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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kurt

    Unlike Catholic Answers, Pope Francis clearly does not invent terms tested by focus groups. I hope this comment puts this term to bed.

  • I noticed that too. It was very refreshing, and it was good to see.

  • jono113

    The real issue is who gets to make up the list of non-negotiables. For me, the people who make up such lists are non-negotiably wrong.

  • TJ Hostek

    Hear Hear. Bravo.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    In light of my two recent posts on the pro-life movement, I think the important question is this: how can we incorporate these very important issues into a Catholic agenda which has broad based support while avoiding the polarizing rhetoric about “non-negotiable”? There is a tendency on the “left” (I wish there was better terminology) to rightly recoil from the divisive partisanship underlying the five non-negotiables, but to then continue backpedaling until the issues completely fall off of the agenda.

    • Ronald King

      David, “non-negotiable” is used for developing a foundation of power in interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. It represents an internal rigidity of beliefs and actions which are hardwired according to one’s inherited disposition and socialization. It is extremely difficult/ almost impossible to overcome the resistance to changing core beliefs of another or oneself without the consistent influence of humility and face to face contact.

      • TJ Hostek

        Excellent assessment.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. King:

        I think the “non-negotiable” argument needs to be refined. I believe your take on it (pointing to lack of humility), may be valid in some circumstances, but not necessarily in others. Consider the following two situations:

        (a) A person insisting that his or her solution to, let’s say, a financial problem, is the only, non-negotiable, correct, solution. Certainly, we would agree that there is a deficit of humility here. Common experience shows that very often, these types of problems may have many, equally effective, solutions;

        (b) And now, let us consider the case of marriage vows:

        “I, ____, take you, ____, to be my lawfully wedded(husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

        I would be very interested (rhetorically speaking), in an analysis that would highlight the negotiable parts of these vows. Thus, I hope that if we agree on these “ground rules”, we’ll be able to take this “non-negotiable” question to a higher conceptual level.

        • Ronald King

          Mark, I feel my age when I am addressed as Mr. King. Thank you for your kind approach with me. With almost 40 years of a passionate interest in each other along with our similar careers/vocations in the mental health field, my spouse and I have and continue to this day to expose and explore the hidden vulnerable areas of one another as they arise in the consistent intrusions of potential threats to our psychological and physical well-being as well as those who have been sent to us for care.
          As I respond to your “rhetorical” interest, which I greatly appreciate, it now occurs to me that love has been the foundation from which I/we have conducted our personal and professional lives. When we have strayed from that foundation of love and have operated through fear we and others have suffered from the effects of fear which include isolation, anger and a rigidity with self and the other. Self, other and the world became objects of threat which needed to be controlled. I believe it is that environment of fear which promotes the creation of the idea and battle cry of non-negotiable.

        • Ronald, I’m going to rephrase what I think Mark’s question is, since I think you could give a more interesting and less evasive response than what you gave above. You made a statement about the use of the term “non-negotiable”, which was entirely negative: a kind of power-play, denoting rigidity and lack of humility. Mark’s comment proposes that there are cases in which your description is correct (his case (a)), but that there are cases where it might not be – renegotiating marriage vows is his example. Your response is a passive aggressive description of him acting out of fear instead of love, supporting a “battle cry” of non-negotiable. Can you simply say that you do or do not believe that a “non-negotiable” stance can ever be reasonable? This is a fundamental question and should be able to be answered simply. We currently have a significant lobby in our education establishment that thinks 2+2=4 is something we should teach children to negotiate about, so the answer can not be assumed.

          My second question for you: In your experience, have you ever recognized someone using a tactic of “flexible negotiation” as a “foundation of power” in a relationship? I am not a professional, but have watched a man in Mark’s case (b) do exactly that, arguing that his wife should be more flexible and negotiate about the meaning of their vows since he wanted to have a girlfriend while being married. You might be disappointed to find out that regardless of his flexibility and humility the divorce court still sided with his wife’s rigid stance.

          My hope is that you didn’t really mean to make such a black and white description by throwing around a bunch of very grey terms.

    • Kurt

      There is a tendency on the “left” (I wish there was better terminology) to rightly recoil from the divisive partisanship underlying the five non-negotiables, but to then continue backpedaling until the issues completely fall off of the agenda.

      I’m not sure who you are talking about. This was a term developed from a commissioned focus group to push Catholics to vote Republican.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I had not known the term arose out of focus groups, but it does not surprise me. Nevertheless, irrespective of the terminology, there are lots of soi-disant progressive Catholics who would really rather not talk about the five issues so labeled.

        • Kurt

          There are many more Catholics very devoted to and focusing their time on raising their children right, evangelizing the unconverted, promoting liturgical renewal, encouraging vocations, or teaching music at a Catholic school, and rather not talk about politics, legislation, and public policy issues at all.

          It is almost exclusively from the right wing that we get not that they have chosen a particular apostolate but an insistance that everyone else must be with their apostolate and not with any social justice actions.

  • this comedy is now over.

    I wonder how many people here understand that you are quoting Pope Francis when he was offered the ermine-trimmed mozzetta of Benedict XVI Ratzinger.

  • Jordan

    It’s important to note that Catholic Answers, the organization which originated the non-negotiables meme, is an apologetics organization started by Karl Keating. Keating has long focused his publishing and now internet endeavors on the evangalization and conversion of American evangelical Protestants to Catholicism. It’s not inconceivable that the “five non-negotiables” idea stems in part from Keating’s un/witting adoption of evangelical/fundamentalist Christian concepts of church and state. An advocacy of simplified (simplistic?) moral talking points is perhaps a better strategy for the conversion of evangelical politicians as well as politically influential evangelical Christian Americans.

    Also, I am personally convinced that those who desire for the American Church to walk lockstep with the GOP percieve a certain social gravitas in the Republican party which is for many ostensibly absent from the Democratic Party. I certainly perceive this sentiment in my parents’ political positions vis a vis their social upward mobility. While I would rather pick up a union sign and join the line rather than pick out the olive from a cocktail party martini, other Catholics might certainly disagree.

  • Julia Smucker

    Related to David’s point, MM, I certainly share your critique of the polarizing rhetoric you are discussing, but I’m not sure I would be so quick to dismiss the moral category of “intrinsic evil” as a mere red herring of the right. Given that the defining factor of the term, in its technical sense, is unjustifiability, I think you’re right to suggest (per your masturbation / drunk driving example) that defining something as intrinsically evil does not always and automatically make it a graver evil than anything that does not fall into that category. But before you dismiss the category in se, recall that in Church teaching it includes, yes, Catholic Answers’ “non-negotiables” such as abortion, contraception and homosexual sex (not to be conflated with same-sex attraction) – and also systemic evils such as racism, slavery and torture. Looking back at Bishop McElroy’s article, this seems to be what he is in fact arguing: not that Catholics should abandon the use of the moral category of intrinsic evil as a socio-political guide, but that we should use it more robustly, and without taking it as an excuse to avoid considering other grave evils.

    Jana Bennett of Catholic Moral Theology wrote a very articulate post a couple of years ago, making a similar critique of the selective use of certain intrinsic evils as a political litmus test, while weaving in a considerably more extensive “working list”.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Julia, well said. However, to come back on this, it is worth noting that some of the things you include in the list of intrinsic evil are things Catholic conservatives explicitly deny are intrinsically evil: in particular, slavery and torture. And back when working to abolish the DP in CT I caught a world of grief for suggesting that the Church might come to regard the death penalty as intrinsically evil. What I take from this is that “intrinsic evil” as a moral category is a valuable one, but it has been hijacked as a political/ideological one which we need, as Catholics, to move beyond.

      • Julia Smucker

        Yes, the term has been misused and selectively applied, but my point was that it is valuable enough to be worth distinguishing between helpful and merely ideological applications of it. In other words, I think it should be reclaimed according to the fullness of Church teaching, not jettisoned altogether. If we try to do the latter, we are in a sense conceding a narrower definition of it.

        • Kurt

          The term is a helpful one in moral theology. I don’t see how it is at all a helpful one in public policy.

          • TJ Hostek

            I think Pope Francis understands that it has been a tragic mistake to have reduced Christianity to moralism. Moral theology classes tend to be overemphasized and theoretical anyway.

          • Julia Smucker

            Well it’s not a term to throw around lightly, or presume broad agreement on in a secular public square, but understanding what it means – in both breadth and depth – ought to have some role in forming our consciences as Catholics in terms of how we approach public policy issues.

        • Kurt

          How so? Have we not already concluded that an act being intrinsically evil does not mandate any particular public policy approach?

        • Julia Smucker

          Of course we can disagree on the how, but that’s no excuse not to form our consciences in a way that will inform the sorts of things we can and cannot support. My concern is that the rhetorical question you raise here has been used to dismiss consideration of all kinds of evils – and not only the favorites of the “right”, mind you. Would you ask the same question, for example, in response to someone pointing out that the Church considers torture intrinsically evil?

        • Kurt


          Yes, I think I would ask the same question or, more likely, just ignore the assertion. I know torture is intrinsicly evil. By itself, that doesn’t help me much in developing and promoting social action against torture. In fact, obessessing with the instrinsic nature of this evil can lead to not achieing meaningful and needed advances on ending torture because of an inability to colaborate with those who find it conditionally evil.

    • @Julia. I think it is time to retire intrinsic evil particularly in regards to homosexual sex that you and the Church employ in that it seems conjectured on the fantasy of natural law.
      Have you ever asked or felt it incumbent upon youself to tell your gay friends to refrain from such evil?

      • TJ Hostek

        It’s the same with masturbation. The “intrinsically evil” delineation is based on a primitive understanding of biology and sexuality. It is doctor recommended for prostate health. When something is health beneficial it is ipso facto not evil, certainly not intrinsically.

  • Kimberley

    Who knew that underneath VN’s progressivism façade lurks a heart of ultramontanism? MM gets to the heart of what Pope Francis is trying to teach and that is to think with the mind of the Church.. We can’t chose to ignore any of the Church’s teachings. We expect to see in future posting no less than a full defense of all Church teaching including it’s teaching on marriage.

    • Mark VA

      Touché, Kimberley!

    • Julia Smucker

      Actually, Kimberley, that was sort of the point I was trying to make here. Speaking for myself (although I suspect at least some of my colleagues here would identify), I am neither a progressivist nor an ultramontanist, but what I am trying to be is at the heart of the Church and faithful to the fullness of her teaching – and trying to show how full it really is.

      • TJ Hostek

        Well Julia and Kimberly, it appears that both of you missed the Holy Father’s explanation of what he interprets “thinking with the Church” to mean. As Pope Francis explained, it means Not making “non negotiables,” nor does it mean what the “Magisterium” has declared. It means thinking with the WHOLE church, ALL of it, including liberals, and including points of view opposite to your own. It means taking into account knowledge that has come to light since certain proclamations were made. He has stated clearly that we need to get away from juridical language and understanding. Christianity, he has said, ought not be reduced to morality. In fact, morality is merely incidental to Christianity, which ought to be transformational.

        • Julia Smucker

          If I may glean some truths amid your assumptions – thinking with the whole Church in all its breadth and tensions, development of doctrine, pastorally informed morality (though not, I would caution, over against morality in itself as in a house divided) – that was part of my intended point as well.

          So now I’ve been mistaken for an ultraliberal and an ultraconservative (for want of better terms). That’s been known to happen, but not usually on the same comment thread.

          Of course, it’s hard to get at the fullness of the life and thought of the Church in one brief comment. Unless maybe it’s “love God and love your neighbor” (cf. Matthew 22:37-40). Maybe we should start there.

          • TJ Hostek

            Methinks the lady doth protest too much. I don’t think you’ve been mistaken for anything other than what you are: a rather rigid and juridical moralist.

  • Mark VA

    Ronald (a.k.a “Mr. King”):

    Thank you for your reply – if I understand correctly, the less formal “du” will now do in lieu of the former “sie”? If this is so, then let me just mention that there is a “Bruderschaft” ceremony associated with such transitions, and if I remember correctly, it involves schnapps.

    Now, your reply suggests to me that the idea of “non-negotiable” flows from some deficit of love. The fear of loss invokes the desire for a non-negotiable solution, to ward off the feared loss. Am I on the right track?

    I, however, am approaching this from the point of view of a young couple getting married. The marriage vows are worded in a way to put this fear aside, and emphasize the absolute, non-negotiable terms of married life – that is, life long fidelity.

    Thus, combining the two, I think I see how the fear of loss (loss of fidelity, leading to the loss of marriage) is in the background of these vows. Thus, perhaps the question becomes, what should a young engaged couple be told about marriage and fidelity? Should they be encouraged to pronounce these marriage vows? If not, what should they pledge to one another?

    • Ronald King

      Mark, I am sorry for being so late in responding to you. Up above I was described as being passive aggressive in my response to you. I have nothing but the highest respect for what you contribute here with your perception, intelligence and charity. I suppose I am somewhat jaded in that over the course of my career I have worked with couples in crisis in their relationships from young to elderly, unmarried and living together, married and separated, divorced and thinking about reuniting. So when I look at a relationship I do not think in terms of non-negotiable. Instead, I look for the source or sources of illness within the relationship and attempt to establish a compassionate observational style with each person for the other person in order to promote an environment of openness and safety through which we may be able to explore the underlying pain within each person’s history of attachment which produces the symptoms of distress and escalating conflict within self and other leaving each openly wounded and vulnerable without the ability to verbalize to self and the other the chaos within.
      To answer your question about what to tell a young married couple is a very, for me, complicated process. I would encourage them to look at their personal history of attachments. Were they secure and rewarding? Were they stressful and chaotic? Were they critical and demanding? There are many more questions I could raise but what I am getting at is that we are vulnerable to infidelity if we have not looked closely at our history of loss of love and how that could influence us to do what we never could have imagined to someone we love.
      mnemos1, I was not being passive aggressive nor evasive. In my thinking human relationships are very complicated and I cannot approach it with a non-negotiable stance if my life’s work has been devoted to healing relationships. I have failed many times because I was working harder than the couple wanted would work. Within each couple I did work with there was an underlying learned helplessness which was associated with fear and anger influencing each person to believe that things would not get better.