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What Do Chick-fil-A Boycotters and the Catholic Bishops Have in Common?

August 6, 2012

Hint: this is not a joke or a trick question.

Answer: a scrupulous conscience about what Catholic theology has traditionally referred to as “material cooperation with evil.” To be clear, I don’t suppose that Chick-fil-A boycotters in general make moral judgments from within a Catholic intellectual framework. Moreover, I realize that what the Catholic bishops deem “good” many Chick-fil-A boycotters deem “oppressive” and that what the boycotters deem “liberating” the Catholic bishops are likely to deem “evil.” There is a basic incommensurability between the two standpoints. Nevertheless, I think the Catholic bishop and Chick-fil-A boycotter share a common bond worth noting.

Before I explain what that bond is, let me first provide clarification as to what “material cooperation with evil” refers to. Here is an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

To formally cooperate in the sin of another is to be associated with him in the performance of a bad deed in so far forth as it is bad, that is, to share in the perverse frame of mind of that other. On the contrary, to materially cooperate in another’s crime is to participate in the action so far as its physical entity is concerned, but not in so far as it is motived by the malice of the principal in the case. For example, to persuade another to absent himself without reason from Mass on Sunday would be an instance of formal cooperation. To sell a person in an ordinary business transaction a revolver which he presently uses to kill himself is a case of material cooperation. Then it must be borne in mind that the cooperation may be described as proximate or remote in proportion to the closeness of relation between the action of the principal and that of his helper.

As far as I can tell, the logic of Chick-a-Fil boycotters runs as follows. It is no less morally reprehensible to deny a gay couple the right to marry than it is to deny that right to an interracial couple. Yet not only does Chick-a-Fil president Dan Cathy oppose gay marriage; the company has a charity arm that donates to anti-gay causes. If I patronize Chick-a-Fil, I am therefore guilty of material cooperation with evil.

Okay, I admit that this reads like the thought process of a Chick-fil-A boycotter who also happens to be a student of moral theology at a Catholic university–an admittedly strange (though not altogether implausible) scenario. But whatever the terminology, this is essentially how the reasoning goes. It doesn’t matter that the gay marriage question has no direct relevance to Chick-a-Fil’s business practices, in the way that, say, its decision to source meat from factory farms is in all likelihood relevant. Considerations as to the proximity or remoteness of the perceived evil–i.e. the belief that gay marriage is wrong and the expression of that belief in the form of charitable giving–simply don’t arise for Chick-fil-A boycotters. What matters, for these folks, is the fact that opposing gay marriage is an act of bigotry on par with opposing interracial marriage.

In the case of the bishops, the evil in question in the HHS ruling controversy was contraception. As it was initially formulated, the ruling required that Catholic institutions cooperate proximately with what they took to be evil. It’s not difficult to see why the bishops, and most lay Catholics along with them (including me), objected. Interestingly, though, even after the Obama administration proposed an accommodation in which insurance companies would cover contraception for employees of Catholic institutions without the direct involvement of Catholic institutions, the bishops continued to object. The accommodation was, in their view, a distinction without a difference. Or, as Ross Douthat put it

. . . the White House’s proposed “compromise” in the contraception-sterilization-plan B-ella controversy asks the parties involved to compromise their reasoning faculties and play a game of “let’s pretend” instead. The revised regulation allows religious institutions to pretend that they aren’t actually purchasing an insurance plan that covers services they find morally objectionable, because their insurance companies will be required to pretend that they’re supplying these services free of charge.

What the bishops and Douthat gloss over is the fact that, while the end result may be the same, the initial HHS formulation required proximate cooperation on the part of Catholic institutions, whereas accommodation requires only their remote cooperation. This is not morally insignificant.

Of course, moral reasoning is not always simple or straightforward. The precise line between remote and proximate cooperation with evil–however defined–is, in any given instance, open to debate. Also debatable is the degree to which remote cooperation with evil is, in any given instance, justifiable. Furthermore, as Cathleen Kaveney pointed out awhile back in an insightful article on abortion politics, the Catholic moral framework itself might be called into question given the moral complexities that arise in modern, pluralistic societies such as our own. Still, we have to start somewhere. The alternative is the status quo, in which we all continue to play childish games of Cowboys and Indians.

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