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Deacon-structing: The 'non-negotiables' (of Catholic voting)

Deacon Pedro

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Recently I had a conversation which brought up the following question: When we are voting at a political election, as Catholics, is there a guide or principles that we should follow? The person asking the question had been told that there is a list of 'non-negotiable' principles that Catholics should follow when voting.
I may be under a rock, but I had never heard of these 'non-negotiables'. Immediately I remembered a class we had at the Seminary where we were speaking about what made one Catholic. What were the essential elements of belief that made one Catholic? I remember asking for a list. “Where’s the list?” There is no list. Everything we believe is important.
After this question came up, I decided to do some research. I discovered that it’s true: There are certain online publications and others who profess that there are five (or three depending on where you look) ‘non-negotiables’ which Catholics can never support in an election.
Depending on where you look and on wording, these may be, either, abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom, or abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, cloning, and marriage. You may have also seen: life, marriage and family, and human freedom.
Proponents of the ‘non-negotiables’ say that issues like abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and homosexual "marriage" are matters of moral law that are intrinsic evils that can never be voted for or supported in any way by Catholics. They say that, based on Church Teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Encyclicals, and issue papers from the Office of the Doctrine of the Faith, these issues concern actions that are intrinsically evil and must never be promoted by the law. The logic is that they are "acts of violence" that Catholics can never obey and are obligated to oppose using every licit and reasonable means at their disposal. I agree. These things should never be promoted in law. But voting for someone who espouses some of these beliefs? I’ve seen certain sites that say that it is a serious sin to deliberately endorse or promote any of these actions, and that no person who really wants to advance the common good will support any action contrary to the ‘non-negotiable’ principles involved in these issues.
My question initially was, where did these ‘non-negotiables’ come from? One site that says there are three, says that they are based on Pope Benedict. So I did some more research.
The document that they are referring to is an address by Pope Benedict in March 2006 to the members of the European People's Party on the occasion of the study days on Europe. To them, Benedict said that the principal focus of the Church’s interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person. He then draws particular attention to principles which he says are ‘not negotiable’. They are:
-Protection of life in all its stages
-Recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family
-The protection of the right of parents to educate their children
Let me just focus on the first one: protection of life in all its stages. While abortion and euthanasia are important issues, protecting life at all stages is not limited to these. It's certainly not limited to just abortion. Defending and protecting life includes all life issues. It also includes the death penalty, refugee issues, child and sex slavery, gun control, war, as well as rights of workers, gang issues, poverty issues, even economic policy; any number of issues that directly relate to the dignity of the human person. The life and dignity of the unborn child is not more valuable than the life and dignity of that man on death row, that young Syrian refugee, that Guatemalan migrant or that gang member.
In a more pertinent document (that I believe carries more weight than the address to the European People’s Party) is a doctrinal note issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) on questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Politics. While not specifically a “voter’s guide”, it does give some context to Church Teaching.
In this document, the CDF states several issues which it refers to as “central points in the current cultural and political debate.” It highlights abortion and euthanasia, but also the family, the freedom parents have regarding the education of their children, protection of minors, modern forms of slavery, religious freedom and “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.” Finally it brings up the question of peace.
There’s a lot there; certainly more than just 3 or 5 'non-negotiables'.
In fact, the best guide for Catholic voters is given to us by the United States Bishops Conference, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
In the updated version (for this year), the U.S. Bishops outline various issues that are pertinent to Catholics in the United States:
• The ongoing destruction of over one million innocent human lives each year by abortion
• Physician-assisted suicide
• The redefinition of marriage—the vital cell of society—by the courts, political bodies, and increasingly by American culture itself
• The excessive consumption of material goods and the destruction of natural resources, which harm both the environment and the poor
• The deadly attacks on fellow Christians and religious minorities throughout the world
• The narrowing redefinition of religious freedom, which threatens both individual conscience and the freedom of the Church to serve
• Economic policies that fail to prioritize the poor, at home or abroad
• A broken immigration system and a worldwide refugee crisis
• Wars, terror, and violence that threaten every aspect of human life and dignity
The document then lists five guidelines and four principles that will help Catholics make a political decision. I will provide a very brief summary, but, before you vote at your next election, I suggest you download and read the full document.
The four guidelines that help Catholics in speaking about political and social questions are:
1. A Well-Formed Conscience
2. The virtue of Prudence
3. Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
4. Making Moral Choices
Then, the document lists four principles of Catholic Social Teaching, which are:
1. The Dignity of Human Person (which includes all the issues I’ve mentioned above)
2. Subsidiarity (it holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution)
3. The Common Good (would call us to consider many issues such as the care of workers, defense of human rights, concern for the most vulnerable and protection of the environment)
4. Solidarity (we take care of each other)
As well as these, the U.S. bishops also have produced a list of issues for Catholics:
  • Human life (again, all the issues I’ve mentioned above, and also genocide, torture and the “direct and intentional targeting of noncombatants in war” and terrorist attacks)
  • Promoting Peace
  • Marriage and Family Life
  • Religious Freedom
  • The Preferential Option for the Poor and Economic Justice
  • Health Care
  • Migration
  • Catholic Education
  • Promoting Justice and Countering Violence
  • Combating Unjust Discrimination
  • Care for Our Common Home
  • Communications, Media and Culture
  • and Global Solidarity
These are all issues that, I would say, are non-negotiable. In an interview published in March 2014 in the Italian Daily ‘Corriere della Sera’, Pope Francis was asked about these so-called ‘non-negotiables’. 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.” In the interview, the context of these ‘non-negotiable’ values came from a national convention of the Church in Italy in 1985. The convention ended with an appeal for Catholics to support the Christian Democracy political party. The non-negotiables here included “the primacy and centrality of the human person, the sacrality and inviolability of the human person from conception to natural death, the contribution of women in social development, the role and stability of the family founded on marriage, social pluralism and the freedom of education, privileged attention to those who are weaker, and freedom and social justice in the world.”
If we look to the Canadian Bishops’ voting guide (last updated in 2015), there are suggestions as to how Catholics can apply Catholic moral and social teaching, and it list the following issues:
  • Respect for life and human dignity
  • Building a more just society
  • The person and the family
  • Canada in the world: providing leadership for justice and peace
  • and 'A healthy country in a healthy environment'
Lastly it points out that exercising the right to vote means making enlightened and well-thought-out judgments about the choices available and highlights the importance of having a well-formed conscience (see Sebastian’s article from yesterday).
As to the so-called 'non-negotiables', when we vote as Catholics we vote for all these issues, not just for one of them. Catholics are not “one-issue voters” nor do we ignore some issues because others are more 'non-negotiable' than the others. We do have to make sure that our consciences are formed and that we are informed of all the issues. Also, Catholics don’t make other people feel guilty about the political choices they make. Lastly, we must vote (CCC 2239-40). If you are a Catholic, it is your duty to vote. That, I would say is non-negotiable.
Photo: Nuns vote at a polling station during regional and municipal elections in Madrid May 24. (CNS photo/Susana Vera, Reuters)

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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