Cooperating with Evil

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?

5 responses

  1. I’m not sure this is directly related: should churches accept donations from pharmaceutical firms that promote abortion and contraception?

  2. Here’s a related moral issue: Catholic parish bulletins accept advertisements from pharmacies that sell contraceptives and abortifacients. I believe that parishes should refuse such advertisements.

    Keep and spread the Faith.

  3. Interestingly, these excellent questions have two things in common. First, they relate to conduct of “churches” or “parishes,” rather than our own conduct. That’s fine, but there can be a danger in focusing on others’ shortcomings rather than our own. Plus it can be frustrating, as the only conduct we can really control is our own.

    Second, these scenarios in a sense offer a reversal: Instead of our cooperating with evil in some fashion, we’re now looking at problematic secular entities that want to “cooperate” with the Church, by giving donations or advertising revenue. Is this income “tainted” because of the source?

    In Willy’s scenario, it’s hard to imagine why such a firm would be making a major donation to the Church in the first place. Anyway, most large gifts in any context come with some sort of strings attached. If that’s true in this case–if the firm is expecting the Church to compromise her witness so the firm can continue to prosper in the abortion and contraception industry, then surely the Church can’t take the money.

    If there are no strings, however, then the situation could be likened to the Israelites’ despoiling the Egyptians, and it would seem to be possible to keep the money. However, there would be the danger of giving scandal, so both in taking the gift and thereafter the Church would have to be clear and uncompromised in her public condemnation of that aspect of the firm’s business. Again, all that makes one wonder why the gift would be given in the first place . . .

    As for Stephen’s scenario, I understand his point. At CUF we don’t accept advertising from any entity that we believe is not on board with our mission. Parish bulletins are a little different in that regard, as these are local businesses, and the ads allow parishioners to support the parish and at the same time promote their business to other Catholics. I for one look first to my parish bulletin when searching for a particular type of business.

    I think Stephen’s statement is overly broad. It implies that it is sinful for a Catholic to patronize a pharmacy that sells contraception. Unfortunately, most communities don’t have such pharmacies, but we still have to buy vitamins, medicines, first aid, and the like–and especially prescriptions for more serious ailments.

    So is the pastor (or whoever the bulletin editor is) sinning in allowing ads for pharmacies in the bulletin? No–unless the ad was specifically promoting contraception and abortion. Is it prudent for him to do so? That’s a matter of opinion, not Church teaching.

    If there is one small pharmacy in town run by a Catholic pharmacist who is totally pro-life, and a big CVS comes in and tries to put him out of business, then I wouldn’t run CVS’ ad. But to categorically say “no” to all pharmacies as a matter of sin (rather than prudential judgment) is an overstatement and, even more, is not ordered to doing and achieving the good that is within our control.

  4. Shopping in the average pharmacy is a separate ethical issue.

    I agree that the decision of a pastor on allowing parish bulletin advertisements from pharmacies that sell contraceptives and abortifacients is a prudential judgment, and my prudential judgment is that the pastor should disallow such advertisements to avoid confusing the faithful, who are already too inclined to minimize the mortal sins of abortion and contraception.

    After all, we Catholics say–correctly–that abortion is murder, as Pope John Paul II taught in section 58 of the encyclical Evangelium vitae. We have to face up to all the consequences of our moral stance.

    Let me phrase the issue another way: would a pastor accept advertisements from a pharmacist widely known to be a member of a neo-Nazi group or the Ku Klux Klan?

    Keep and spread the Faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *