Ask a Catholic Geek: Moral Culpability in Service

I’ve been meaning to start up an Ask a Catholic Geek series, and this question posed in our Facebook group was the perfect opportunity.

How do we explain, using moral theology, why it is licit to allow racists to use your credit card services? CAN we say it’s licit?

What level of material cooperation is licit? I think many people are deeply confused on this question.

~ Stephanie S.

Racism does not enter into it. What you are looking for is the following: When does 
providing a service to those who shall use the service to commit a sin mean I myself participate in that sin?

If you want St. Thomas Aquinas’ take on the subject, you don’t have to look any farther than Q. 169, on modesty. It’s one of my favorites to bring up, for two reasons. One, it has an inherent and very casual defense of the manufacture of weaponry (so casual that it’s obvious that St. Thomas didn’t even consider anyone might object to it, and he only brings it up to prove a point about modesty), and two, because I get a kick out of telling people that St. Thomas has a section on sexy lingerie.

st. thomas aquinas faqs

If you don’t want to look up 169, or you want a fast answer, the fact of the matter is that if a service or art (which would include both manufacturing and entertainment) can be used for both good or ill, it is therefore licit. In other words, it is only bad if it can only be used for bad things. Otherwise, the moral culpability is in the intent of the user, not the producer. 
This is where he brings up the analogy to weapons, but since we now live in a society where hardly anyone questions sexy lingerie but the subject of weaponry is increasingly controversial, I’ll invert it. Imagine, then, that you are providing lingerie. This can be used for the buyer’s sin, or it could be used in a marriage, or it could be that the buyer wants to use it for personal use and not actually show it to others (many women who wait for marriage still enjoy wearing sexy garments as they wait for that day). When you the seller have sold hem the garment, you transfer both ownership and responsibility. You cannot be held responsible for their actions afterward in any greater manner than anyone else who just happens to be passing by.
Taking it a step farther to an ongoing service, such as a bank or transaction service, does not actually change that fact. If I am the owner of a bank, I am selling a service: namely, that I and my institution will safeguard your money and provide ways for you to easily transfer it in and out of your account or accounts. I cannot be held responsible for where you obtain the money, nor where it goes after it leaves my care. If I believe the money is being used in the participation of a crime, it is my responsibility to inform the proper authorities. If I believe the money is being used in the participation of a sin (say, pornography), it is my responsibility to pray for those involved, but not to put a stop to it.
It is easily argued that a Christian can justify cutting off service. This is true, as long as it is within the contract signed by both parties. Remember, the Bible says to let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. If you have agreed to something, you have sworn an oath — and as St. Thomas More said, what is an oath but an oath before God? It makes no difference if you “merely” made a promise to another human.
However, attempting to police this easily leads to further problems. First, it now becomes my responsibility to check the sources of all my customers’ money, and where it will then go. Even assuming that I could possibly afford to do so, that would be a massive invasion of privacy. Second, I must be absolutely consistent in what I allow and what I do not, which requires me to define things exactly; yet we know from the social experience of humanity since the first laws were passed that the more strict the law, the more loopholes we open up. Even God’s own Ten Commandments got stripped down and re-interpreted by generations of His people until the Jews were left with a mess no one could easily navigate without special training or assistance. Becoming judge and jury at that level, especially when there are alternative services available, only drives people to look for alternatives to my bank. 
And that all assumes I get it right. That isn’t guaranteed. I’m not God, able to look into your heart with perfect clarity. Say I rule that you can’t use an account with my bank to pay for pornography. Well, what is pornography? Some say it’s ‘nudity on display,’ but that covers the David and the Sistine Chapel. Defining the limit is impossible, even if we get a computer to do it — as Facebook keeps demonstrating. 
send dunes
And what of those who deliberately hide things? Say that a criminal is using my bank to hold laundered money through a shell company. By saying I’m policing how money that passes through my service is collected or used, I’m declaring I’m on the lookout for things that violate my moral standing. In this day and age of pop-up mobs, online and in person, it becomes corporate suicide to give any semblance of culpability. Most terms-of-service contracts are about reducing your risk, not increasing it.
But the question was on moral culpability, not civil; so I’ll just leave with this. If you provide a service that, for the most part, is used for evil, then you should take care to limit it. If, however, some people take advantage of your service not to abuse you but rather to do ill outside of your control, as in the case of a restaurant providing a meal to a man who is using that establishment to date a woman who is not his wife, then you have no culpability insofar as your service is concerned. Beyond that, it is your choice to make — and your choice is your responsibility.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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3 Responses to Ask a Catholic Geek: Moral Culpability in Service

  1. How would we apply this then to the “Great Cake Debate” of making a wedding cake for a union we are morally opposed to?
    If I’m understanding this correctly, as Catholics, we wouldn’t consider ourselves morally culpable for making a cake for other people to celebrate something we believe is wrong. Cake itself is amoral. We could, in good conscious, provide a wedding cake for whomever and pray for those who are going to eat it.

    But then that is different than providing birth control and abortifacients in the name of “health care” because we believe that artificial birth control and abortifacients are always immoral.

    Am I understanding this correctly? Thanks! This was a very informative article. 🙂


    • First, I’m sorry for the late reply. I hadn’t noticed comments in a long time, and apparently WordPress was “helping” me.

      Second, a wedding cake is actually a grey area, not a firm matter. A cake is not part of the ceremony, and therefore, technically, nothing is being provided except a paid foodstuff for a party. On that level, there is no material support because it is no different from any other party. However, there must always be room for personal conscience, and that is where the root of the issue lies: not as a matter of doctrine over what activities are acceptable, but as a stand that we must always defend the right of a person — and isn’t this an ironic phrase — to choose. The Church does not provide rules for every single instance of life; it provides minimum standards, and guidelines for doing even better.

      However, because in our Western metaculture we associate the wedding reception (think “wedding feast” in the Bible) with the wedding itself, any support of the one is usually seen as support of the other. The usual guideline I would advise to look to is that of St. Thomas More, who refused to appear at Henry VIII’s second wedding, as well as the celebration afterward. (Beautifully portrayed in A Man For All Seasons, of course.) The issue there wasn’t that it was technically a non-Catholic wedding, but rather that it was an invalid wedding. Even a non-Christian wedding can be recognized by the Church if certain minimum standards are met; but in the king’s case, he was already married, and so it was viewed by St. Thomas as a celebration of adultery. Sex between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, is the same as sex between myself and any woman other than my wife. There is no separate sin for “gay sex.” It is all fornication.

      Following St. Thomas More’s example, we should not give any appearance of celebrating sin, because even if our action is not a violation of the basic principles I’ve outlined, it can APPEAR to be, and thus give rise to scandal. If we allow for X, why not Y? The technical argument can only be used with those who understand the basis for such technicality. We are given minimum standards, but we should always be cautious about only living up to the minimum. Not only is it poor spiritual growth, but it hardly sets an example for others.

      When it comes to contraception, these are products that can only be used for a practice that is outright condemned by the Church. In this case, there is no such grey area; the minimum standards are higher than that for a cake or anything similar. If I so much as give someone a ride to the store knowing that their primary purpose is to buy condoms, pornography, or anything else proscribed by the Church, I have been materially cooperative in their sin.

      (Now, there are a few rare uses for condoms beyond sexual activity, just as there are varying definitions of what constitutes pornography. However, it’s a safe assumption to make, and as I said already, we should err on the side of caution.)


  2. Don Lond says:

    I suppose one could argue somewhat pedagogically, that the maker of the commonly worn “Roman Collar” is free from all guilt, since the wearer of those Roman collars then bears the responsibility of properly representing Christianity, or using and abusing it to harm Christianity.


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