New book addresses ‘non-negotiables’ in moral issues

By Catholic New World
Sunday, June 15, 2014

One day Relevant Radio host and Emmy award winning journalist Sheila Liaugminas went looking for a book on her shelf that addressed what the church teaches and why on all of the moral issues debated in society today. She couldn’t find one, so she wrote “Non-negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Human Culture.”

Her book, available through Ignatius Press ($17.95), addresses the essential principles that shape a free, just and moral society, showing that what the Catholic Church teaches is, by extension, the human truths affirmed by other religious and civil rights leaders and thinkers throughout time.

The following is an interview with Liaugminas and Catholic New World editor Joyce Duriga about her new book.

Catholic New World: You begin your book talking about Abraham Lincoln and his desire to abolish slavery. Why did you start with this story?

Sheila Liaugminas: Originally, the idea for the book was prompted by the desire to have in hand an accessible reference for what the church teaches on the hot button social issues of the day, and why. Beginning it, I discerned the need to broaden the reach for a wider cultural engagement of universal truths about human dignity acknowledged throughout history in and beyond the Catholic Church.

I wanted to trace the consistent ethic of life through its manifestations in many aspects, political and legal battles, distortions and cultural shifts well known to modern culture, hoping to help engage critical thinking and dialogue on human rights.

CNW: Throughout the book you often quote Martin Luther King Jr. Why is he so important to the issues you address?

Liaugminas: He is a key figure and human rights leader who not only illustrated the principles enunciated in the book through his life’s work, but eloquently preached on the consistent ethic of life, citing the natural law and the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas as the basis for understanding and defending just laws for all people equally.

The book begins with President Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, showing that in spite of slavery being legal, the law that allowed it was unjust and immoral. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the great civil rights movement, segregation was legal. But he worked against the unjust and immoral laws of rendering an entire class of human beings as unworthy of rights, the way Lincoln had a century earlier.

CNW: You write that the U.S. and the U.N. — despite having declarations upholding the dignity of each person — are passing laws and advancing agendas that violate human dignity. Why is this happening? Why should we as Catholics be concerned?

Liaugminas: This has been happening for decades because of what Pope Benedict XVI famously called the “dictatorship of relativism” pervading our culture and growing more threatening to human rights all the time.

Common language has been distorted, so “choice” covers abortion, and “compassion” covers euthanasia, both of which are decisions to end vulnerable human life. It leads to unclear thinking about what we used to know and hold as common knowledge.

When governing bodies and institutions are led by people with powerful authority, whose concept of truth and the common good is an ever-evolving consensus instead of reference to unchanging, fundamental truth, a “tyranny of the majority” (those in power) replaces the rule of law. That is, just law.

Catholics have always been committed to carrying out the social gospel in the world, guided by clear moral imperatives directed by Jesus Christ. The most basic call to care for the least of our brothers and sisters, the most vulnerable and endangered, is politicized now, as is our ability to live out our morally informed beliefs in public life.

CNW: There are debates today over what is truth. How did we get to a point where our society no longer adheres to moral truths or certainties?

Liaugminas: In the book, I reference Josef Pieper in “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power” in tracing this tendency back to the sophistry Plato battled in his time, Sophists being “experts in the art of twisting words” so that anything can be justified.

Pieper said that practice of deception reduces the public to “a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with … a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.” That describes our modern culture.

However we have a great Catholic intellectual tradition that applies moral grammar to public debate, to engage reason and faith with reference to transcendent truth, and we use it to address laws and social policies.

CNW: What are the non-negotiables?

Liaugminas: Catholic social teaching covers a broad spectrum of principles we must not capitulate on or abrogate in caring for human life and needs. It’s not negotiable that we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, relieve suffering, protect the vulnerable, seek justice wherever it is denied, work for peace.

But some rights are so fundamental to all others that they take pre-eminence as first principles for a free, just and virtuous society to exist and flourish. They are life from the biological beginning to life at the most dependent final end, marriage between one man and one woman for the sake of their children and the role of family in society, and the protection of conscience and religious freedom to carry out the social gospel in public life.

CNW: You write that the right to life underlies all of the non-negotiables. Some critics say the Catholic Church focuses too much on abortion over other issues. How do we respond to that?

Liaugminas: If you can’t guarantee the right to life, no coherent argument can be made for any other right for human beings. Our popes, each in succession, have taught this immutable truth repeatedly and forcefully. We should never be defensive of such a fundamental truth. It’s not an “either/or” proposition of abortion or other important human rights. It’s a “both/and,” beginning with protecting human life from the youngest, most vulnerable stage through to human life in the final, often vulnerable stage. Every abortion ends a human life. Full stop.

CNW: You develop the idea of a dignitarian. Would you explain this?

Liaugminas: Our political/social culture identifies individuals, organizations, institutions, issues and causes by labels, regrettably, and they tend to be political labels of “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative,” Democrat and Republican, and even parsed down to interest groups within those groups. When we engage the culture we confront those labels, and yet Catholics do not or should not find a home in either political party.

At certain times on certain issues, one party or the other may stand for policies that uphold first principles we defend as Catholic Americans. At the center of those principles is human dignity, in every political or social issue. So if we must use labels, we can claim the mantle of being “dignitarians.”

CNW: Each of us is called to contribute toward the common good in society. Why?

Liaugminas: It’s what Catholic social teaching has always held and elaborated in the social encyclicals and writings of Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pius XI, Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. All of which derives from Scripture and the Gospel.

CNW: How can we contribute?

Liaugminas: The bishops teach that corresponding to our rights as citizens, we have the moral obligation to participate in public life. In their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” they state that “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation … in light of fundamental moral principles.” I hope the book not only helps Catholics learn more about what that obligation means, but provides the resources to carry it out with its assimilation of church teaching and guidance on the first principles.

CNW: What’s the value of the Christian witness in today’s world?

Liaugminas: When lived out, ours is a countercultural witness to transcendent truths about human dignity inherent to every person, deriving not from a State or government but from the Creator. Christians throughout the ages have witnessed to those eternal truths in the face of grave dangers, and we are the modern inheritors of that tradition and the teaching of the church. G. K. Chesterton said there are many ways to fall, but only one way to stand. It is with the truth found in the Christian faith. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “The end of life is not to achieve pleasure or avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.” These are timeless truths and we have to be courageous, unafraid, calm and charitable in debating, defending or sharing them with people in the modern world.

Our recent popes have given us the moral grammar to talk about these issues with clarity and charity in a society that has given rise to “the culture of death” as Pope John Paul II stated it, an increasingly secular society that is “increasingly growing hostile to Christianity,” as Pope Benedict XVI stated it, a “throwaway culture” that has grown into a “culture of indifference” as Pope Francis stated it.

He calls us continually to “go out to the existential peripheries” and “create a culture of encounter.” That can be across the world in developing countries, or across the street, the office space or even your kitchen table at home in this country. Complacency is not an option. We have been given the knowledge, the words and the tools, and certainly the continual encouragement, to go out and reach the world with the love and mercy of Christ.

I end the book on what I pray is a hopeful note. Early in his papacy, in one of his compelling daily homilies, Pope Francis said “Christians are called to do the great work of evangelizing to the ends of the world … she goes forth with Jesus…This is the magnanimity that Christians should have … this magnanimity is part of the Christian vocation: always more and more, more and more, more and more, always onwards.”


  • sheila liaugminas