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How to survive a secular workplace

Should you attend a same-sex church wedding? Or work in a shop that sells pornography? Catholic tradition can help guide us

One of the alarming effects of living in a society less and less beholden to traditional Christian morality is that many Catholics find themselves in situations where they are closely associated with practices they find abhorrent. Taxes go to fund abortions, the stores we patronise sell pornographic magazines or books, teachers are required to teach an “inclusive” view of marriage, and so on.

In navigating this minefield, there are some fairly well-established tools that we ought to have in our ethical toolbox, from the theological tradition on the subject of “cooperation with evil”. This is when a person, doing something good in itself, has his or her activity hijacked by another who uses it to do evil.

Mary is a cleaner at the city hospital, so she keeps the operating theatres ready for action. These rooms are used for a range of legitimate procedures but also for sterilisations and abortions. Those performing these operations are hijacking Mary’s work. Her work is good in itself, but it does facilitate something that is not good. In this sense, Mary is “cooperating”. That doesn’t necessarily mean she is sinning: we cannot avoid some cooperation with evil. And since we cannot be obliged to do what is impossible, some cooperation must be legitimate. But how much?

If Mary is in agreement with the abortions and sterilisations, then she not only facilitates them, she also co-wills them. This would be formal cooperation and is always wrong for the simple reason that willing evil is always wrong. If, however, Mary is appalled at these procedures, she is said to be materially cooperating. Material cooperation can be right or wrong depending on various things. We need to dig deeper into the toolbox.

The first item we pull out of our toolbox is the principle of proximity. It recognises that the actions of the cooperator (otherwise good) can be more or less closely related to the action of the evil-doer. Compare Mary’s situation to ours as taxpayers. A small proportion of our taxes goes to pay for abortions, sterilisations, IVF, etc. Our cooperation is more remote. Then again, Mary is more causally distant from the evil than is the theatre nurse. There are more “acts of the will” (more decisions) between Mary and the act of the doctor that kills the child than there are between the nurse and the doctor. Generally speaking, the closer one is associated, the less tolerable this becomes. Sometimes the cooperation is so immediate – a nurse handing the curette to the abortionist – that the actions effectively merge. In that case, cooperation is certainly illicit.

The second tool is the principle of proportion. (Not be confused with the erroneous theory of “proportionalism”, which says that we can do evil in order to arrive at good.) Cooperation is about pursuing the good and having to tolerate that some evil arises from it. We need to compare the goodness of the good we are seeking with the gravity of the evil we are facilitating.

A family-run bakery, where the business supports the whole family, can perhaps justify baking a cake for a same-sex wedding reception (thereby avoiding prosecution and staying in business) more so than could an occasional caterer who is just making a little more disposable income on the side. Such activity would, in my view, be proximate but not immediate cooperation (in the celebration of a disordered relationship). This can sometimes be tolerated when the good being sought is very significant. This does not preclude individuals or businesses making a stand against a law that requires the provision of services in situations that are objectionable.

The third tool is the principle of scandal. Even when cooperation might be justified according to the above principles, cooperating would influence a third party negatively. It might well (all other things being equal) be OK for me to work in a grocery store that happens to sell pornographic magazines. But if my teenage son takes this to be an affirmation of the benign nature of this material, the situation becomes one of scandal.

Attending a same-sex wedding – or an obviously invalid marriage of heterosexual individuals – could lead others into error about matrimony. But if the scandal is slight or can be undercut, in my opinion it might be legitimate to attend some element of the occasion, such as the reception, in pursuit of the goal of maintaining a relationship with one of the parties, so as to influence them well in the future. (Perhaps scandal can be mitigated by sensitively explaining one’s motivation in attending the reception to those who might otherwise be led astray.) In every case, attendance would imply a very particular relationship to the party involved, such as a sibling. That said, refusing to attend might often be the best way to lead the sibling to a greater awareness of the truth of their situation. If the wedding ceremony has a religious context (such as a Mass) then the issue of sacrilege arises and so one cannot attend.

Wearing a “rainbow” LGBT badge out of intimidation is likely to fall under scandal. It is also potentially “bearing false witness” as it communicates as true something the wearer does not think is the truth. That’s not cooperating; that’s lying. Using a transgender person’s “preferred pronoun”, eg calling a woman “he”, would be similar.

However, when scandal is less likely (eg outside the classroom) and when everyone knows you are using the pronoun under coercion, eg if you would be fired (so no affirmation of the truth is assumed), then the wrong pronoun could, in my judgment, sometimes be used. In some settings, such as counselling, it might even be part of building a working relationship with someone who is suffering from gender dysphoria. Personal names (eg “Sue” for a man) can be more safely used since they are just conventional. This situation is different from offering incense to the Roman Emperor, because that choice was precisely set up as a test and as a rejection of Christ. The same does not seem to be true in the use of pronouns.

The wearing of a rainbow badge strikes me as less tolerable than either using the preferred pronoun or attending the wedding reception (within the parameters explained) because it lends support to a harmful ideology – whereas in the other two cases the wellbeing of individuals (albeit misguided ones) is guiding the range of possible charitable responses.

The flipside of the principle of scandal is the issue of witness. According to German law, a woman seeking an abortion must receive a certificate saying she had received counselling. The Church in Germany used to provide counselling and issue these certificates. St John Paul II demanded that this stop – even if that meant the counselling services had to close – principally because it undermined the Church’s pro-life witness.

The fourth tool is the principle of duty. This notes that one person may have a greater duty than another to resist evil, depending on vocation and circumstance.

A teacher, for example, whose very vocation is the formation of the children in her care, has a greater duty to resist cooperating with a deforming sex education programme than does the janitor.

We also need to be sensitive to when we have crossed the line between cooperating and out-and-out wrongdoing under coercion. If a teacher delivers a deforming sex education programme for fear of losing her job, she may well no longer be in the realm of cooperation: she no longer facilities evil, she performs it.

There is no mathematical formula that allows one to calculate when material cooperation is OK. This is not to say there is no right or wrong answer – there is – but in some situations we have to apply multiple principles. In this exercise the virtue of prudence becomes important. When in doubt, consult a virtuous and prudent friend.

In my opinion, when it is a matter of material cooperation, we need to give the good man a break. Meaning this: there are many upright people out there simply trying to make a living and live a decent life. I’d suggest that, unless it is very clear that cooperation is out of the question, the cooperator should be given the benefit of the doubt. This does not preclude individuals (especially Catholics) being called upon to make a stand and refuse to go along with unacceptable practices. The Lord may well put this on the heart of an individual, encouraging him to resist even when, strictly speaking, cooperation is legitimate.

This is not to say that some are called to be heroic and others not. Here we are thinking of people who are already being heroic (toiling away to look after their families) but are now faced with the prospect of prosecution.

Finally, to be clear, we are not trying to distance ourselves from evil people, only evil actions. This means that there may be cases in which cooperation becomes legitimate in the pursuit of staying in relationship with others, so as to speak into their lives and bring them to the Truth, without which no one was ever set free.

William Newton is Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville