No more non-negotiables

No more non-negotiables March 7, 2014

In another of his off-the-cuff remarks to a journalist, this time at Corriere della Serra, Pope Francis took issue with the bifurcation of Church moral teachings into “non-negotiable” and “negotiable”.

Here is what he said: “I have never understood the expression non-negotiable values. Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values. I wrote in the exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ what I wanted to say on the theme of life.”

American Catholics have been accustomed to this for years. Groups like Catholic Answers have come up with a list of non-negotiables, five of them – abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. The logic is that since these are “intrinsically evil”, they can never be supported. Everything else is “negotiable” in the sense that prudential differences are possible.

Clearly, this does not pass the smell test. The concept of “instrinic evil” is simply not a useful way of thinking about public policy – after all, masturbation is intrinsically evil, while drunk driving is not. This argument was made brilliantly by Bishop Robert McElroy in America magazine, which has become essential reading for American Catholics.

As an example: war is not intrinsically evil,  because some wars are just. Taken to its logical and absurb conclusion, this approach to public morality would argue that what Bashar al-Assad is doing in Syria is not “non-negotiable” and so can be supported. A less extreme example concerns poverty reduction. Yes, this is a prudential issue, and yes, there are many approaches consistent with Catholic social teaching. But actions to make the poor poorer and the rich richer is not one of them.

As Pope Francis puts it, values are values. Protecting life is non-negotiable. Social justice is non-negotiable. Protecting the planet is non-negotiable.

This bifuracation – an approach that, as Henri de Lubac once said, reflects more of a Protestant than a Catholic outlook – has always been about certain American Catholics imparting a fake apostolic blessing on a particular political party. It has never been consistently Catholic in its approach. Hopefully, this comedy is now over.

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