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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