionate reasons: one is not negotiating away the principle, rather, one is engaging policy decisions to try to act on not just one, but all non-negotiable principles which must come together to establish a just society. Thus, the USCCB explained:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.[2]

This follows what the then Cardinal Ratzinger said to the then Cardinal McCarick in 2004:

N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.[3]

This demonstrates that it is not negotiating with principles if one is negotiating policy decisions as one votes and tries to determine what platform, as a whole, best represents all the non-negotiable principles which society needs in order to thrive as well as that platform or politician most capable of following through with those decisions. The church does not believe in only one non-negotiable principle, but rather, it sees and presents many, often stating new ones when they are being challenged by society. Those who would try to limit non-negotiables to one principle are already shown to be negotiating away the rest, standing against those non-negotiables which they have eliminated.

Catholics must, therefore, hold various principles together, and work for their promotion, recognizing, however, that their execution can be difficult and imperfect at best. We take a stand on human dignity, and with it, we are pro-life, that is, we take a stand against killing (either actively killing others or letting them needlessly die through our inaction). Human dignity also means we must respect men and women equally, so we must reject misogyny when it is found. Similarly, we must recognize people of different ethnic background are equally dignified by rejecting racism in all its forms. The preferential option for the poor, likewise, is not negotiable, as it also comes from and exemplifies the dignity of the human person. Torture is rejected for the same reason. Not all principles come from and flow from human dignity. Some of it comes from the dignity of the creator and the creation which has been produced; thus, we must reject the willful destruction of the earth, for those who disregard the earth disrespect God, its creator.

It is important for us to recognize that are many moral principles which we must support, even as we must recognize how we execute them all and integrate them all is not always easy. For example, prostitution is an evil because it undermines the dignity of those being prostituted. But it is often out of extreme desperation that people end up becoming prostitute. Can we just make laws which put an end to prostitution without dealing with the underlying problems, that is, with what causes such desperation that leads people to prostitution? If we outlaw prostitution without doing more to help its victims, we only make their situation worse, not better; we must put in various social safety nets so no one will feel the need to sell themselves short. That is, we must do more than outlaw prostitution. If the only thing we do is outlaw prostitution, making those desperate to survive criminals, imprisoning the sex-workers who are also victims, we only make the situation worse, making people who are desperate to survive be put in even more dire quandaries. Thus, can it not be said that prostitution is best to be kept safe and legal if the underlying causes for people to prostitute themselves are not overcome? This is not an easy question. We can see people agreeing that prostitution is bad, and should be eliminated, but some will suggest that it is best to keep it legal and work for its elimination by finding a way to help sex-workers,  while others will suggest making it illegal must be the foundation for its elimination. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his examination of the problem, certainly thought keeping it legal might be the best prudential decision, even though he did not support it in principle, showing, by practical example, how one can stand with a principle while seeking the right way to execute it in society.

Christianity, it must be understood, is about the faith which comes out of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Moral principles are important, and they come out of our reflection of the truth, because of the relationship between the good and the truth. However, as Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernánd explains, when people focus on such moral principles and try to make Christianity a teaching of such principles, they have  neglected the faith, for they have neglected the fullness of the faith, which means, they promote heresy:

Some have even claimed that all Church teachings depend and are based on non negotiable principles. This certainly is heresy! To claim that Jesus Christ, his resurrection, fraternal love and all that the Gospel teaches us depends on ethical principles is a distortion of Christianity.[4]

Christianity does not depend upon non-negotiable moral principles, but rather, on the transcendent God who reveals himself to us. That is, Christianity is about the revelation of God found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is not to say Christianity denies moral principles, far from it, but rather, it includes them and extends beyond them. To limit the faith to ethics is to reject the faith, even as to limit ethics to a few principles at the expense of all the rest is to undermine all principles (because of how they relate together).  Engaging all the principles together, working with them in the world in practical situations is what we are expected to do: this is not a rejection of them, but rather, what one does once they are accepted.

Non-negotiable moral principles should be behind our actions in the world. They must be integrated together through prudence, which will then be used as we try to discern how we should act in particular situations. By employing such prudence, we are not “negotiating away” such principles, but rather, we are determining what they mean in practicality. Unless we want the principles to be disconnected from reality, and so lead to no action, this is the only way forward. When we see different people coming to different conclusions on how best to act upon them, we must not then say people are “negotiating them” away – unless, of course, they make it clear they do not think such principles must be held to and can be rejected. If they argue against a particular principle, they can’t claim prudence as the cause, because prudence is about the engagement of the principle. Those who deny the need to address racism, therefore, are not acting prudence but are denying a non-negotiable principle. Those who deny the need to take care of the earth, likewise, are not following prudence, but are disregarding a key non-negotiable principle, and in doing so, must not confuse their rejection of a principle as the same as someone engaging principles and trying to find how best to realize it in society at large.


[1] Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith “Doctrinal Note On Some Questions Regarding The Participation Of Catholics In Political Life” (11-24-2002). Vatican translation. ¶3.

[2] USCCB, Forming Conscience For Faithful Citizenship. ¶34.

[3] Cardinal Ratzinger, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.” [Retrieved at ]

[4] Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández quoted in, “Pope’s Theologian Discusses the Distortion of Non-Negotiable Principles,” in Lastampa (3-3-2014). [Retrieved at: ]


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