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Modern-Day Advice from a 13th-Century Saint

Thomas AquinasLast week, I wrote about how an adorer (“Tony”) had criticized me because of an article that I had written about Amazon.com and its founder, Jeff Bezos.  Tony provided several reasons why I (and other Catholics) should refuse to do business with Amazon, one of which is that “Amazon distributes pornography.”  Here’s how I responded to the comment about the pornography issue:

I’m not sure what Tony is referring to when he says that Amazon “distributes pornography.”  My assumption is that he may be referring to some of the books and DVDs that are offered for sale on Amazon, or he may be referring to a service that Amazon offers that allows businesses to rent space on Amazon’s servers (computer hardware) to store videos that are delivered through the businesses’ websites.

I’ll be commenting more on this next week, but I noticed that Tony’s email address is hosted by Comcast, a company that acts as a conduit for millions of users who, because of Comcast, are able to access pornography over the Internet.  Without Comcast and other similar service providers, no one would be able to order products or access photographs or video content over the Internet.

I could easily argue that having an account with Comcast is a more egregious offense than ordering products from Amazon, since the monthly subscription payments that are made to Comcast help to fund the transfer of pornography to end users.

The relevant question that needs to be answered is: What are the standards that Catholics should be following when dealing with companies who in some way support pornography, contraception, gay marriage, abortion, or any other modern-day evil?  I’ll answer this question next week.

In his literary work, Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) outlined an ethical formula that an individual is allowed to use to determine whether a certain action is permissible, even though there may be unintended consequences that are morally evil.  The formula that Aquinas spelled out is commonly referred to as the “principle of double effect.”

For the principle of double effect to apply, four conditions must be met before it is morally allowable for an individual to perform an action that has at least two consequences, one good and one evil:

1.    The action itself must either be morally neutral or morally good.

2.    The evil effect must be only an incidental by-product and not an actual factor in the accomplishment of the good.

3.    The motive behind the action must be the achievement of the good effect only.

4.    The good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the evil effect.

Fr. John A. Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary provides the following example of how the principle of double effect is applied:

An example of the lawful use of the double effect would be the commander of a submarine in wartime who torpedoes an armed merchant vessel of the enemy, although he foresees that several innocent children on board will be killed.  All four required conditions are fulfilled: (1) he intends merely to lessen the power of the enemy by destroying an armed merchant ship.  He does not wish to kill the innocent children; (2) his action of torpedoing the ship is not evil in itself; (3) the evil effect (the death of the children) is not the cause of the good effect (the lessening of the enemy’s strength); (4) there is sufficient reason for permitting the evil effect to follow, and this reason is administering a damaging blow to those who are unjustly attacking his country.

The principle of double effect is commonly cited in cases where a pregnant woman who knows that abortion is evil authorizes her doctor to remove her uterus or fallopian tube.  The woman’s decision is morally lawful in cases where she will die if the procedure is not performed.  Examples of two such cases are aggressive uterine cancer and ectopic pregnancy.  In both cases, the intended effect is not to terminate the pregnancy, but to save the woman’s life.  The failure to perform the procedure would result in an effect that would be more damaging than performing the procedure — the death of both the mother and her unborn child.

Several years ago it was revealed that Methodist Medical Center in Peoria allows (and profits from) elective abortions that are performed at the hospital.  What if you were in need of an emergency surgery that would cost in excess of $80,000 in hospital bills and your health insurance policy covers 80 percent of hospital bills that are incurred at Methodist Medical Center, but only 40 percent of hospital bills that are incurred at OSF St. Francis Medical Center?  Is it morally lawful for you to choose to have your surgery performed at Methodist Medical Center?  The principle of double effect would allow you to choose Methodist Medical Center for your surgery, even though a share of the money that is paid to the hospital might be used by the hospital to help fund abortion procedures.

What if I were to tell you that one of the largest Catholic Dioceses in the United States has some of its funds invested in shares of stock of Marriott and Hilton hotels?  One of the largest profit centers for Marriott and Hilton (as well as most other hotels) is the pay-per-view adult (pornographic) movies that are available to customers who are staying at the hotels.  There’s a good chance that you have stayed at a hotel that earns profits from these types of services.  Are you morally required to avoid all hotels that offer similar services?

Unfortunately, we have gotten to the point in our society where most businesses in our country are, in one way or another, engaged in actions that are morally evil, as defined by the Catholic Church.

During the past year, have you watched television on any of the three major networks — ABC, NBC, or CBS?  If your answer is yes, then you have helped to support those networks’ promotion and glorification of pre-marital sex, adultery, contraception, homosexuality, and pornography.

Even Hobby Lobby, the Christian business that took on the federal government and won on an issue of religious freedom, pays for 16 different contraceptive methods and devices that are offered to its employees.  If I purchase products from Hobby Lobby, I am helping to pay for contraceptives for its employees.

The principle of double effect can legitimately be applied to all the examples I’ve cited above, including the purchase of products from Amazon and the purchase of internet services from Comcast.  We live in a post-Christian society where the forces of evil have infiltrated (and in some cases overtaken) our federal, state, and local governments, our public school system, our media, our institutions of higher learning, and a large share of our families and communities.  There are no simple solutions to the complex problems we are constantly being confronted with.

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