the difficult and uncomfortable non-negotiables of the gospel teaching

the difficult and uncomfortable non-negotiables of the gospel teaching October 2, 2016

So, we’re talking about the non-negotiables – again.

It may seem that having a list of things on which one may not negotiate is a lovely way to simplify the question of how to vote with moral responsibility. But, if one were to derive from the non-negotiables an ethical approach to the rest of life, outside the voting booth, problems would very quickly arise.

First of all, according to those who promote the non-negotiables in politics, there are only five moral issues on which one may not negotiate: abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, cloning, and homosexual marriage. If we translate the negotiable / non-negotiable binary into personal ethics, does this mean that as long as we avoid these five things, there is wiggle room on other matters? If non-negotiable refers, as Catholic Answers states, to “matters of the moral law that have been taught definitively to be intrinsic evils that can never be voted for or supported in any way by Catholics,” does this imply that other matters of the moral law might be supported, in daily life, outside of voting? Does this mean that when it comes to slavery, torture, or rape, it’s okay to sometimes support them, just a little bit, in one’s private life? Or, take orgies. Are orgies negotiable, in the life of the individual person, so long as they are orgies held for the sake of some objective common good – maybe, a (negotiable) orgy fundraiser, to raise money to stop (non-negotiable) abortion ?

If certain acts are always objectively and gravely wrong in daily life, then they should also be non-negotiable in the arena of politics. One could perhaps argue that in the world of public policy, some things are acceptable in the right context, or for the sake of the common good. But if I can’t have an orgy, or torture someone, for the common good, in my private life, then politicians shouldn’t get to promote this, either.

Secondly, if orthodoxy is important to you, it’s important to note that the typical list of non-negotiables is neither formulated nor promulgated by the teaching authority of the church; rather, it is drawn up by various media organizations run by laypersons, and carry no magisterial weight.

Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic writes that, if we are going to have a list of non-negotiables drawn from actual church teaching, we would do well to follow Pope Benedict. Barnes quotes Benedict’s  statements from “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life”:

“When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility.” The Pope mentions the life issues Catholic Answers lists, then goes on to argue that “this is the case with…the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children,” “society’s protection of minors and freedom from modern forms of slavery (drug abuse and prostitution, for example),” “the right to religious freedom,” and, just to be horribly papal about the whole thing, “the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good, with respect for social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity, according to which ‘the rights of all individuals, families, and organizations and their practical implementation must be acknowledged.’”

So, obviously, if we’re talking about moral issues on which we may not negotiate, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

The third problem we have to confront is: what do we mean by “support”? Take abortion. If a candidate speaks the correct formulas for personally opposing abortion, but enacts policies that lead to an increase in abortion rates, would supporting this candidate be the same as supporting abortion? I suggest that instead of looking at the formal beliefs a candidate claims to hold at the present moment, one should instead look at his or her record of policy-making, and attempt prudently to discern whether such policies have a history of reducing abortion rates. Some might call this “negotiation” – but, in reality, this is a responsible look at ethics as pertaining to actual objective goods and evils in the world (I know, Kant would be horrified. Tough). There’s a certain mind-body dualism inherent in the belief that it matters more what a candidate believes, than whether actual human beings end up saved or killed. Thank our western philosophical heritage for getting too serious with the skepticism stuff.

Now, we know when looking at ethics that on one hand there’s the question of objective morality, but on the other there’s the question of culpability. So it’s possible to say some act is always, objectively, non-negotiably wrong, and at the same time to recognize that a person performing this act may not be fully culpable – or, indeed, culpable at all. And because mortal sin involves not only grave matter, but also full knowledge and consent of the will, those who go about preaching that voting one way or another is a “mortal sin” need to go back to grade-school religious ed, before presuming to lecture anyone on even the most elementary of moral theology. Organizations such as Catholics4Trump (yes, I know, we’re in absurdist world now; the name alone will give one an aesthetic rash) are committing spiritual abuse and promulgating false teaching when they attempt to manipulate uneducated or scrupulous voters to support Donald Trump on pain of mortal sin. 

But, taking into account the culpability factor, and recognizing that “support” is more complicated than “voting for the guy who makes the right sounds” – yes, we recognize that some things are always objectively wrong. As Christians, especially, we must face the uncomfortable truth that we are not permitted to sacrifice the good for the sake of what’s convenient in the moment. That means, sorry, no torture. No orgies.

And what I find curious in our conversation about what is or isn’t negotiable in the realm of political support, is that we’re looking at a Catholic application of ethics in relation to a very particular cultural and geographical situation. Cloning and stem-cell research would not have been relevant in Jesus’ time, and even if Paracelsus might have merited a stern warning for publishing his recipe for a homunculus in 1537, the production of homunculi was scarcely central to Renaissance politics.  Abortion has always been around, and in certain cultures has been considered a crime (against the woman’s husband, not against the unborn child) – but it wasn’t relevant in the politics of Imperial Rome.

It seems, if we want to understand what types of actions can never be supported by Catholics in any way at any time, we need to keep our focus on the perennial truths as foundational for our actions. So, in the teachings of Christ, what is non-negotiable?

First of all, we know that Jesus boiled down the whole of the law and the prophets into two commandments: love God above all things, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Secondly, we know that while several central plot elements from the life of Jesus appear in all four gospels, the only moral teaching that appears in all of them is this: that if you seek to save your life, you will lose it; if you lose your life, you’ll find it.

These two details solidify the moral principle of radical non-violence at the heart of Jesus teaching. By radical, meaning: not only does Jesus say to give up the old morality of “an eye for an eye.” He goes further, saying to love your enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy times seven. This motif of radical love of enemy is repeated so frequently we would do well to take it seriously, as something Jesus actually meant. And rightly so: if you look at the story of Genesis, the first sin that is recorded, after disobedience to God, is the act of violence of Cain against Abel. The first effect of sin, once we have turned from God, is violence.

Why don’t we emphasize violence – any violence, for any reason – as the primary identifying principle of the Things We Must Not Do? Perhaps because long ago we began to come up with convenient, utilitarian reasons for presuming that Jesus didn’t really mean all that tough stuff, or didn’t mean it to apply to me, in this present moment. It’s very easy for the powerful, after all, to defend their acts of war and torture as somehow necessary for the common good. Once we’ve established a long history of worldly success on the basis of violence, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that we shouldn’t have – that success doesn’t justify evil – that pursuing success is not, perhaps, even a top Christian priority.

But what if we really took Jesus seriously? If Jesus really meant “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” – this might mean that, on the level of objective morality, it is not licit to wage war, or to execute criminals. For any reason. Yes, one may point to extenuating circumstances and a lessening of culpability in certain cases – self-defense, or defense of family, or the horror of historical inevitability – but that doesn’t mean we should forget the hard, demanding, difficult, uncomfortable reality that, if we take Jesus at his word, we are not allowed to raise our hand in violence against anyone. Ever.

Now, life is complicated, and each of us is going to come up with some circumstance in which is seems impossibly cruel to ask anyone not to defend themselves, especially in cases of ongoing abuse. We do need to be sympathetic to the reality that there are many cases in which a person commits an act of violence because he or she feels she has no other choice, that loving neighbor as self presupposes a recognition of one’s own fundamental worth and dignity. We know it’s justified to work hard to survive, because we’re not nihilists, and we have a sense of responsibility to others (family, dependents). Because life is complicated in this way, lists of non-negotiables don’t really help much.

But, again: Jesus did say, if you save your life you lose it – if you lose your life, you save it.

Are you as uncomfortable as I am with how damned difficult and actually insane this sounds? But Jesus said it. We’re supposed to take it seriously, then, horrible as this sounds. I’m not sure even what to make of this. I think I want a drink. It’s easy enough to say to a poor pregnant woman: be willing to give up your life for your child. But are you going to give up your life rather than avenge yourself on your enemy? Are you going to turn the other cheek when attacked? The usual go-to argument against pacifists is: but, hey, if someone comes into my house and tries to kill me, I’m allowed to shoot in self-defense, right?

What if, as Christians, we actually aren’t allowed to? Think about that for a minute, because that seems to be what Jesus is getting at. I don’t like it, either, but think about it, before you pull out a quotation from the Catechism telling me when a little bit of killing might be okay. Various religious leaders have been saying things lately to the effect that the time for comfortable Catholicism is over, but what if there was never a time for comfortable Catholicism, and we’ve always just been way too easy on ourselves?

I think I want another drink.

But if we’re going to keep our eye on the fundamental ethical principles Jesus wanted us to take seriously, we should keep in mind just how radical a life we’re being called to: to love our neighbor as ourselves; love even our enemies; forgive as many time as we are injured; be willing to lay down our lives.

I wonder how this would look, as a plan for dealing with ISIS?

I’m dead serious. And uncomfortable as hell.


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