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[“Whatever the current difficulties may be, Christ’s disciples must assert the demands of faith in Christ without reticence and without compromise, in theory and in practice, because they are the demands and precepts of God.” Cardinal Robert Sarah, “God or Nothing,” Ignatius Press, 2015, p.276.]

In religious and political contexts we often hear references to, and recommendations of, “dialogue” as a means of ‘managing’ differences of belief and of objective. The theory is that the participants in dialogue will state the basis of their position, try to remove misunderstandings, and (in some cases) negotiate in order to procure acceptable reciprocal promises. ‘Flexibility’ might seem helpful, but it should be weighed against its effect. Among the obstacles and dangers to dialogue in religion is ‘irenicism’ – an inordinate attempt to make peace at all costs by eliminating differences, which is ultimately nothing more than scepticism about the power and content of the Word of God which we desire to preach.[1]

Beliefs and objectives often give rise to morals. In the formulation of morals, compromise and absolutism are rival influences. According to the “Oxford Dictionary of English,”[2] “absolute” is “something which is not qualified or diminished in any way;” “not subject to any limitation; unconditional;” “viewed or existing independently and not in relation to other things; not relative or comparative;” “a value or principle which is regarded as universally valid [or] which exists without being dependent on anything else.” Consequently, “absolutism” is defined[3] as “the holding of absolute principles in political, philosophical, or political matters.” “Compromise” is a retreat from that. It is[4] “mutual concession” to reach agreement; “the expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.”

The connection between these words and Christianity and politics should be obvious. Authentic Christianity affirms as true various theological and moral principles, and consequently affirms that contradictions of them are erroneous. For example, “there are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose,” and “There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit,” and “it is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention which inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. … One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”[5] That is absolutism. Protestantism, on the other hand, is – by its very nature – incapable of making such affirmations, because it denies the existence of any objective authority by which truth can be distinguished from error. Rejection of objective authority means that everything is ultimately left to subjective authority – individual, autonomous judgment, with anyone’s opinion as likely to be correct as anyone else’s, and no-one having a right to interfere in what anyone else wishes. What a chaotic basis for “make disciples of all nations,…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[6] It is relativism, and by perverse logic it paves the way to compromise.

Whether in religion or in politics, ‘compromise’ based on ‘common ground’ is often recommended as ‘pragmatism’ and ‘reasonableness,’ whereas ‘inflexibility’ is portrayed as unreasonable or even ‘extreme’. In many places today ‘common ground’ includes the desirability of protecting ‘human rights’ in order to improve everybody’s ‘quality of life’ by means of ‘liberal democratic values,’ but attentive Catholics are aware that modern interpretations of such expressions produce contra-Catholic results. To draw attention to that, and attempt to correct the relevant errors, upsets the carefully-arranged apple-carts of compromise and the ostensibly-reasonable vendors.

‘Human rights’ tend to be illusory. Their enshrinement in law and their interpretation show that absolutism and compromise are difficult (if, indeed, even possible) to reconcile.  

A notable evaluation of compromise and absolutism occurred in a speech given by a British politician. Here (italicised) are particular points made in it, and comments on each:

Compromise “does not entail a rejection of our values and convictions by one iota, rather it is precisely the way to defend them.” That is manifestly untrue, because the very nature of compromise (as is apparent from the Dictionary’s definitions of it) is rejection – to various extents – of “values and convictions.”

 “[C]ompromise[,] not absolutism[,] is the only way to deliver for everyone.” This does not mention the fact that compromise produces only partdelivery of an objective.

“Politics is the business of turning your convictions into reality,” but “getting things done rather than simply getting them said requires some qualities that have become unfashionable of late.”  Even getting them said has become more difficult, and sometimes hazardous, because the combined pressure of people who are loudest in calling for ‘tolerance’ bears down on those whose opinions and comments (even when made privately and with negligible prospect of practical effect) are contrary to modern interpretations of ‘freedom’.

Compromise “does not mean compromising your values [or] accepting the lowest common denominator.” Yes it does. As the Oxford Dictionary’s explanations make clear, that is the very nature of compromise. In practice, it means accepting the lowest common denominator which will result in an ostensible ‘agreement’. Compromise is the enemy of principle.

The alternative to compromise in politics is “absolutism,” “perpetual strife,” “winners and losers;” a belief “that if you simply assert your view loud[ly] enough and [for] long enough you will get your way in the end” (the progress made by the ‘ women’s movement ’ and the ‘LGBT’ movement illustrate that very well), “or that mobilising your own faction is more important than bringing others with you” (“mobilising your own faction” is certainly the way by which to win if the ‘other’ faction is insufficiently committed to doing so; “bringing others with you” is unnecessary if you have enough support to win without them).

Because of absolutism, some people “are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others.” The essence of disagreement is pointing out that the ‘other’ opinion is not worthy of support; therefore, even if done politely, in substance it is demeaning the opponent’s views.

On the internet “the most extreme views tend to be the most noticed.” The standards by which ‘extremity’ is found have changed. As journalist Peter Hitchens wrote, “[t]he spectrum of views classified as ‘extremist’ now covers many opinions which were normal thirty years ago,”[7] and circumstances which once would have been dismissed as so extreme as to be unimaginable have become realities: e.g. modern sex-education familiarises children with matters that were, until relatively recently, considered too filthy for discussion between adults. There are cases which “show that this is not necessarily absent from Catholic schools.”[8]    

Absolutism “refuses to accept that other points of view are reasonable.” Viewpoints can be wrong even though based on reason, because some reasons are wrong.

Absolutism “views anything less than 100 per cent of what you want all the time as evidence of failure, when success in fact means achieving the optimum outcome in any given circumstance.” That relativises ‘success’.      

“[T]he painstaking marking out of a common ground” (in politics, and religion, this is sometimes described justifiably as a ‘fudge,’ using ambiguity in order to camouflage disagreement) “doesn’t mean abandoning our principles – far from it.” Yes it does – unavoidably. The nature of a concession in order to compromise is a part- (and may be a complete-) abandonment of a particular principle.

There is “an international order based on agreed rules… reached by pragmatism and compromise.” The world might thereby be better than if military force were the sole determinant, but “pragmatism and compromise” can prove far from satisfactory. The wider the area of unified law “the more general and less specific must be the principles on which unification is to be achieved,” as shown by “fundamental rights, such as those embodied in the Charter of the United Nations or the Paris Declaration of Human Rights, where the worldwide scope of agreement on these principles was achieved only by stating the principles in the widest, most general and least useful terms.”[9]

[Paraphrasing: If principles are not combined with “pragmatism and compromise” there is inevitably a risk of undermining them.] Professor Graveson implied[10] that it is the compromise itself which tends to undermine them. If it were true that (as claimed earlier) compromise does not mean compromising on principles/values and settling on the common ground of a lowest common denominator, the suggested combination of principles with “pragmatism and compromise” must refer to compromise on details. That, however, ignores the fact that often there is a close connection between details and governing principles. For example, people espouse the principle of “human rights” and describe them as “inviolable,” but seem relaxed (and some seem enthusiastic) about violating them by means of de-humanising the humans killed by legal abortion. “Pragmatism and compromise” by principles expressed in the “widest, most general” terms, described by Professor Graveson as “least useful,”[11] is in fact very useful for undermining what matters. Barack Obama wrote of people in the Democratic Party who pursue a “centrist” strategy, believing that to “split the difference” with the people who hold positions of power is to act reasonably – “and” (he adds) “failing to notice that with each passing year they are giving up more and more ground.”[12]  

[Paraphrasing: It is wrong to capitalise on a vacuum, and to promote polarisation and division (a popular, frequent, and hypocritical brickbat thrown around by politicians) which looks at the world in terms of “us” and “them,” “winners and losers,” regarding compromise and co-operation as signs of weakness, not strength.] Perhaps the most widespread and worrying vacuum is the one caused by rampant relativism (a point not mentioned in the speech). Politicians, and sometimes religious leaders, endorse relativism when they condemn ‘polarisation’ and ‘division,’ because relativism undermines fixed principles on which ‘polarisation’ and ‘division’ rest. As indicated above, compromise means weakening compliance with fixed principles. Despite the abandonment being for the sake of obtaining something regarded as more important than what is being abandoned, the fact remains that the abandonment results from weakness; compromise occurs when the compromisers lack the strength necessary to obtain everything which they want. That is a fact, despite any attempt to justify the surrender.

We should defend the “values that are fundamental to our way of life.” That is meaningless unless the values are specified in forms which are understood correctly. A typical politician focuses people’s minds on the ‘here and now,’ and makes no reference to the troublesome question of the ‘hereafter’. So religiously-formed thinking and some of its practical applications is subordinated to what seems presently-relevant and acceptable. This underlying policy has often been recognisable also in statements by religious leaders.

“Being prepared to compromise also means knowing when not to compromise.” “[W]hen our values are under threat we must always be willing to stand firm.” Oh, so absolutism (being uncompromising) is good sometimes!

The speech in a nutshell: ‘Down with absolutism, except when absolutism is right.’ What a muddle.

How should ‘patience in defeat’ be regarded? If something is wrong, but there is insufficient support for rectification, reformers can simply wait for such support to exist. St. Thomas More is said to have written (in “Utopia”) that if a situation cannot be made good, it should be prevented from being very bad. That ‘sounds’ like compromise. Apparently he advised also that even unjust laws should be respected while “waiting for a ‘place and time convenient’ to advocate change.”[13] Unless, however, the desire for change is kept alive, waiting for a ‘place and time convenient’ can become ‘acclimatisation,’ anaesthetised conscience, or disguised laziness. For example, in early-1960s America, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “It is immoral to urge people to accept injustices, oppression and second-class citizenship in an attempt to wait until the so-called opportune time. The time is always right to do right.”[14] “Catholic political leaders,” wrote Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., “will always face tensions between their faith and civil duty. … Patience, compromise, and prudence were More’s familiar friends. But in the face of serious evil, he knew their limits. He also knew how easily they can mask a deep moral laziness and cowardice. The time and place to press for changing bad laws must eventually come. If not, compromise becomes the casket for a leader’s integrity.”[15]

Rather than always choose the same option, the sensible policy is, surely, to decide in each case whether to stand firm, compromise, or wait. Here is a suggested strategy for doing that:

  1. Identify correctly the principle which is at stake in this case.
  2. Decide, by applying the appropriate objective criteria, how important is the principle at stake.
  3. Categorise correctly the present circumstances as either (i) principle or (ii) subsidiary detail.
  4. Having regard to 2, decide whether in 3(i) and 3(ii) a part-surrender would be justified in order to obtain a part-surrender from your opponent. This requires consideration of whether there would be a fair ‘balance’ between what is being surrendered on each side.
  5. If you lose, wait for the situation to improve, but do what you can to produce the improvement.   

[1] “Dialogue in Truth and Charity – Pastoral Orientations for Interreligious Dialogue,” Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2014, paragraph 48, quoting Pope St. Paul VI.

[2] 2nd edition.  

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraphs 1755 and 1756.

[6] Matt. 28:19-20.

[7] “The Broken Compass – How British politics lost its way,” Peter Hitchens; Continuum, 2009, p.xxi.

[8] Father Timothy Finigan, founder of the Association of Priests for the Gospel of Life, in “Proclaiming the Gospel of Life;” Catholic Truth Society; ed. Fr. R. Whinder; 2009, p.55-56.

[9] Professor Ronald Graveson, “One Law: On Jurisprudence and the Unification of Law,” Vol. II; North-Holland Publishing Co.; 1977, p.216.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “The Audacity of Hope”; Canongate Books Ltd., Edinburgh, 2007, p.38-39.

[13] “Thomas More on Statesmanship,” Gerard Wegemer; Catholic University of America Press, 1996, p.210.

[14] “Martin Luther King and the March On Washington,” Smoking Dogs Films, 2013.

[15] “Render Unto Caesar – Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life;” Doubleday, 2008, p.174-175.

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