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Working in an imperfect world Print
Guest column
Written by Fr. Joseph Baker, PhL, STL, Diocesan Ethicist   
Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019 -- 12:00 AM

Fr. Joseph Baker, PhL, STL
Diocesan Ethicist

No one disputes that the world is an imperfect place. Don’t get me wrong: there are so many good and beautiful things in this world. And those good and beautiful things far outweigh anything that’s bad or ugly.

But the reality is we live in a fallen world, a world affected by sin, yet redeemed by Christ. We encounter this reality, this duality, in so many places -- in ourselves, in others, in our families, in the Church, and, yes, in our places of work. On the one hand, the work we do is often one of the most rewarding aspects of our lives. On the other hand, it can also be a source of stress and struggle.

While work itself can be challenging, a growing difficulty is working in an increasingly pluralistic world. Today many companies, sometimes the very companies we work for, support practices, products, or positions that directly conflict with our Catholic faith. As a result, more and more people are rightly wondering what to do when they are asked to cooperate in these immoral activities.

When asked through our workplaces to support something such as abortion, how should we respond? Although the answer isn’t always easy or clear-cut, our cooperation always requires a proportionate rational: the greater level of cooperation in an immoral action, the more significant one’s justification needs to be.

Useful distinctions

There are a few useful distinctions that can help us judge one’s level of cooperation. The first is the distinction between formal and material cooperation. Cooperation is formal when we consent and share in the intention of the activity. On the contrary, cooperation is material when we do not consent or share in the intention.

For example, as taxpayers, depending on what government programs our taxes fund and whether or not we support those programs, our cooperation by paying taxes in those programs may be formal or material.

The second is the distinction between immediate and mediate cooperation. Immediate cooperation is providing something necessary for an activity to take place, such as a pharmacist who provides a state prison with the lethal mix of drugs needed for an execution. Mediate cooperation is providing something not strictly necessary for an activity to take place, such as helping with a public campaign to keep the death penalty legal.

A third distinction is between proximate and remote cooperation. Proximate cooperation is support which is causally near to the illicit action, whereas remote cooperation is causally distant. For example, donating money to the Freemasons is a more proximate form of cooperation than attending a political debate at a Masonic temple.

Generally speaking, only mediate remote material cooperation in immoral actions can be justified. Cooperation which is immediate, proximate, or formal is never licit and can never be justified.

Risk of scandal

Besides these distinctions, the risk of scandal must also be considered. Take, for instance, a Catholic man who works for a window washing company. One day, as a part of his job, he is asked by his boss to wash the windows of a local abortion clinic.

Washing the windows is not causally proximate to the abortion procedure, it is not necessary for the abortions to take place, and he does not share in the intention of the abortion clinic. However, even though his cooperation may seem appropriate, for something as seemingly benign as washing windows, the problem is the issue of scandal.

Let’s say a fellow parishioner drove past and saw him washing the windows. This parishioner might assume that since this upstanding Catholic is doing work at the abortion clinic, that the procedures performed within the clinic must be okay.

Analyzing the situation

This can be difficult, especially for those who work for companies that provide supportive services to abortion providers. Like the case of the window washer, depending on the exact situation, this support may be mediate remote material cooperation.

Mediate, insofar as the support is not necessary for abortions to take place; remote, insofar as the work is causally distant from the abortions; and material, insofar as the employee does not share in the intention of the abortion provider to take the lives of the unborn.

In this scenario, this level of cooperation is permissible and one’s conscience should not be burdened by one’s work.

That being said, as a Catholic, if a person were assigned to work on a project explicitly meant for an abortion provider, this might cause moral distress and could also lead to confusion. To avoid the potential scandal, the employee should talk to a supervisor about being reassigned to a different project within the company. If this is not possible, the employee should make their objection to abortion well-known.

Finally, given the growing complexity of the workplace, if you have any questions regarding practices you are expected to be involved in, please talk to your pastor or a trusted priest for guidance. With the help of God’s grace, we press onward to renew all things in Christ.

Fr. Joseph Baker, PhL, STL, is diocesan ethicist for the Diocese of Madison.