A primer on principles

This isn’t a long book, but it’s not one you’d want to read on a noisy, hot beach. This is a book for the quiet moments of the day, when you can read and reflect on the nature and meaning of human dignity.

Author Sheila Liaugminas is a journalist who’s reported on issues both sacred and secular, and in this book she addresses their nexus: What should be the defining principles by which we live? To whom should we be listening? How do we decide?

Liaugminas says she wrote this book in answer to a young scholar’s question: What book should he add to his library about “what the Church teaches on the essential life issues, and why?”

When she was unable to find just the right book for him, she wrote it.

“Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Human Culture” covers in six chapters and 158 pages the topics that have dominated headlines this century: The beginning of life and the sacredness of it; end-of-life issues; the sanctity of marriage; and the inalienable right of religious liberty. Tying everything together is the idea of dignity, of being, as the author calls it, a “dignitarian.”

In these pages you’ll find a usually diverse chorus of voices. (You may find that “Non-Negotiable” is a stepping-stone to deepening your understanding of the Christian pillars of a just society through the many recommended texts.) The words of popes Benedict and Francis are used alongside those of Martin Luther King and our founding fathers; quotes from Pacem in Terris and the Manhattan Declaration, Supreme Court opinions and Thomas F. Farr.

Liaugminas brings these voices and more together as in each chapter she reviews the state of Christian principles in light of today’s issues. Chapter 5, on religious liberty, is particularly insightful. The author illustrates the possible consequences from the August 2011 Department of Health and Human Services decision to require insurance policies to pay for contraceptive services — including sterilization and abortion — then recounts the chain of events, including law suits, court decisions, and other rulings, that stemmed from the mandate.

Calling religious liberty “first among freedoms,” Liaugminas draws from the words of Abraham Lincoln (“The guarantee of the rights of conscience, as found in our Constitution, is most sacred and inviolable ...”) as well as more recent documents from the U.S. bishops, (“Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?”). She concludes the chapter by describing “the Church as bulwark,” and noting Archbishop Charles Chaput’s warning about “the tendencies of any politicians in any party to devalue religiously informed voices who speak out constantly about the truth, protection, and dignity of men.”

Readers will find most helpful the “Let’s Be Clear” sections that end each chapter. It’s here that the author lists and summarizes the most salient points made, adding quotes and references to further illustrate each item. If you’re a little muddled by the extensive quotes, references and footnotes, these “Let’s Be Clear” sections will focus on the important takeaways from the chapter.

“Non-Negotiable” is not the most exhaustive treatment of life principles available, but it is eminently readable and an excellent launching point for further reading about the issues that most sharply define our Christianity.

Cathy Dee is social media editor at OSV.

For more summer book reviews: Swing into summer reads