A reader struggles with scruples about remote material cooperation with evil

A reader struggles with scruples about remote material cooperation with evil June 26, 2019

The reader writes:

I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could shed some more light on the matter boycotting businesses and enterprises that in some way support something evil – and yup, that’s spurred by the recent developments in Georgia. I tried to find a conclusion on my own and, well, ended in a pretty dark place.

I’ve read a fair share of respectable Catholics (you, SDG, Jimmy Akin, Dave Armstrong, Fr Angel Sotelo, Domenico Bettinelli, to name a few) and all of them pretty much articulated (in various articles/posts, not necessarily on the current issue, but all still pretty applicable) that what a business owner/artist does with the money you pay them for any kind of service/product/performance that is in and of itself neutral/good (whether it’s a streaming subscription, software, food, etc.) is beyond you and you’re not responsible for that – at worst, that was remote material cooperation with evil and that’s not a sin. Okay. There was Church teaching to back it up. Sound stuff. Should make things clear. As long as you’re not, I don’t know, buying the product because the owner, CEO, management board or whoever else important support PP, or *actually* giving money to PP, you should stop worrying. And yet, and yet, doubts persisted and got progressively worse, because why the heck not.

I recently talked with a somebody who said he was cancelling Netflix because of the whole Georgia thing. I gave him pretty much all the above arguments why that wasn’t an *absolute must* and a few more.

His main argument was  1 Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from every form of evil.” The conversation was civil, in the end we pretty much agreed to disagree and went on with our lives.

Except I didn’t. Somehow after that, I went full Chidi Anagonye, analyzing every single little thing and its consequences, only it wasn’t funny, it was scary as hell. And when I say “hell,” I really, sincerely mean it.

I use Microsoft and Adobe products, I have a Netflix subscription (running out on 19/06), I really, really like various Disney franchises; that’s just to name a few problematic things I’ve had a connection to. And now I’m so torn about this. As I said before, according to Catholics Smarter Than Me And Knowing Their Stuff, my cooperation with whatever evil the owners of those may do is remote, I am paying for their work, nothing else. But there is a voice gnawing at me—no doubt some of echoing the angrier parts of Catholic comboxes that I was just too dumb not to delve into—saying that I’m just trying to rationalize sin, looking for excuses, being a terrible, terrible person for preferring to keep watching my Good Place and B99 and Hilda on Netflix, using Microsoft products (I actually typed this whole letter in Word first… I had a feeling it would get long), reading Marvel and Disney comics, squeeing over the next Star Wars and Spider-Man movie trailer, over choosing not to associate with people who support pro-choice goals. That it’s all far from being a proportionate reason for doing any business with those entities and the fact that I try to donate to various life-saving causes as often as I can/remember doesn’t counterbalance that. That it doesn’t matter they made something good if they’re willing to spend the money they get for that on evil. That it’s a small sacrifice in comparison to children who may die because of my involvement, however remote it may be. That it doesn’t matter that thoughtful, discerning Catholics, Catholic media outlets and even the freakin’ Vatican don’t steer clear of them. That it doesn’t matter what my intentions are, I’m still helping them in some way, I am giving them my money, a part of which may end up supporting abortion in some way, thus I’m an accomplice in Literal Killing of Children, I have blood on my hands, and I’m giving scandal to boot, and if it weren’t because of awful people like me, those boycotts would actually work.

I’m a pretty story-hungry person. A lot of those stories, produced by what now belongs to Disney and/or streamed on Netflix (as my only legal source of them in many cases) spoke to me, influenced my own creative process, provided surprisingly nutritious food for thought on occasion, or just simply cheered me up when I was at a low point. Sometimes they could tell me more about God and the Gospel than many a homily I heard in my parish church, even if the story in question was not explicitly Christian.

*All* of this now feels tainted. I feel like I shouldn’t be enjoying them. I shouldn’t be supporting them in any way for all the reasons stated before. *I* myself feel tainted by ever enjoying that—by still not being able to let it go. And by that I’m disobeying God and I should either turn away or face the consequences when I face His judgment.

Maybe I’m just being scrupulous. Or maybe I’m just telling myself that so I can go and justify doing things that I shouldn’t be doing.

I guess I could just burn all the bridges, dump Netflix and Disney and whatnot altogether, just to keep my conscience clear. But from my past experiences, I know it would only work for a while, give me a moment to breathe until I started worrying about some new thing to get rid of soon, and then another, and another. Where do I draw the line? *Do I* even draw it somewhere? Or just go all the way until there is ultimately nothing left but a crucifix on an empty wall? That would be the safest bet. I’m just not sure I want it. But I also feel like not wanting it only proves how awful I am.

All that worrying has gotten me to a point where I can’t sleep at night, I feel constantly nauseous and have trouble eating, I’m either awfully tense or shaking, and my suicidal thoughts are rearing their ugly head again. I know it’s probably silly to actually want to die over this, but I just feel that trapped and paralyzed and I don’t know what to do. I remember going through a similar thing few years back, trying to cry myself to sleep and actually praying for God to take my free will away or else I would surely misuse it (which, now that I think of it, was probably borderline blasphemous). I may not be at this point again yet, but it’s pretty close. (I can’t remember exactly how I managed to get out of that crisis in the end, but some of your older writings certainly helped me, for which I am eternally grateful.)

I wish I could speak to my family about that, but I tried it, once, those few years ago, and their response basically amounted to telling me to throw out my Harry Potter books to get rid of their “evil influence.” I never really tried discussing any of my spiritual problems with them since.

I can’t also help but think about a quote I read somewhere, that if you feel anguish that means you’re on the right track, because that’s the Devil trying to push you off it, and if you feel relaxed, that’s because you’re off the right track already and the Devil doesn’t have to bother. Needless to say, it’s not helping either and I remember only too well all those times where I felt comfortable and suddenly started to worry, because I *shouldn’t* be comfortable Now it’s coming back with a vengeance.

I definitely need prayer as well.

Thank you for your thoughtful letter.  The very fact that you take the time to anguish over such things suggests strongly to me that you have very little to worry about in the eyes of God. Tender consciences are a beautiful thing to him.  Tormented ones are not.  The fruit of the Spirit is peace, not torment.

First things first, total respect for the Chidi Anagonye reference.  I love THE GOOD PLACE so much.

My answer, in a nutshell, is, “Yes.  You are being scrupulous and you should cut yourself slack and not let the devil torment you.  This anguish is not from God.”  Your first instinct, to not sweat remote material cooperation with evil, is the best one.  It’s what the Church teaches and precisely the reason for it is because there is scarcely any social interaction you can undertake (especially involving commerce in a global economy) that will not put you a couple of degrees of separation from something evil.  It’s simply not possible.  The mere act of sending me this email involved you in everything from paying money to corporations that use their money to support various evils, to participation in giving me grist to post on my Patheos blog (a platform many Good Catholics will happily declare to be doing evil).  And, of course, being Catholic involves you in paying tithes to a Church that is currently in the news for famously misusing some of those monies to cover up evil.  Paying taxes?  Same same.

This is precisely why the Church formulated its moral teaching about remote material cooperation with evil.  Paul faced the same issues in Corinth.  In order to have meat for dinner, you had to go to the agora to buy it.  And since there were no freezers, the meat you got there was delivered fresh and cooked immediately at home.  Where did the fresh meat come from? The local temples to pagan gods.  Some Jewish Christians feared that by eating it they were thereby participating in the worship of the gods to whom it had been offered (and helping to support those pagan cults with their $$$).  More than this, they imposed their scruples on other Christians who enjoyed a nice steak.  Paul’s response is important:  he (like Jesus) says all foods are clean.  Receive it with thanksgiving and don’t worry about it.  So don’t let somebody’s scruples boss you around.

At the same time, he also says that rather than tempt somebody else to violate their conscience, he would avoid meat in the presence of such a person so as not to cause them to sin.

Note the distinction: Paul does not worry about the judgmental prigs who sit in judgment of those who eat meat.  He blows those people off as usurpers of God’s throne of judgment and does not care what they think in the slightest.  Why?  Because he knows he is not tempting them to sin against their consciences. Their minds are made up and they are not going to eat meat.  Their problem is not scruples.  Their problem is that they think God died and left them to judge Paul and anybody else who eats meat.  The person Paul is concerned about is the scrupulous.  The person tortured by guilt about eating meat who is afraid he might be offending God and who is not interested in being a judge of others but is terrified of God’s judgement.  For that person’s sake, Paul will never eat meat again if it causes him to violate his own conscience, even if that conscience is, as Paul insists it is, malformed.  We should imitate that.  Don’t let Inquisitors guilt you out of your freedom in Christ, but don’t use your freedom to hurt the tender-hearted and weak.

So I think much the same principle applies here.  In order to exist in the modern world, you have to participate in a global economy and you shall therefore be a remote material cooperator with evil, which is no sin at all according to the Church.  Do not let others judge your freedom in Christ.  At the same time, respect their scruples (just as you did) and don’t tempt them to violate their own conscience.

Both sides of this dynamic have to be respected in this hour, precisely because many Catholics are falling prey to what I regard as a sinister and manipulative Puritanism that is every bit as dangerous to the gospel as licentiousness is.  Indeed, a look back at Catholic history from the Judaizers, to the Donatists, to the Jansenists to today’s Calvinized American conservative Catholics (who are exporting their culture everywhere) shows that one of the chief functions of the Magisterium has been to protect ordinary people from rigorists who have wanted to turn the Faith into an elite group of Marines bent on making it almost impossible for most people to receive the sacraments or believe they are acceptable to God.  The real mark of the presence of the Spirit is peace, not anguish and confusion.

So, with respect to things like corporations that support evil, the difference (for me) is remote vs. direct cooperation with evil. All corps spend their money on support for good and evil causes and I can’t control that. But not all corps are, as part of their business model, directly engaged in doing harm to people for a living. I refuse to do business with Nestle, for instance, because that corporation does not merely use their profits to support evils.  They directly do evil as a part of their business model, deliberately pursuing a strategy calculated to profit from killing victims with cholera-filled water, or depriving whole communities of water that is rightfully theirs. They are not a corporation doing good things while having secondary evil consequences due to the causes their owners happen to like.  They are a corporation whose business is evil.  A corporation like, say, Microsoft or Netflix does not do this. Microsoft makes software.  Netflix offers a bunch of movies and TV shows and you can watch them or not.  Same with Disney.

People are free, of course to boycott who and what they like.  That’s freedom.  For me, the problem with a lot of boycotts—especially by “prolife” people–is that they are not really intended to do anything to save babies.  A boycott of Disney, for instance, is not really going to save a single baby’s life.  Not one.  Indeed, many of the people swearing they are going to boycott Disney have already been boycotting Disney before because they got stampeded into a Righteous Panic du Jour over something else: Gay Days at Disneyland or some website that claimed to spot obscene images in frames from some cartoon or what have you.  Nothing happened as a result of those boycotts and anybody who thinks that most Americans (77% of whom don’t want abortion outlawed anyway) are going to magically give up their cartoons and Star Wars films about any of this are simply not treating with reality.  I think the prolife movement should focus on doing things that actually save lives, not waste everybody’s time with empty moral panics that just make them look weird to the overwhelming majority of people they are trying to convince.

The biggest problem with the embrace of the Moral Panic du Jour approach is that it almost invariably turns boycotts, not into an effective tool for saving the lives of babies, but into poisonous litmus tests for the ideological purity of fellow Catholics and pro-life people.  If somebody wants to boycott Netflix or Microsoft, more power to ‘em.  In the same way, Paul told the Romans that he who abstains from meat does so to the Lord, just as he who ate meat did so to the Lord.  But if the person boycotting then immediately turns and (as happens far too often) starts to accuse his brother or sister of being a babykiller or a “fake Catholic” because they see no particular point to such a boycott and feel no moral obligation to participate, that is the moment the boycott not only fails to do anything to save lives, but is now actively poisoning the body of Christ with judgmental factionalism and is doing actual evil.

That’s my thinking anyway.  Your mileage may vary.

I hope that helps.  You do indeed have my prayers.  Be at peace.  FWIW, I would strongly recommend a spiritual director or confessor to discuss this stuff with.  The Voice of the Combox Pharisee in one’s head, constantly accusing and condemning is not the Holy Spirit and is typically the voice of the devil.  Having a real flesh and blood person to discuss this stuff with can really help.  And, by the way, Harry Potter is just fine too.

Don’t choose somebody known for rigorism to talk with this about.  As Uncle Screwtape says, the work of hell is typically to get us crowding that side of the boat that is already nearly gunwale under.  You don’t need more rigorist condemnation and scruples over teeny tiny things.  You need the love and mercy and gentleness of God.  He has bigger and better things for you than to spend your life sweating over picayune things.  He’s not a God who is eagerly waiting for you to slip up in some small way so he can nail you.  He’s a God who loves you, wants to bless you, and who likes you.  He intends to bless other people through you.  Maybe take a walk and think of ten things you really love (comics, The Good Place, stories that have blessed you and help you see God) and thank him for them as the gifts from him they are.  Don’t feel ashamed to be glad of them and do be grateful to him for those gifts.  You’re the you he created.  Yeah, you’re a sinner and he means to free you from that.  But sin is what destroys, not constitutes, your created humanity.  So thank him for the gifts and people he has given you to love and offer those things to him in gratitude and to share with others.  See where he guides you by the Holy Spirit as you do.

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