In 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Doctrinal note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life.” The letter was signed by the congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who in 2007 became Pope Benedict XVI.
That letter introduced a term that is often referenced by Catholic groups during election years: non-negotiable ethical principles.
The note states: “Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.” The note went on to list a number of “non-negotiable” principles.
“In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person,” the note stated. “This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death.”
The note mentioned other non-negotiable principles: the family, traditional marriage; education of children; protection of minors; freedom from modern slavery; religious freedom; the economy; and peace.
In his 2007 apostolic exhortation, “Sacramentum Caritatis,” Pope Benedict XVI again referenced the “non-negotiable principles of the moral law,” including human life “from conception to natural death,” marriage, freedom to educate children and promotion of the common good (203).
As we approach the November presidential elections, the focus is again on “non-negotiable” principles. However, this list is long (not limited to five issues) and no candidate or political party, as we have learned, meets this standard. Abortion is obviously part of the first principle of protecting life, but human life also requires protection outside of the womb.
Perhaps this is why Pope Francis takes issue with the non-negotiable approach to addressing church moral teachings.
In a March 2014 interview with Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis said he never understood the expression of non-negotiable values.
“Values are values and that is it,” he said. “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.”
Later that month, Argentine Archbishop Victor Fernandez, in an interview with Vatican Insider, explained why Pope Francis objected to non-negotiable principles.
“The pope stands firm in his opposition to abortion because if he does not defend the innocence of human life, we aren’t left with many other arguments with which to defend human rights,” said Archbishop Fernandez. “Of course this is not negotiable, but it doesn’t mean that certain moral principles are the source of all other truths of the Christian faith.”
Our faith does tell us to vote with an informed conscience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters’” (1782).
Catholics, in good conscience, may not come to the same conclusion about one candidate’s qualifications. As the U.S. bishops state in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: “Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means.”
No church leader or any other person can take away a God-given right to an informed conscience, one that is formed through prayer, discernment and study. Voting on Election Day with an informed conscience; now that is non-negotiable.