Certain conservative and Republican activists have frequently used the tactic of dividing Catholic social teaching into two separate categories, with one set (those that align with their ideological or partisan preferences) framed as the more important or ‘non-negotiable’ set of positions. This approach is intellectually, morally, and theologically indefensible. Our faith should inform the way we approach politics, and there is nothing wrong with explaining how that faith shapes the political positions that we support and the way we prioritize the political goals we favor. But to divide and distort Church teaching in such a crude and cynical way for partisan objectives cannot be considered legitimate.
In his most recent interview, Pope Francis rejected this notion that there are a special set of non-negotiable values:
“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.”
In his reflection on the Pope’s comments, Morning’s Minion of Vox Nova shows the absurdity of this partisan construct, which relies on the distortion of theological concepts, including “intrinsic evil” and “prudential reasoning”:
“As an example: war is not intrinsically evil, because some wars are just. Taken to its logical and absurd 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.”
Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernandez recently explained the problem with this false division: “Fanatics end up turning certain principles into a never-ending battle and deliberately only ever focus on these issues.” This artificial construct is used not simply to deflect criticism that conservatives are breaking with Church teaching on numerous issues, but also to defend an approach to politics that frequently ignores the plight of the poor, a central issue in regard to the Church’s commitment to the common good. Even worse is when culture warriors define these “non-negotiable” issues as the central teachings of the faith, subordinating the actual core dogmas of the faith that are found in the Creed. This entails a complete politicization of the faith.
Pope Francis seems determined to transform the mentality of those engaging in this type of behavior. We can only hope that they listen and change.