July 29, 2020 (Edward J. Barr) – As we get closer to the Presidential election a number of self-proclaimed Catholic news outlets have attacked the legitimacy of the “five non-negotiables,” those policies that Catholics should always reject. These are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and “homosexual marriage.” Based on Church teachings, especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the five “Non-negotiables” address activities that are intrinsically evil and must never be supported by Catholics. Yet are these truly non-negotiable? Did the Church ever state that they are non-negotiable? The answer is yes and no. They are non-negotiable, but the Church never officially called them non-negotiable. This last fact has allowed both orthodox and heterodox to take issue with the term; the former saying there are more non-negotiables, the latter saying they aren’t non-negotiables. While the orthodox are correct, the heterodox are not.
The Catechism teaches that “there are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object.” (CCC 1757) Pope St. John Paul II expanded on intrinsic evil in Veritatis Splendor (1993). He explains that “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person…. Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81).” All of the Five Non-negotiables fall into this category.
Those that claim that there are more than 5 non-negotiables are correct. Many would be surprised that theft, lying, fornication, adultery, and blasphemy are also noted as intrinsically evil, meaning they are always wrong. Adding these to the list of non-negotiables is allowable and supported by Catholic teaching. The problem occurs when individuals and organizations try to politicize Church teaching and turn issues in which Catholics can have legitimate differences of opinion into “non-negotiables.” These are normally topics where prudential judgement is required; thus, each Catholic must come to a decision by using their conscience, properly formed through adherence to divine revelation (scripture and Tradition) and the teaching of the Magisterium.
One hot-button issue which has confused many Catholics concerns the death penalty. This existing confusion was augmented by Pope Francis changing the Catechism to state that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” Without going down the rabbit hole of what this inexact word means, the Pope did not state that the death penalty was “intrinsically evil.” This would have meant that the previous teachings of the Magisterium were wrong, thus contradicting the Church’s claim of being prevented from teaching error in morals and faith. The historical teaching of the Church has always recognized the right of legitimate governments to utilize the death penalty.
As a Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI explained the differences between prudential judgement and non-negotiable issues in a teaching on the Worthiness to receive Holy Communion. He writes, “”Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” (WRHC 3). This rationale remains valid today.
Benedict’s contrasts between prudential and non-negotiable issues can be highlighted with a cursory comparison between abortion and the death penalty. The baby in the womb has not sinned or taken any action against any member of society. The convict has been judged by a legitimate governmental authority for actions taken of their own free will against a member or members of society (assuming a legitimate government and full competency of the convict). The baby, was helpless, and had no ability to defend itself. The convict had due process and an ability to defend himself. The baby had no jury or judge to decide the validity of the sentence. The convict was accorded that benefit. In short, the baby in no way contributed to the death sentence, while the convict was sentenced based on the assessment of his actions by a legitimate government. The first death sentence is intrinsically evil, the second one of prudential judgement. We can say that the death penalty is inadmissible yet valid. It should never be used, but it can be used. Abortion can never be used.
The rhetoric of the political season is upon us. It is not difficult to visit party platforms to learn which group supports which policy, those intrinsically evil and those requiring prudential judgement. If you want to add a few more non-negotiables to the five originally highlighted by orthodox Catholic outlets prior to the 2004 election; go ahead, as long as they are equally grounded in Church teaching. Yet don’t be fooled with claims about issues of prudential judgement being non-negotiable. These are usually done by Catholics seeking a way to justify their heterodox thinking and equate evil with policies on which Catholics of good conscience may disagree.
Edward J Barr is a Catechist, an attorney, an intelligence officer, a Marine, and a university faculty member. He has just completed his studies for a Master’s degree in theology from the Augustine Institute. Mr. Barr is a contributing writer for the Roma Locuta Est blog (www.RomaLocutaEst.com)