Sunday, April 29, 2007

Archbishop Burke's Choices: Scandal and Cooperation. Where to Draw the Line?

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At first glance, the Cardinal Glennon-Sheryl Crow dispute might look like a power struggle between a hospital and an archbishop. In fact, it raises two important moral principles that all of us have to wrestle with in the ordinary choices we make every day.

The first is scandal. When we describe something as "scandalous," we usually mean shocking or disgraceful. A better understanding of the word is, as Archbishop Burke noted, to do something that leads another person into evil. Scandal is a "stumbling stone" — an action that gives respectability to moral wrong and leads me to make a bad choice. Individuals can cause scandal (e.g., by giving a bad example to a child or a subordinate). Corporate scandal is worse because corporations have more power, status and influence in society. It is worse still when it involves a faith-based corporation because these organizations have a religious mission and enjoy the public trust. We hold them and their leaders to a higher standard. They must assess their alliances very carefully to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing or ethical carelessness.

The second principle is cooperation, which asks, "How close can I get to the evil action or intention of another before I get morally implicated myself?" The simplest case is the driver of the getaway car in a bank robbery. Is she morally complicit if she not only drives the car but plans the robbery as well? Surely. Is she morally involved if she drives the getaway car but thinks the robber is just cashing a paycheck? Perhaps not. If she just loans her car not knowing what it will be used for or the car is used without her permission? Probably not. In each case, my lack of knowledge or shared intent diminishes my moral responsibility.

As citizens, all of us are called to work together for the common good. If we participate in a pluralistic society, however, absolute moral purity is impossible. We will inevitably find ourselves working with folks whose beliefs we do not share. This doesn't necessarily mean that we can't work side by side with other volunteers on a Habitat for Humanity build who might hold views we consider to be immoral.

May I contribute to an organization that supports two kinds of work, one morally good and the other morally objectionable, or see a movie produced by an anti-Semite, or buy a product made with child labor? Perhaps, but only if in my best judgment I can say that I do not share the intention of the evildoer and that I am not causing scandal by appearing to do so. Moral choices are rarely crystal clear. The Cardinal Glennon officials surely did not intend to endorse the performer's views when they invited her, but many feel the connection was too close for comfort. As a church leader, the Archbishop was obliged to clarify his stance to avoid scandal. For the rest of us — individuals and institutions alike — this controversy provides an opportunity to examine what we choose, whom we cooperate with, and how our choices may influence others. St Louis Today
Charles Bourchard, Aquinas Institute of Theology, St Louis
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