My friend, Michael Denton, has a good post asking “Does the right’s support of [Scott] Brown mean an end to the non-negotiable framework of voting?“.
Michael offers 3 possible theories to explain the fact that many pro-lifers supported the pro-abortion Republican Brown over his Democratic (and also pro-abortion) opponent, Martha Coakley: (1) the Pessimist; (2) the Apologist; and (3) the Liberal. Do read Michael’s entire post in which he fleshes out these theories.
I want to focus, however, on Michael’s description of the “non-negotiable” framework of voting. I’m not sure the “non-negotiable” approach is necessarily as stringent as Michael has described it (although I think some people pushing the non-negotiable approach seem to argue that way).
What the Holy Father has stated regarding issues that are “not negotiable”, and what the U.S. Bishops seemed to confirm in Faithful Citizenship, is that issues like abortion, marriage, and the right of parents to control their children’s education (to name 3 items that the Pope has deemed “not negotiable”) can’t be treated as just some important items alongside a lot of other important items. When we vote, these items must be forefront in our minds and command priority. They can’t be swept aside because someone thinks a candidate is better overall on other important issues to Catholics (such as war, health care, welfare programs, etc.). In that sense, abortion, marriage, etc. can’t be “negotiated away” because we might prefer a candidate’s position on those other issue.
However, if the “non negotiable” position meant that Catholics could NEVER vote for candidates who countenance abortion, we would rarely be able to participate in the political process since even allegedly “pro-life” candidates generally allow for some exceptions to banning abortion. Unfortunately, there are very few “perfect” pro-life candidates out there. So, to some extent, even the non-negotiable position encompasses some level of pragmatism and prudence. Faithful Citizenship explicitly provides guidance for these situations:
36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods. 37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.
And, as Tom Kreitzberg of the Disputations blog pointed out yesterday in a comment at Vox Nova, even the 2004 Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics that popularized the “five non-negotioable issues” included this paragraph:
“In some political races, each candidate takes a wrong position on one or more of the five non-negotiables. In such a case you may vote for the candidate who takes the fewest such positions or who seems least likely to be able to advance immoral legislation, or you may choose to vote for no one.”
So, I think there’s some nuance even in the “non-negotiable” approach that allows for pragmatism when neither candidate is “perfect” on the issues of primary importance to Catholics.
NB: My explanation here explains, in part, why I have argued strongly against the view that Catholics may NEVER vote for a pro-abortion candidate and, in fact, why I wrote during the 2008 election that, despite my disagreement with the prudence of such a vote, a faithful Catholic was not morally foreclosed from voting for Barack Obama.