Negotiable Moral Issues

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 166

“The demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights. These demands concern above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State's powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom.”

While moral principles are not themselves negotiable, being based on natural and revealed law as represented in the theological tradition of the Church, policy issues involving many contingencies and various possible means to the good end are politically Negotiable Issues. Individuals of good will, therefore, can disagree regarding the best means to achieve the policy goal, and the proper balance of considerations to be achieved, provided the other principles of morality are respected. The Right to Private Property, for example, is balanced by the Universal Destination of Goods; however, the means that best serves the common good, avoiding both the statism of socialism and the individualism of liberal capitalism (both condemned by the Church), is subject to debate and opinion.

The basic principles that apply are in the first place the general principles that apply to all moral action, then the specific moral principles that apply in the social sphere.

General Moral Principles

In determining what actions may morally be done, what means may morally be used, and what evils may morally be tolerated, reference should be made to what constitutes:

(a) A Good Moral Act, in the first place,

(b) Moral Cooperation in Evil, and,

(c) The Principle of Double Effect (i.e. whether bad effects can be tolerated)

A Good Moral Act is also a Prudent Act

A morally good action is one that is completely good: 1. Good in its object (the thing done), 2) Good in its intention (the reason for which it is done), and 3) Good in its circumstances (its appropriateness for the situation). A lofty intention cannot justify an evil action, nor can difficult circumstances.

The virtue of Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it, "the prudent man looks where he is going" (Prov. 14:15). Together with a well-formed conscience, prudence it is therefore essential for determining whether a particular moral choice is good or bad.


Moral Cooperation in Evil

Just as we may not do evil ourselves we may not cooperate in the evil of others. We are accomplices in the evil of another by joining in their evil act in some fashion, whether formally by embracing it, or materially by advancing it. In the cases of candidates who support intrinsic evils, we may never formally cooperate in their support of any intrinsic evil (Non-negotiables), nor may we lend them material support for their evil purpose.

Moral Cooperation in Evil

Principle of Double Effect

A moral act which is good in itself, often cannot be separated from an unwanted bad consequence resulting from it. While we may never formally choose evil we may sometimes tolerate an unwanted bad consequence to an otherwise good action. The Principle of Double Effect is used to determine when an action which has two effects, one good and one bad, may still be chosen without sin.

Double Effect

General Social Principles

Compendium 160. The permanent principles of the Church's social doctrine constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching. These are the principles of: the dignity of the human person . . . which is the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church's social doctrine (Pope St. John XXIII, Encyclical Mater et Magistra); the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity. These principles, the expression of the whole truth about man known by reason and faith, are born of "the encounter of the Gospel message and of its demands summarized in the supreme commandment of love of God and neighbour in justice with the problems emanating from the life of society" (CDF, Instruction Libertatis Conscientia).

Since the Negotiable Issues involve complex social circumstances, the Church provides a body of doctrine to guide the application of moral principles to social relationships, among individuals, between institutions, and between institutions and individuals, especially the most vulnerable in society. This body of doctrine can be found compiled in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, issued by the Holy See in 2004.

The General Principles of Catholic Social Teaching are:

1. Dignity of the human person,

Compendium 132. A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person. The person represents the ultimate end of society, by which it is ordered to the person: "Hence, the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around" (Second Vatican Council, Guadium et spes 26). Respect for human dignity can in no way be separated from obedience to this principle. It is necessary to "consider every neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity" (Ibid, 27). Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society (CCC 2235).

2. Common good,

Compendium 164. . . . According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily" (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes 26). The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains "common", because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future. Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. (cf. CCC 1905-1912).

3. Universal Destination of Goods

Compendium 171. Among the numerous implications of the common good, immediate significance is taken on by the principle of the universal destination of goods: "God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity" (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 69). This principle is based on the fact that "the original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Gen 1:28-29). God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.

4. Subsidiarity

Compendium 185. It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities . . . This is the realm of civil society, understood as the sum of the relationships between individuals and intermediate social groupings, which are the first relationships to arise and which come about thanks to "the creative subjectivity of the citizen" (John Paul II, Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 15). This network of relationships strengthens the social fabric and constitutes the basis of a true community of persons, making possible the recognition of higher forms of social activity (Ibid).

186. The necessity of defending and promoting the original expressions of social life is emphasized by the Church in the Encyclical 'Quadragesimo Anno', in which the principle of subsidiarity is indicated as a most important principle of "social philosophy". "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them" (Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno).

5. Solidarity

Compendium 192. Solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an ever more committed unity. Never before has there been such a widespread awareness of the bond of interdependence between individuals and peoples, which is found at every level. . . .

193. Solidarity must be seen above all in its value as a moral virtue that determines the order of institutions. On the basis of this principle the "structures of sin" that dominate relationships between individuals and peoples must be overcome. (John Paul II, Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 36, 37) They must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems.

Solidarity is also an authentic moral virtue, not a "feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all" (Ibid 38). [cf. Mt 10:40-42, 20:25; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-27)].

Social Doctrine

Some Negotiable Issues

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship 34

Forming Consciences 34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. 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.

38. It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation. Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being. Pope Benedict XVI, in his reflection on the Eucharist as “the sacrament of charity,” challenged all of us to adopt what he calls “a Eucharistic form of life.” This means that the redeeming love we encounter in the Eucharist should shape our thoughts, our words, and our decisions, including those that pertain to the social order. The Holy Father called for “Eucharistic consistency” on the part of every member of the Church:

It is important to consider what the Synod Fathers described as eucharistic consistency, a quality which our lives are objectively called to embody. Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith. Evidently, this is true for all the baptized, yet it is especially incumbent upon those who, by virtue of their social or political position, must make decisions regarding fundamental values, such as respect for human life, its defense from conception to natural death, the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman, the freedom to educate one’s children and the promotion of the common good in all its forms. . . . (Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 83)

As the Church’s social doctrine teaches, in each of these issues there is a non-negotiable element at its core which may never be set aside in any policy solution (e.g. human life, human dignity, marriage and family, religious freedom), as well as typically multiple considerations which need to be negotiated in order to achieve it.

1. War and Peace

Forming Consciences 68. Catholics must also work to avoid war and to promote peace. This is of particular importance, as there is a danger in the present time of becoming indifferent to war because of the number of armed conflicts. War is never a reflection of what ought to be but a sign that something more true to human dignity has failed. The Catholic tradition recognizes the legitimacy of just war teaching when defending the innocent in the face of grave evil, but we must never lose sight of the cost of war and its harm to human life. Nations should protect the dignity of the human person and the right to life by finding more effective ways to prevent conflicts, to resolve them by peaceful means, and to promote reconstruction and reconciliation in the wake of conflicts.

War and Peace

2. Health Care

Catholic teaching counts basic health care as among the goods that should be available to everyone. How to achieve it, however, is a matter of policy. It may not, of course, include or mandate intrinsic evils, such as abortion, contraception and sterilization, which violate the essential goods of life, nor may it require the violation of consciences by demanding citizens to perform, or assist at, medical procedures which violate their consciences, and thereby religious freedom.

Health Care

3. Economic Policy

The Church, while condemning both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, has spoken positively of market economies within legal limits that circumscribe unjust practices. This provides a broad field for opinion as to the degree of freedom and the degree of regulation, for example, that best achieves the goal of a just and working economy.

Economic Policy

4. Migration & Immigration

Immigration policy must consider the rights of the people who are already present in a society, the requests of those who wish to immigrant, the obligation to those with urgent needs (refugees, the persecuted, and other displaced persons), and how best to integrate any newcomers into the society that already exists. Between the extremes of no immigration ever and anyone can come, there is room for a diversity of opinions.


5. Environment

The starting point for any consideration of the topic begins with the recognition that we do not own God’s creation, we are its stewards. This places certain moral obligations on us with respect to its care, and particularly with respect to the people who are affected by environmental issues. Considerations of the science, as well as the political, economic and technological possibilities of responding, make this a negotiable issue dependent upon the evaluation of the particular circumstances.


6. Capital Punishment

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide. [Pope Francis, Rescriptum, 02.08.2018]

Capital Punishment is an unique case because it concerns the intrinsic dignity of human life, created in the image of God, the dignity of a life redeemed by Christ and destined for eternal life, but, unlike the evils of abortion and euthanasia, also concerns the justice of punishment under the natural law for those who themselves take a life. All three of these values have been maintained by the Church throughout her history, with different emphases at different times.

In the early centuries Christians did not participate in Capital Punishment on evangelical grounds. Following the legalization of the faith in 313 A.D., Christians became active in governing, relying upon the natural law for the use of just capital punishment, as also of just war and self-defense. The following quote of St. Ambrose to a Christian judge who must try a capital case, both illustrates the existence of natural and evangelical considerations in the practices of the day, as well as provides an insight into the practice in the age of persecution. Citing the example of Our Lord and the woman caught in adultery, he concludes his letter as follows,

Letter XXVI. To Studius (c. 360 A.D.). . . .Here is an example for you to follow, for it may be that there is hope of amendment for this guilty person; if he be yet unbaptized, that he may receive remission, if baptized that he may do penance, and offer up his body for Christ. See how many roads there are to salvation!

This is why our ancestors thought it better to be indulgent towards Judges; that by the terror of their sword the madness of crime should be repressed, and no encouragement given to it. For if Communion were denied to Judges, it would seem like a retribution on their punishment of the wicked. Our ancestors wished then that their clemency should proceed from their own free-will and forbearance, rather than from any legal necessity. (St. Ambrose, “Letter XXVI. To Studius,” c. 360 A.D.)

In our day, the Papal Magisterium has increasing laid down the sword in favor of an effective return to the position of the early Church, with Pope Francis’ changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church being the strongest teaching of the recent popes. Like Popes Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II and St. Paul VI before him, there is so far no hint of sanctions for judges who consider it a necessity, rather the strongest desire that Christians freely adopt the evangelical considerations which motivated the early Christians to extend to all human beings the fullest opportunity of salvation unhindered by the justice of man.

Capital Punishment

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