I’ve always though they were well-intended, but that they have backfired in a way their coiners never envisioned.
They have mutated into the Five Only Things That Matter (and, really, the One Only Thing that Matters–Abortion) whenever you attempt to get Catholic conservatives to consider looking at the rest of our common life in light of the Tradition. Marc notes:
Now I agree (with apologies to all you hip-ass Catholic Reporter readers). There are acts that are always evil. Voting for people who support and promote acts that are always evil makes one indirectly responsible for the continued existence of those acts. But the perverse flip-side that has sprung into Catholic conscience is this: We tend to think that because it is not okay to vote in favor of an intrinsic evil it must be okay to vote in favor of non-intrinsic evil.
But this does not follow at all. For what is a non-intrinsically evil action? It is an action that is evil, but that, under other circumstances, may not be evil. Capital punishment is the typical example here. Pope John Paul II made it clear that execution is justified if the nation has no other way in which to protect its citizenry from the offender.
But this does not mean, and indeed, it cannot mean, that one is not morally responsible for supporting this evil simply because it is not intrinsically evil. If I vote for a man who wants to execute youths for marijuana possession, sure, I am not supporting an intrinsic evil. There are, after all, circumstances in which capital punishment may be allowed. Nevertheless, I am supporting the horrendous, non-intrinsic evil of way-too-liberally-applied capital punishment. That this issue is negotiable — in the sense that there are circumstances that may justify it and legitimate arguments concerning these circumstances — does not mean that I am de facto justified in supporting it with my vote. That this issue is negotiable means that I am morally obliged to determine whether it is being applied in a way and in a circumstance that makes it evil. If it is being applied in a way and in a circumstance that makes it evil, and I am aware of the fact, then my support of it damns me. If it is determined to be an evil, then the negotiation is over — I cannot support an evil, intrinsic or non-intrinsic.
I agree with all this and would add the following: another trouble with the Five Non-Negotiables is that, for the Right, they are in fact, highly negotiable while a number of so-called “prudential” judgments are the *real* non-negotiables.
Abortion, for instance, is highly negotiable when the baby you want to kill is living in a a civilian city Americans want to justify nuking–or when Donald Trump is on the ballot. Mercy killing is fine when it’s a prisoner you want to put out of your misery. The sanctity of marriage is not all that big a deal when its Donald Trump’s fourth wife. ESCR is just ducky when Bush 43 or McCain okay.
But on the supposedly “prudential issues” of war, torture, gun violence, a living wage, desperate poor people at the border? It often turns out there is only one dogmatic position to be taken on these. The Iraq War was good. Torture was good. Change absolutely nothing about our current gun regime. The minimum wage must never raised because even though it works in reality, it will ever work in conservative theory. And Amnesty Equals Abortion.
But tying together the argument about all of these amazingly dogmatic “prudential” issues is this: Again and again, when you suggest that there are perhaps other approach to explore that are more in keeping with actual Catholic teaching, you are told, “Why are you discussing this when The Babies[TM] are dying?” Over and over, The Babies[TM] are invoked as The Reason for not questioning the American Movement Conservative Playbook. I can’t tell you how many times I was told to stop discussing Conservative orgasmic love for torture because it distracted from The Babies[TM]. Our gun slaughter rate that vastly outstrips the rest of the civilized world? Don’t discuss it. It distracts from The Babies[TM]. The need for a liviing wage for struggling families pressured to abort by poverty? Forget it. It distracts from The Babies[TM].
The paradoxical result was that the people who were supposed Focusing on The Babies[TM] were, in fact, devoting the vast bulk of their energy to defending obviously and massively wrong-headed GOP policies that are clearly contrary to both Catholic social teaching and elementary common sense. The non-negotiable was not abortion. The unborn were, at best, human shields, for the *real* non-negotiables of (in this example) torture, the gun lobby, and corporate interests.
I would have no problem with people who said abortion was their number one priority and then went off to work against abortion. But the reality is that huge numbers of people who say this have massive amounts of time and energy to devote to fighting with both the Church and common sense on any number of issue ranging from torture to the death penalty to a living wage to unjust war. People who purport to focus on the unborn and then spend all their actual energy on fighting Pope Francis as Public Enemy #1 or battling to make sure as many people are executed as possible or shouting down Laudato Si are not defending the five non-negotiables. They are defending their *real* non-negotiables and using the five non-negotiables as fig leaves for their real–and often anti-magisterial–agendas.
The solution is simple: Embrace all of Catholic teaching as a whole and do not pit parts of it against the whole.