“Cooperation” is a useful category in Catholic moral theology to address actions having moral aspects and involving others. Cooperation can be formal or material. The former entails agreement with an act: “I want to do this.” The latter deals with situations in which one person lends his actions to another’s act, with varying degrees of possible agreement or disagreement with that act.

Let’s take an example: driving a getaway car. I might be a getaway car driver because I am one of the bank robbers and so am in complete agreement with the theft (formal cooperation). Or I might have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, my vehicle and services hijacked at gunpoint (material cooperation with no agreement).

Cooperation is a useful category because it recognizes that moral integrity is a person’s most valuable asset. That is why Vatican II calls conscience a person’s “most secret core and sanctuary” (Gaudium et Spes 16). That is also why American culture has, until recently, generally honored conscientious objection.

Cooperation is also useful for providing a principled way to address moral conflict in a pluralistic society: while we may not always agree on the specifics of right and wrong, we ought at least to be able to agree that — absent the moral compelling reasons — no one should be compelled to sully his hands in what he deems immoral.

The need for a principled way of addressing these conflicts, as opposed to ad hoc approaches, was apparent in three recent news stories.

  1. Papa John’s Pizza stepped into the middle of a circular firing squad after owner John Schnatter commented that the NFL’s imbroglio over players standing during the national anthem had decreased their viewership and hurt his sales. Schnatter was accused of racism, which in turn won Papa John’s the unsought embrace of white supremacists.
  2. A Montgomery County, Maryland winery kicked a white supremacist gathering off its premises when it figured out exactly what the group represented. The farm announced that “we proudly do business according to family values, including welcoming people of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, cultures and religions. In all we do, including hosting private events, we strive to uphold those values, as well as ensure the safety and respect for our family, staff, customers, community and business.”
  3. The Attorneys General of California and Pennsylvania, meanwhile, pursued suits to force people like the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for abortifacient drugs, even after the Trump Administration rescinded federal mandates to do so.

Papa John’s didn’t seem to be advocating anything, except to promote eating pizza and watching football. Rocklands Farm Winery and Market received kudos for evicting about 100 white supremacists from its premises, even though the company’s “business” was apparently being a conference and venue site whose services should theoretically be open to anyone exercising their First Amendment rights and not violating any law. The Little Sisters of the Poor remain the targets of abortionists intent on forcing everybody to pay for a “normal medical procedure,” moral revulsion against which should not count.

Right now, what seems to unite how these three cases addressed the moral question of cooperation in the evil of another are completely arbitrary feelings: I like (or don’t like) what Rocklands Farms or the Little Sisters did and, depending on the moment, I am for or against Papa John’s.

Public policy should not be based on feelings.

Nor should it be based simply on some generic “general application” one-size-fits-all legal positivism. That is the norm prevailing today. It’s used to truncate the religious liberty objection of the Little Sisters. It is used to ignore the moral objections of Jack Philipps, appellant in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, decided this past term in a decision cobbled together it seems largely to unite the feelings du jour of one judge, Anthony Kennedy.

Philipps’ opponents claim that if the baker offers his products on the general market, they must be accessible to anybody who wants them, for whatever purpose. To allow him to deny them would constitute “discrimination,” invoking all sorts of analogies to lunch counter sit-ins, housing discrimination, etc.

But if Philipps must be forced to sell wedding cakes to solemnize “marriages” he considers both fake and wrong, why doesn’t Rocklands Farm owe the white supremacists meeting space?  After all, if we are bound by law, National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (which held that American neo-Nazis could march through an Illinois town inhabited by lots of Holocaust survivors) set the precedent that viewpoint discrimination was not a basis for denying public access to express one’s views. The white supremacists in Poolesville, Maryland, did not seem to be having a march as much as a meeting. But, they are white supremacists

 Let me be clear: I agree with what Rocklands Farms did. A private, family-owned business should be able to say — as the Supreme Court affirmed in Hobby Lobby — that it does not want to be morally implicated in the moral wrong of racism. But then, neither should Hobby Lobby be implicated in the moral wrong of funding abortion-inducing drugs. We need a more principled basis to adjudicate this dilemma than I like A but not B.

The principle of cooperation offers that principled basis which, in a truly pluralistic society that claims to foster diversity of moral opinion, offers a way of adjudicating the conflict between A’s choice and B’s moral objection to that choice. Already, the notion of rights of conscience is being treated in some circles as toxic. (See Udo Schuklenk’s defense of driving doctors who have conscientious objections to abortion or euthanasia out of the profession.)  Not for the first time does Catholic theology offer a “Catholic moment” to resolving an increasingly sharp dilemma in an increasingly polarized society.

Will we be wise enough to take that off-ramp?