Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, October 21, 2005

The Karmic Wheel o' Catholic Topics Comes Round to Material Cooperation 

Dear sir,

I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions regarding the cooperation of an everyday Catholic in a marketplace that is interwoven with the culture of death. I read your blog on John Kerry, and I already am generally familiar with the Catholic Church's teaching on material cooperation (formal v. material, remote v. proximate, necessary v. unecessary), so you don't need to fill me in on any of that. I am just looking for some imput, as I am a bit scrupulous on the matter.

Let me number my questions:

1) Among the corporations on the new boycott list with regards to abortion is Johnson and Johnson. As I'm sure you know, they produce a wide array of products: Neutrogena, Tylenol, Band-Aid bandages, and a variety of soaps and personal health-related products. If I go to a supermarket that sells these things, and purchase some vegetables, some of the money I spent could go into J&J's pockets when the store orders more of their products. Moreover, if I live with my parents and they buy these products, am I to boycott them? I understand that a "proportionate reason" is necessary for remote material cooperation, is the mere preference of a product sufficient reason? The bank where I have my money is also on the boycott list, am I to terminate my account even if the bank is my best option locally (which it might be)?

Material cooperation is more or less remote, by degree, from the immortal act in question. The act in question being abortion, and its presumable subject being Planned Parenthood (P.P.), to supply funds directly to P.P. would be proximate. To buy products from a company, a portion of whose funds go to P.P., is fairly remote. To shop at a store which stocks products from such a company is very remote. To live with parents who shop at such a store is so remote as to be laughable. In fact, the chuckles probably began one earlier.

There is a line, somewhere. For me to tell you where it is crossed, even if it were possible, would not be desirable, because it would be casuistry. Casuistry, for those uninitiated into its joys, is sort of like the 'voting quiz' I took on CNN's website last October. I was asked how I felt about twenty issues, and how strongly, on a scale of one to ten. My answers were then tallied and computed, and within a few seconds I was told how I should vote. My relief at the instantaneous dissolution of my moral dilemma was only outshone by my trembling awe at the beautiful simplicity of the machine which dissolved it. Casuistry is sort of like that, but in ethics.

The application of the eternal law to the temporal demands of human life takes place in the heart of man, and the only machine that does it runs on the virtue of prudence. That doesn't mean no one can give you advice, but it does mean, as I mentioned two weeks back, that I probably can't (since we just met and the whole 'friendship' thing takes a bit longer). But anyone who tells you to boycott your parents because they shop at K-Mart probably isn't a friend.

And shopping at a store which sells J&J products will not directly support J&J, so long as you do not buy J&J products (if it does, the connection is so remote as to be untenable in serious moral discussion). As for buying J&J products and the like, serious moralists disagree. It would depend upon a number of factors, many of which would be specific to your own situation: how much do I really need this product?, do other realistic alternatives exist?, etc. One can hardly compare a vaccine for a deadly disease with mouthwash.

It is these sorts of factors which prudence is able to take into account, in the context of authentic Christian liberty, in the midst of a life of prayer and discipleship. Casuistry attempts to emasculate prudence, by robbing it of its divinely intended role in moral decision making. Casuistry turns these factors into mathematical formulas in a database, rather than the terrain of a spiritual battlefield.

Personally, I avoid J&J products mainly because it's easy to do: products of similar quality are available, usually at a lower price. We switch banks (from First Union, which supports P.P.) as soon as we found another one within walking distance. But I can't point fingers at other patrons of the Green Onion (my preferred nomenclature), because I don't know their circumstances.

2) Is it "sufficient reason" to buy something in that it contributes to the well-being of the economy? Suppose an entire small town gets its employment by working in a factory that is owned by one of the "boycott" corporations. A boycott could cost all thosepeople their jobs. That said, a boycott also does bring results in the battle against abortion. How do I prioritize?

For the first question, no. Other small towns get their employment from prostitution and crack cocaine. Shutting down an abortion mill itself will have its own economic cost, including blows to facility maintenance, security, and medical insurance companies. Economic concerns such as this should certainly play a part in the moral discussion, but I hardly think they take the issue off the table. You prioritize by growing in prudence, and you grow in prudence by acting prudently (and temperately, courageously and justly).

3) Suppose I am enjoying dinner at a restaurant, and my waitress, is doing a great job, even though I notice she looks pale and worn out. I decide to reward her with a 20 dollar tip. As it turns out, she was pregnant, and uses that tip to help pay for an abortion. Am I responsible? Am I required to ask her how she'll spend the money?

For the last question, as one who used to work in the restaurant industry, asking that is a sure way to get a wad of spit in your soup. Without knowledge, of course, there is no culpability. There is, as you imply, a moral obligation to inform your conscience, but asking a waitress if she'll spend her tip on an abortion is not, I should think, a necessary step in this task. Forming one's conscience is a serious obligation, but one that falls within the limits of reason and moderation. One is not required to take every possible step to inform one's conscience, but every reasonable step.

4) In college, I was in a band that played the music of Bruce Springsteen, who, at that time, was supporting John Kerry for president. I didn't vote for Kerry, but do you think I am guilty of scandal? What about purchasing the music of a band that is pro-choice?

Playing Springsteen is never, ever morally problematic.

5) Can people babysit/housesit for people who work for hospitals where abortions take place (these people aren't doctors, but one is a lawyer, and I don't know what their involvement is at all, but I don't think I can play stupid).

See answer to question 1. Sadly, many hospitals have abortion mills within them, often on the same floor where babies' lives are saved. Babysitting and housesitting, again, is so remote that proximity to their moral evil is itself not a problem (so long as they are not abortionists themselves, which would most certainly present a problem, if only that of scandal). Obviously you share no intention of assisting abortions. If anything, your presence in their lives as a witness may be important. Don't play stupid: evangelize.

6) Can one attend a public university that may or may not have ties to less savory affiliates?

See answer to question 1. Public universities inevitably have ties to less savory affiliates. Most are less than savory themselves. To attempt to eradicate every tie to a morally problematic person or institution is to attempt to approximate the life of blessedness on earth. It is an attempt doomed to failure from the beginning. This life is one where we gain virtue by straining against the bonds of sin, not one where we know of no sin, or pretend such. This is not to introduce moral license, but rather to avoid moral rigorism, which deals the death blow to the liberty of the sons of God.

If you can answer any of these I'd appreciate it. I seriously don't understand how to determine if there is a proportionate reason. It seems impossible to completely avoid tangling with evil, but I don't know to what extent I can engage the society that I am in.

Thank you for your time. Mark

You can and must engage it 100%. You are only a part of it for a few decades, which isn't long in the face of eternity. Might as well take advantage of the brief opportunity.

# posted by Jamie : 9:08 AM


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