Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Five Non-Negotiables Concept Is Not Catholic Doctrine


For at least the last two election cycles, maybe more, a concept has popped up that has gained popularity amongst those of a conservative Catholic political bent. They call these the "five non-negotiables" (5NN). Several priests who are popular amongst some Catholics have promoted them, along with some similarly popular lay Web sites/orgs. That is the context for this post, and particularly because today two good friends of mine shared a priest's homily that leverages them. 

Where I Am Coming From

Let me start by making clear my own commitments, because too often people assume all sorts of things and are quick to be dismissive of those with whom they disagree. They want to label them, put them in a box, and tuck them neatly on a high shelf in their figurative closets, or they want to toss the box out in the trash. 

I am a Catholic convert from Protestantism. I came to the Church through a deep study of Christian history and, correspondingly, Christian thought from the Apostles on down to the present. I by no means claim to be an expert on all of Christian thought. That would be, quite frankly, impossible for any one human in this life. But I have studied a lot, and it was my study and ever growing love of the fullness of truth as expressed in Catholic doctrine that led me to the Church. (That and the Holy Spirit, I like to think!)

My study has not stopped. I joined the Dominican Order in 2007 as a lay Dominican and made life promises on 6 August 2011. Study is one of the four pillars of Dominican spirituality, and "veritas" (truth) is one of our mottos. (Hey, after 800 years, you pick up a few..) None of that gives me special authority or gives me any guarantee to be free from error, but I hope it at least illustrates my commitment to the Truth, not just intellectually but also spiritually. I live by a daily rule that includes the Divine Office and the rosary, among other things such as daily reading of Scripture and study that pertains to our Dominican vocation oriented towards the salvation of souls.

I was married in 1999, and as of writing, I have seven lovely children, ranging in age of two to nineteen. My wife and I (my wife mostly!) have almost exclusively homeschooled our children and made every effort to raise them in the Catholic faith. We also, for what it is worth, have attended an FSSP parish for a year when we lived in Tulsa, and (later) a parish in NJ with a flourishing Latin mass community for some years that we were an active part of. I personally have great fondness for the Extraordinary Form, particularly high solemn masses. 

Politically, I am an independent, although I have pretty consistently voted for GOP candidates, and that was informed not a little bit by my concern over abortion. My bias, such as it is, is center leaning right, if I had to put a label on it like that. It really depends on the issue in question though, because my actual political party affiliation is none. If anything, it would be closest to the American Solidarity Party because they, like I, at least try to take an orthodox Catholic stance on all the issues. In matters of society and politics, I try to follow the whole social doctrine of the Church, and I have read many encyclicals pertaining to this, the bishops' guides to faithful citizenship, and (perhaps most importantly) the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, cover to cover. I have the highlights to prove it.  😇

I hope this illustrates I am anything but the stereotypical "flaming liberal." And I hope it at least earns a thoughtful reading, in a cultural environment in which we are far too quick to dismiss anyone who even has the slightest disagreements with us. I am ever committed to seeking the Truth, and living in accord with it as best I am able. 

What is Wrong with the 5NN - #1 Political Motivation

And so, that gets us to the point at hand. While I do appreciate the intent behind the 5NN, I find it to be too much of a reduction of the full, beautiful teaching of the Church. More than that, I fear that its popularity has been, unconsciously I am willing to grant, driven more by political commitments than by an honest appreciation and presentation of the social doctrine of the Church. That every person who promotes it uses it either to directly criticize the Democratic Party and/or to directly promote voting for the GOP appears, to me, evidence of that. 

And I fear that far too many Americans who are members of both major parties are too uncritical of the problems with their own party platforms/candidates, while being overly critical of the other. This feeds nicely into our baser tribal instincts and also the very tempting but ultimately false binary thinking that is so prevalent. "If you are not for [my party], you must be for the [other party]." "A vote for a third party is a vote for the [other party]." These and many others like them are asserted against those of us who will not comply and fully throw our weight behind either major party. It is a cross we bear. (shrug)

But I do not want to get too focused on politics as such. My focus here is in no way to say we should or should not vote for this or that party. I believe everyone reading this is adult enough to form their own judgment on whom to vote for. It is not, I assure you, that I do not have significant criticisms of the major parties, and it is not, even, that I think they are both equally problematic. I simply do not see the good in adding to the "you should vote for my party" noise. 

And to be honest, this is a big reason I am not a fan of the 5NN. It is not because they are not part--even a "pre-eminent" part--of Catholic social teaching. It is that they are hijacked to uncritically support the GOP.

You may scoff at my suggestion that there is a lack of criticism, but in the circles that promote the 5NN, I have yet to see a single criticism of the GOP (or, rarely if at all, Trump). A good example of this is the video I mentioned of a homily from a certain FSSP priest in Maryland. In it, while disclaiming that he was telling anyone whom to vote for, he spoke at length about the many problems of Biden/Harris with nary a criticism of Trump or the GOP. And this is, as I say, par for the course. This good priest is, naturally, relying on the aforesaid binary mentality in our country that, if I clearly cannot choose Biden/Harris, my only choice is to vote Trump/Pence.

If you make this observation (as I have) to a Trump supporter/GOP party member, that person will inevitably fall back on the claim that all of the problems with the GOP are simply matters of prudential judgment (i.e., the "negotiables" in the 5NN concept). But as I hope to show, this is not at all the whole picture. (And I hope everyone will keep in mind that the point here is NOT to tell you not to vote GOP. I promise.)

What is Wrong with the 5NN - #2 Too Much Reduction

Unfortunately for us Catholics, the choice ain't so simple. We are called to learn, value, and uphold the whole of Catholic doctrine. Not only that, we are guided to weigh not only the underlying issue and principles at hand but also how those principles come to bear practically for any given action.

By action, I am including voting, but we should remember these are meant to guide our daily lives, not just how we vote! Judging by the amount of fervor that is expended on elections, particularly the quadrennial presidential election, one would not fault someone for thinking that many Christians only think that their duties with regards to the social doctrine of the Church extend so far as casting a ballot. But I digress..

The Compendium is hundreds of pages long. And it is a compendium, that is, it is meant to be a concise collection of our teachings. It isn't even, in a sense, the full teaching of the Church that is meant to be our guide. But it is most assuredly a good guide. It puts a lot of important meat on the bones, and it also teaches us, very clearly, that many of the political ideas we have been inculcated with from birth, even some cherished American sacred cows, are not as sacred as we might have been led to believe. As true children of the Church, we ought to be teachable and to amend our political opinions accordingly, rather than insist on our own way, clinging stubbornly to political ideals over the truths of the Faith.

Even the bishops' guide is 45 pages long, and you can think of it as a compendium of the Compendium, perhaps, with some extra guidance as applies for our situation in the US today. Given the complexities of life and, especially, how those are encountered at the national or international levels, there are no silver bullets, there are no "perfectly clear" choices. Even if the American Solidarity Party were one of the major parties--and it sets out to explicitly conform its platform to Catholic social doctrine--it is not a given that voting ASP would be a slam dunk for Catholics. 

No party, I repeat, no party has any kind of special guarantee from Christ that they best represent Catholic social doctrine. And so we must, as mature, adult Catholics, do our best to consider all the many important issues and how each party does more or less to promote the common good, as understood through the guidance of the Church's Magisterium--which does actually have the special guarantee from Christ not to lead us into error! This, I have to point out, very much includes the teaching of our Holy Father Francis, as I elaborate on in a recent article.

As Catholics, we should be mature enough to live with the ambiguity inherent in all this. Some principles are crystal clear, but how they are realized and applied in the complexities of life and through national and global systems are anything but simple. Saying this in no way denies the fundamental clarity of the principles themselves. By the way, has anyone looked at the length of the Summa Theologica? It is 3011 pages in the five volume set I have, and it is "only" dealing with faith and morals. It is supposed to have been an "introduction" to theology.

It seems to me that we have to accept that 1) we cannot fully comprehend the complexities of the systems at play in large scale politics and governance, 2) we cannot ever fully predict how a given policy will definitely play out and what repercussions it will have, and 3) few if any of us is able to balance the full social doctrine of the Church against all of these with anything approaching perfection. We need to accept and appreciate these with humility, and that humility ought to guide us and make us less certain and sure that our political choices (and parties) are right. 

That should, as well, give us all a sense of bonhomie with all our fellow citizens. We are all in this boat together! None of us gets it perfectly right, even when we have certain fundamental principles to start from. We all, yes even our political "enemies," are seeking some conception of the good, however imperfectly. We are all fallible humans in need of redemption. Political differences should not be held so strongly for these reasons. There is an almost certain likelihood that any policy, especially at higher levels of government, will not pan out as planned and have very many unintended consequences, many of which are not good. 

As Christians, though, we ought not to despair. We can live with the ambiguity and uncertainty and still make the best decisions we can based on what we know and understand at any given time. We can, and we should. But any time we start getting certain that our party or candidate absolutely 100% has it right or, especially, that any particular candidate is going to realize our principles with any meaningful degree of certainty, we need to step back. That kind of thinking is what leads to all of the sinful polarization and mutual demonization that is so common today. Let's let humility be the key principle we start from and cling to.

What is Wrong with the 5NN - #3 Confusing/Misleading Language

The Church does not really use the language of "negotiable" or "non-negotiable." The problem with using this language is that it is readily converted into, on the one hand, an overly restrictive understanding of the implications of the non-negotiables and, on the other hand, an overly permissive understanding of, well, pretty much any other issue! 

Let me be clear. If you say, "these five are non-negotiable," then you are saying that if a given party does not align with the Catholic teaching on them, then that party must not be supported--it is non negotiable. So let's take abortion for example. The Catholic teaching is that it is only permissible when the abortion is not the end or means in view, but that it may be allowed when the death of the child is a consequence (even a known consequence) of a procedure intended to protect the life of the mother.

Now, if we are truly saying that the Church's teaching on this is literally non-negotiable, then we may not vote for any party based on this alone. (Maybe the ASP, but that's it.) The GOP does not have such an "extreme" view against abortion. They as a rule allow it in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. So again, if we are to use the proposed language of "non-negotiable," then we cannot negotiate with the GOP and say "well, it's okay because you mostly support our view." No, we are not allowed to negotiate!

And while we are here, it is worth noting that the Holy Father has now made capital punishment into one of these "non-negotiables." The Catechism uses the language "inadmissible." So, again, if we were going to be literalists and absolute on such matters, we obviously could not vote for the GOP, which openly supports capital punishment, nor especially Trump, who has reinstated it with actual killings to date at the federal level. 

Clearly, then, we must either be consistent, and not vote for either major party, or we must allow ourselves room to "negotiate." And this "negotiation" is precisely what our bishops actually teach us we must do (#32):
Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and "the art of the possible." At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually. For example, St. John Paul II taught that when a government official who fully opposes abortion cannot succeed in completely overturning a pro-abortion law, he or she may work to improve protection for unborn human life, "limiting the harm done by such a law" and lessening its negative impact as much as possible (Evangelium Vitae, no. 73). Such incremental improvements in the law are acceptable as steps toward the full restoration of justice. However, Catholics must never abandon the moral requirement to seek full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death.
We have an obligation to always oppose, but to wrongly translate that into "never negotiate" would, in effect, make achieving the goal impossible. Our bishops have a whole section on prudence and how to reason about applying these principles to our concrete realities. That is what we informed, faithful citizens must do.

So that is the problem with "non-negotiable." The problem with "negotiable" is, as I said, the inverse. It leads into a certain too-easy flexibility on the supposedly negotiable items, to the point of their not actually factoring in at all in our choice of how we vote. We feel free to effectively ignore them. This is contrary to what the Church teaches, as our bishops note (#34 of the same):
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. (emphases mine)

This section clearly contradicts the whole concept of "negotiable" and "non-negotiable." Not only are "non-negotiables" paralyzing in the political sphere we live in, if we take them truly to be such, but the Church through the CDF and our bishops clearly teaches that it is possible to vote for a candidate who favors policy promoting an intrinsically evil act so long as we in no way intent to support that position. This strikes down any notion that, for example, a candidate's admittedly repugnant stance on abortion is completely non-negotiable. They continue, to be even more explicit (#35):

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.

And (#36):

When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

Speaking of intrinsically evil acts, "The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable." (see here) What GOP candidate promotes this teaching? Do they not rather, as a rule, follow and promote the "standard" American view that contraception is just fine and normal? And, can we for a moment pretend that the GOP upholds what the Church teaches on the indissolubility of marriage? Or sex outside of marriage, even? Masturbation? And yet, these all involve intrinsically evil acts, and all parties and nearly all candidates fall short on this measure. Exactly zero of them are campaigning to bring back true "traditional marriage," stopping far, far short of the Church's teaching and implicitly or explicitly promoting such intrinsic evils. 

The purpose here, again, is not in any way to minimize the necessity of our opposition to intrinsically evil acts. Quite the contrary--the Church is very clear on that duty. It is simply to highlight that, contrary to the 5NN concept, when it comes to working for the common good, no single issue or issues always and everywhere invalidate voting for or working with a particular party or candidate to find what seems to us the best way to achieve the common good and to fight against all the very many grave injustices in the world today.

Again, if we were to take an absolute, non-negotiable stance on abortion, we could not even vote for most GOP candidates due to their support of abortion exceptions that are not allowed in Catholic teaching. And so, we may rightly determine to vote for them despite their support for that intrinsically grave evil. Indeed, not every Democrat supports fully unrestricted abortion. So while we can say that the GOP is certainly much preferable in their far more restrictive stance, they all still allow it to some degree.

I am not just being clever with words here nor trying to make some rarified academic point. They really, truly all have serious problems and to varying degrees support policies and law that promote intrinsic evils. We should never pretend that a vote for either of our major parties is free of such problems. We have to determine which has the greatest good that offsets those problems, and that applies when considering both major parties and any other party or candidate. 

Similarly, the admonition that "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" clearly rules out any possibility for single issue voting for a faithful Catholic (or five issue voting). 

What is Wrong with the 5NN - #4 Devaluing Other Gravely Important Matters

I touched on this above, but it needs to be highlighted further. As a rule, we Republican-leaning Catholics are far too quick to dismiss, wave hands, and claim "prudential judgment" on those things that are not in the 5NN. I can only imagine the ready defensiveness on this is for fear we be seen to lean towards positions more closely associated with the Democratic party. We see this in the massive overreactions to Fratelli Tutti, for example. Pope Francis criticizes unbridled capitalism (in lock step with Catholic social doctrine for over 120 years) and people lose their minds! He's a communist! (That is sarcasm.)

War is a grave evil. Pope Francis teaches compellingly and authoritatively in his role as supreme pastor (Fratelli Tutti, 258): 

We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. Never again war!

Even admitting the possibility of just war, as Catholics we are called, as a rule and basic stance, to oppose it as invariably leading to grave evils. This is in stark contrast to the hawkish, nationalist stance that the GOP has taken, especially under Trump. He makes no beans about his readiness to use our military might to advance his America First policy. This should be a serious problem for Catholics.

The America First policy itself is hugely problematic from a Catholic principles point of view. It is fundamentally a selfish policy that prioritizes our collective national good over the good of every other nation in the world. We would not tolerate such selfishness on a personal level, nor should we tolerate it on a national level.

Climate change is another area where the GOP, as a rule, is way out of sync with Catholic social doctrine. Pope Francis has repeatedly highlighted for us (from his global vantage point that none of us has) the grave injustices done throughout the world to human beings as a result of our carelessness towards the environment. This is no matter of being a tree hugger or exalting some kind of mother-earth animism. It is about protecting and caring for the most vulnerable among us. 

The destructive effects of how we have been living are observable already even today. I am not talking about abstract concerns about rising temperatures, although those increases do endanger very, very many vulnerable poor people. The impacts on human beings and God's creatures are undeniable. And the GOP's denial, deregulation, pulling out of environmental accords, and the like promote an irresponsible laissez faire attitude, contrary to the careful stewardship we are called to, and the concern for the poor around the globe who suffer as a result of our lackadaisical attitude. 

Treatment of immigrants is another grave area for concern. We must not pretend that there is a dichotomy--completely closed borders or completely open. But not having followed current regulations for immigration does not strip a person of their human dignity. Being an "illegal immigrant" does not make a person subhuman and therefore beyond the scope of our care. 

As Catholics, we know better. The example of the good Samaritan that Pope Francis draws so heavily on in Fratelli Tutti applies, along with all the many corporal works of mercy that are the ancient and enduring tradition of the Church. A nation may have a right to protect its borders, but there are just and unjust ways to do that. The GOP under Trump have moved in the wrong direction and, in general, promote a careless and even hostile and fearful attitude towards those extremely vulnerable persons--the immigrants and refugees--who need our love and care.

Another area of grave concern is how we collectively care for the poorest among us in our own country. The free market does not give a damn about the poor. The increasing disparities in the world and our country between the very rich and the poor should be alarming to us. Policies that disproportionately favor corporations and the wealthy can only go so far towards the good. Again, this is not a binary thing. It is not communism or unbridled capitalism. It is not no taxes for social welfare or complete redistribution of wealth. Too often we reach for reactionary words and a mindset that resists reasonable compromises that would enable us to better serve the poor through our pooled resources.

Yes, prudential judgment does apply, but it applies to all of the concerns that bear on our action in the world and especially to politics and how we vote and the policies we craft. We are not any more free to deny our duty to help the poor than we are free to deny our duty to protect the unborn. Indeed, the two are not unrelated, given the poor disproportionately seek abortions. We are not free to turn a blind eye towards systems of injustice any more than we are free to turn a blind eye towards promoting chastity and the sanctity of marriage. How we achieve all these just and good goals is the matter of prudential judgment and working it out in our political sphere. 

Is There Anything Better Than the 5NN?

The reality and problem with the 5NN concept is that it is not, in point of fact, what the Church teaches us about our duties in the social and political spheres. It is too reductive, too selective, and serves more as a tool of the Republican party than of forming consciences according to the fullness of Catholic social doctrine. It reinforces the already prevalent misconception that as long as we vote pro life (or pro marriage), we're good, and it wrongly releases us from other very grave concerns and obligations. 

We need to realize we are not free at all to be cozy with and uncritically supportive of either major party. I have focused on the GOP here because criticisms of the Democratic party (in such circles as I often find myself in) are aplenty. I see this post as a necessary corrective to urge us all to start thinking more holistically with the Church. We can, despite protestations to the contrary, vote for either major party, given that both support intrinsic evils but both also promote the common good in their respective ways. I do not say that I think they are both equally good, all things considered, but it is by no means an easy choice, depending on what serious issue you consider at a given moment. If we are not struggling with this, we are not doing it right--we are not giving all the serious matters due consideration. Certainly if we think that the 5NN are sufficient to choose, I say we are just being lazy.

We Catholics have to accept our adult responsibility. This means no meme or handy five-point program is sufficient to form our consciences with regards to our social responsibilities, which are in fact the particulars of our duty to love our neighbors as ourselves. If there is any valid reduction of Catholic teaching, it is what Christ gave us in the two greatest commandments. But all of us need to expend more time and energy to form ourselves in the Faith. 

Our bishops' guide is only 45 pages. That is not too much to read and seriously ponder for such matters of import. I'll warrant most of us spend more time watching a Netflix show in one night than it would take to read that. Get started. Go read it, or read it again. I know I will.

And when you are done, consider carving out 10 minutes a day to read through the Compendium. That is, actually, how I managed it. One little bit at a time. You can do it, and you will be better formed for doing so, I guarantee it. Just sincerely pray for the Spirit to help you to keep an open mind and to allow yourself to be formed by the Church rather than our political parties and/or what we may have previously held. If we read it only looking for that things that confirm our thinking, we are wasting our time.

After (or even before) that, go read our Holy Father's Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti. They both speak to important considerations to keep in mind, are part and parcel of the tradition of the social doctrine of the Church, and they are as pertinent for our times as Rerum Novarum was in its time.

Any and all of these are better than the 5NN to more effectively form our consciences in the Faith for action in the world. I urge us all to dive deep in them!

Peace, my brothers and sisters! Remember the key of humility!