Boycott Like a Catholic

What corporations do in the public square, not just the factory floor, is becoming an increasing concern for Catholics — and the Church has the tools for those discerning how to respond.

Boycott placard
Boycott placard (photo: Mario Tama / Shutterstock)

The topic of boycotting is increasingly prevalent in Catholic circles these days, spurred on as powerful corporations like Disney and Amazon use their wealth and reach to promote problematic ideologies and practices in the wider culture. 

Boycotting, of course, is nothing new in Catholic circles. 300,000 Philadelphia Catholics signed a pledge to boycott movie theaters in 1934 after their cardinal archbishop described the locales as “perhaps the greatest menace to faith and morals in America today.” In the 1960s, the Catholic labor leader Cesar Chavez led boycotts of the California grape industry over unjust labor practices. And more recently, the Diocese of Columbus joined a 2021 boycott of the fast-food chain Wendy’s in an effort to bring about better pay and conditions for farm workers.

But unlike these efforts, the calls for boycotting from Catholics and other social conservatives today are less about how corporations make their products, and more about what they do with their profits.

Disney, whose 2021 revenue was over 67 billion dollars, came out forcefully against a Florida law that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3. The mass media and entertainment conglomerate has stated that its aim “as a company” is to repeal the law or have it struck down in the courts, guaranteeing its support to advocacy groups working towards those goals. Additionally, Disney has pledged to promote gender ideology — the idea that the sex someone is born with is arbitrary and can be changed — in its future productions.

Meanwhile, with Roe v. Wade’s overturn looking likely, Amazon and several other corporations have committed to ensuring abortion access for staff members living in states where abortion is likely to be banned or restricted. The nation’s second largest private employer, Amazon has said it will cover up to $4,000 of travel expenses for employees seeking out-of-state abortions.

One Catholic scholar told the Register he isn’t surprised that Catholics are increasingly faced with the question of whether to boycott a corporation over their political and social activism.

“For a long time, American businesses really wanted to stay out of the culture wars, because they wanted everybody to shop at their store or buy their car,” said David Cloutier, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America. “But that’s changed.”

Cloutier says that companies are increasingly aligning themselves with “larger sets of values,” especially as a way to appeal to potential customers from younger demographics. 

“And I think that makes it more challenging for Catholics, because when you spend money with a certain company, you’re also supporting or promoting a certain set of social values,” said Cloutier. “And it’s reasonable to feel uncomfortable doing business with a company that is openly promoting social values that you disagree with.”

 

Catholic principles

The CUA theologian told the Register that this trend is offering an important reminder to Catholics that “the way we spend our money really is a moral decision,” a longstanding principle of the Church’s social teaching. And he suggests that the Church’s framework on cooperation with evil can serve as a helpful guide for a Catholic discerning whether or not to boycott a corporation engaging in problematic practices — on the factory floor or in the public square.

The first distinction to draw, Cloutier said, is between formal cooperation and material cooperation. Formal cooperation with evil involves sharing the morally repugnant intent of the business in question — “and that should never happen. That’s always wrong in the Catholic tradition.”

The moral dimensions tied to material cooperation with evil, which involves doing business with or otherwise being materially involved in a company’s problematic practices, but not sharing their intentions, are more nuanced, given how interconnected cultural, economic, and political life is within a society.

“If you had to buy from only corporations that didn’t do any bad things, you would have to leave the world,” Cloutier quipped.

Still, material cooperation with evil is “not a get out of jail free card,” Cloutier said, and is not justifiable in every instance. Determining what to do in specific instances involves making a proportional judgment in two areas: how grave is the evil in question, and how close is the cooperation with it?

For instance, someone making the trains run on time in Nazi Germany, not inherently problematic, would have to consider the degree to which their activity was contributing to the atrocities of the concentration camps, an evil of epic proportions. Alternatively, Cloutier doesn’t find convincing arguments that McDonald’s, by continuing to do business in Moscow, is immorally cooperating in Russia’s unjust invasion in Ukraine, given the remoteness of selling hamburgers from the actual war efforts.

Additionally, Cloutier said that the framework also involves a proportional judgment about the seriousness of not materially cooperating with evil or boycotting. For instance, the decision to boycott a grocery store that promoted problematic causes looks different if it were the only available option that fit your budget and allowed you to feed your family.

However, for a Catholic who’s considering boycotting Disney over their political and cultural activism, Cloutier said the consequences aren’t really comparable.

“Your family is not going to suffer that much.”

 

Bad business

Cloutier acknowledges that the traditional application of the cooperation with evil framework to boycotting and certain economic decisions has typically focused on the business as a business — not as a political actor. It’s more straightforward to assess cooperation with evil connections associated with production, such as a company’s treatment of its workers or its products’ contribution to environmental degradation, because those issues are directly tied to the business’s essential purpose and practices.

But what’s happening with the likes of Disney and Amazon is harder to assess, given how remote their activism is from their economic activity.

“The deeper issue here is that corporations are being used in what is fundamentally a political struggle,” said Cloutier. “Disney shouldn’t be making decisions about what kind of sexuality we want to teach in schools. No corporation should, because it’s not a corporate decision. It’s a legislative decision, which is why Disney doesn’t run the schools, the state legislature does.”

“We shouldn’t be looking to Disney for guidance on this question,” continued Cloutier. “We should be arguing that out in state legislatures and in town hall debates and in the political process,” which is inhibited when “large corporate actors like Disney have disproportionate power.”

Cloutier describes the politicization of businesses as a problematic instance of “hyper partisanship,” which he worries will only be intensified if Roe is overturned.

“If every product choice you make has to signal what side of the political aisle you’re on, from what canned goods you buy to what brand of pancakes you get, it’s probably pretty bad for society.”

 

Making a difference

When it comes to discerning whether to boycott or not, Cloutier said that he doesn’t think too much emphasis should be placed on whether one’s economic activity will be “effective” or not, in part because it can be so hard to predict out how things can play out. For instance, he points out that the pro-life movement never would’ve had the impact it has had in American society if people had simply calculated whether their advocacy would be effective or not in the immediate aftermath of Roe.

“My preference as a Catholic is to focus on yourself and to realize that you have a responsibility with your money to use it in moral ways,” he said. “And if you can lessen your material cooperation with evil, do it,” without being overly scrupulous.

That being said, he also advises that it is reasonable to factor in how strongly a company is supporting a particular agenda, and also how settled the issue or problematic practice is in wider society. On the question of promoting transgender ideology, which Disney seems intent on doing, Cloutier said that there is still a window of opportunity for Catholics to make a difference through their economic decisions.

“Even though there’s a lot pushing that issue in one direction, there are all sorts of possibilities for the horse not getting out of the barn,” he said, noting that there is great discomfort among the medical community and some secular thinkers over the claims of gender ideology.

Cloutier emphasizes that the Church’s framework for assessing cooperation with evil is less of a magic formula, and more of a set of principles. The hard work of conscience formation and discernment is still needed by Catholics trying to determine if they should boycott companies, be it ones that advance immoral political agendas like Disney and Amazon, or others whose business practices fail to respect the dignity of workers, consumers, and the common good.

“Do your best, which is to say earnestly try to follow the Church’s teaching, and recognize that spending is not just a matter of ‘which good do I want’ or ‘what’s easiest,’ but that it’s a moral act,”  Said Cloutier. “How we spend our money really matters, and if I send a message with my money that I don’t support this, or that I do support that, it makes a difference.”