By Leon Suprenant | March 30, 2008
Last week I received through our Catholic Responses department a question regarding the support of businesses that contribute to Planned Parenthood, and related issues concerning cooperation with evil. Since I’m frequently asked about this, I thought I would post the substance of my response on our blog.
The starting point must be the crucial distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation occurs when the moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing his or her evil intention. On the other hand, when the moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, but without sharing his or her evil intention, it is a case of material cooperation.
Formal cooperation with evil is always sinful. Material cooperation may or may not be, and moral theologians have come up with all sorts of distinctions to describe the degree of material cooperation, such as proximate vs. remote, immediate vs. mediate, active vs. passive. The idea is that the greater the degree of material cooperation, the greater the “proportionate” reason should be for allowing such cooperation to occur.
Let’s be clear, though. There is a world of difference between formal and material cooperation with evil, and serious Catholics with delicate, well-formed consciences generally aren’t formally cooperating with evil, or even cooperating on a material level to a degree that would be considered sinful.
Rather, in my experience, the question often involves the avoidance of any and all material cooperation with evil, which often isn’t possible, and at any rate is not a matter of sin.
What are some issues that arise in which faithful Catholics are concerned about their material cooperation with evil? Here are some of the more common examples:
(1) Shopping at grocery stores that sell contraceptives, pornographic (or at least sexually provocative) magazines, and other products that are instruments of serious sin.
(2) Purchasing cable television, perhaps for EWTN or otherwise worthwhile programming, but with other channels that broadcast immoral fare.
(3) Vaccinating children with vaccines derived from aborted children.
(4) Investing in companies that contribute to Planned Parenthood or other “culture of death” entities.
(5) Voting for the “more pro-life” of two candidates, yet one who nonetheless supports abortion rights to some extent.
Sometimes we can’t even know whether we’re supporting evil materially. For example, we may shop at a small local business that appears squeaky clean on the outside, but the owner is using his profits to support some sort of evil enterprise. Yet, with respect to the above items, we know about the “messiness” of the situation and still have to make difficult decisions.
There are times when a boycott can be an effective way to change a company’s culture so that we can feel good about buying the company’s products. The fairly recent boycott of American Girls dolls, for example, produced a quick, favorable change in the company such that the moral quandary involved in purchasing those dolls was removed.
I would, however, counsel that boycotts should be kept to a minimum. They should be well-organized, widespread, and narrowly targeted. When they become commonplace or even individualized they do not have the desired effect. Further, there is another, subtler danger. A boycott can be, in limited cases, a good strategy to bring about positive change. However, some people perceive boycotts to be a moral imperative (i.e., it’s a “sin” to buy products from X company), which usually is not the case.
Back to the more common situations, such as those noted above, faithful Catholics should view these matters as an opportunity to do good, rather than as minefields fraught with moral danger at every turn. In the Old Testament, people who “touched” sin became tainted themselves, but with Christ this dynamic was turned upside down. When Christ touched sinners, they were cleaned, and yet Christ did not become tainted or impure Himself. That’s not to say we are to go looking for “pools of impurity” to jump into, but instead, given the mandate to evangelize the world that comes with our Baptism, we should see in these decisions opportunities to play offense, to change things for the better, to choose good over evil. That’s much better than a merely defensive, reactionary posture that sees sin even when it isn’t there.
If you have choices as to where to shop, shop at the ones that promote family values. Thank the manager for it and tell him that’s why you shop there. Tell your friends and neighbors why you like store A better than store B. Maybe they haven’t thought it through as deeply as you and will be moved to change their shopping patterns. And if all the stores sell contraceptives, or maybe there’s just one store that has all the items you need, and it sells contraceptives, be at peace. Tell the manager you don’t like it. Write letters to the store (go for quality, not quantity, when it comes to such letters). Ask him at least to put more objectionable items in places where kids won’t easily see them and have their innocence taken away.
Look for cable options that are as minimal as possible, so that you get the good programs without the unnecessary and highly problematic “premium” channels. Or, go without cable and watch stuff online. But even if some unwanted channels are necessarily part of your package, be at peace. Let the cable company know what channels you don’t like. And if channels like EWTN aren’t available in your market, perhaps you can organize a petition drive at your parish. Cable TV is all about ratings and customer satisfaction, so let your voice be heard.
In some cases there are alternatives to vaccines produced from aborted fetal tissue. And other vaccines (e.g., chicken pox) are not as necessary for health reasons as others. Even if you feel a need to get all the available shots, be at peace: You’re looking out for your child’s health, not intentionally supporting the abortion industry. You certainly can raise your concerns to your doctor and to your government representatives, and there are efforts afoot to come up with more alternative vaccines.
As for investments, it’s almost impossible in today’s market to stay on top of who is invested in what, especially when we’re talking about mutual funds and portfolios with dozens of different companies that are constantly merging, taking on new leadership, etc. There are different investment funds that strive to avoid companies that are connected to the abortion industry, and certainly you could single out particular companies and ask your broker at least to avoid investing in those. But be at peace. Clearly you’re investing your assets to provide for college, retirement, and the like, not to support the abortion industry. And if your investment is significant enough, you could have a voice when it comes to the company’s direction and investment policies.
And when it comes to the political world, obviously we can’t vote for candidates because of their support for intrinsic evils such as abortion, and serious Catholics don’t do that anyway. But, as the Holy Father himself has said, we can vote for candidates who are less than perfect on life issues when there is a “proportionate reason” for doing so. This is a much larger topic, but the point is to see our vote as a power to do some good and to participate in public life (cf. Catechism, nos. 2240, 1915), rather than as merely an instrument for committing sin.
Do any of our readers have more specific questions on this topic for us?