The Left’s Selective Defense of Conscience Rights

Abortion advocates have a bizarre notion of moral agency.

“Cooperation” is a traditional category in moral theology. It asks to what degree and under what circumstances one becomes a participant in the evil someone else does.

“Cooperation” is usually divided into two types: “formal” and “material.” One “formally cooperates” in another’s wrongdoing when one recognizes it to be such but wants to take part in it. Both doers’ wills are the same: both want to do X, and so both are responsible for X.

“Material cooperation” is more nuanced. There are instances where circumstances require me to be associated in some way with the evil someone else does. I may not always be able (or required) to remove myself from a situation, but I should distance myself as much as I can from the evil another does.

National Review reports a controversy in which one Minnesota Democrat congresswoman seems to be making a moral mountain out of a molehill. St. Paul congresswoman Betty McCollum is churning out statements about the responsibility of the University of Minnesota when the Washington Redskins next play there.

The Washington NFL franchise is the object of vehement denunciations because its name is regarded by some as offensive to American Indians. There is considerable pressure, especially inside Washington’s political class, to demand the team change its name. Its owner, Dan Snyder, refuses.

The Twin Cities’ NFL franchise, the Minnesota Vikings, will be using the University of Minnesota’s stadium this fall while its own new stadium is being built. That means the Vikings will face the Redskins on university grounds on November 2, and the congresswoman from St. Paul is already pressing the Vikings, in the name of the school’s “anti-discrimination policy” to oppose the name. National Review says the school is “looking to ‘make every effort to eliminate’ the use of the Washington Redskins name on game-related material and on game day when the two teams square off….” Can we expect game day to be “Vikings v. Those Other Guys”?

I will take no position on whether “Redskins” is, as Congresswoman McCollum says, a “’hateful slur.’” What I find most interesting is her extremely sensitive conscience that is ready to remove the speck from the Vikings’ eye while happily retaining the beam in her own.

The University of Minnesota is essentially a landlord, providing a facility to a tenant. The tenant is a local football team and the facility is a football field. In the course of that tenancy, various other teams will come to play the tenant.

One could argue that the November 2 Vikings v. Redskins game is, at worst, extremely remote material cooperation. Two professional football teams are doing a morally neutral thing, i.e., playing football. The whole controversy is about whether the landlord should object to the tenant’s guest’s name.

For Congresswoman McCollum, they should and must. Justice and morality demand it.

The same congresswoman, a professed Catholic, brooks no conscience rights for the owners of Hobby Lobby when they were forced to pay for abortifacients under Obamacare. When the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell came down, Congresswoman McCollum promptly issued a statement pledging “to find every legislative avenue available to reverse this ruling which is an attack on women and sound medical science.” True to her word, she is a co-sponsor of HR 5051, the “Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act of 2014.” (For my analysis of the companion Senate bill, see here.)

According to McCollum, a corporation (since that is, essentially, what a football franchise is) has a moral duty to protest another team’s name. A non-profit corporation (since that is, essentially, what a university is … although many tuition-paying parents might ask about the “non-profit” part) should kick another corporation out of its facilities over its name.

But a corporation has no moral right to refuse to pay for a drug or a device that it believes will cause the death of another human being. Indeed, that corporation has the moral duty to “see no evil,” pretend that the moral gravity of complicity in killing is irrelevant, and pay for its employees’ abortifacients.

Apparently, your conscience is only entitled to be sensitive about those things which Betty McCollum’s conscience dislikes.

When politicians and pundit pontificate derisively about “corporations are not persons” that “cannot have moral opinions,” what they really mean is that they can’t have certain opinions. If those same speakers really believed corporations have no consciences, they would not be storming board meetings demanding corporation X divest from the cause du jour. They would never have demanded Big Tobacco pay settlements. They would not be making hefty fees as consultants teaching your company about “corporate responsibility.” And they would be as incensed that Starbucks told a stockholder who dissented from its corporate pro-homosexual advocacy to sell off his shares as they are ready to bash Barilla spaghetti for insisting it would only use “classic families” in its advertising.

Of course we all know that hasn’t happened.

In his new book, Cardinal Angelo Scola remarks how such positions when made public policy imperil religious freedom:

… the so-called neutral state is not culturally impartial but takes on a secularist orientation that, through legislative choices, above all in anthropologically sensitive matters, becomes hostile to cultural identities of religious origin. Through the objectivity and authoritativeness of the law is spread—in fact—a culture marked by a secularized vision of man and of the world, which is legitimate as one voice in a pluralistic society but which the state cannot make its own without assuming implicitly an undue substantive position that restricts religious freedom. (Emphasis added.)

Religious freedom starts with freedom of conscience, to act or not act according to one’s convictions in moral matters. Betty McCollum in practice offers a selective conscience (hers), which finds some corporate activities acceptable but not others, norms she would then impose on the rest of us. I guess this is what is meant by the conscience that can swallow a camel but strains at a gnat.

John M. Grondelski


Dr. John M. Grondelski is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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