How to respond when companies contradict the Faith

A year ago, Starbucks made headlines when Kalen Holmes, executive vice president for partner resources, issued a statement that read in part: “Starbucks is proud to join other leading Northwest employers in support of Washington state legislation recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples …. This important legislation is aligned with Starbucks business practices and upholds our belief in the equal treatment of partners. It is core to who we are and what we value as a company.” 

A few months later at the company’s 2012 annual shareholder meeting, Howard Schulz, the company’s founder, chairman and CEO respectfully defended its support of same-sex marriage as a core value. Fast-forward to the 2013 annual shareholders meeting. Schulz was asked whether it was wise for the company to be so public in its support of same-sex marriage, given that many shareholders and customers believe in traditional marriage, and that the stance had triggered a boycott by the National Organization for Marriage. This time, Schulz was more aggressive, telling the shareholder: “If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38 percent you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.” 

How are we to respond when a company takes actions contrary to our faith, especially as aggressively as Starbucks has? When it comes to marriage, the Church’s teaching is clear: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1601). 

We are called “to do what is good and avoid what is evil” (No. 1706), in this case supporting traditional marriage and avoiding the support of same-sex marriage. While we wish we could avoid all evil, we are a sinful people, and that sin permeates the culture. It’s unreasonable to think we can completely separate ourselves from the evil around us.

A matter of cooperation

This gets us to the issue of cooperation: both formal and material. Formal cooperation is when we help in some way and share the goal of the person or organization we are helping. Formal cooperation with evil is never allowed. Material cooperation is when we help a person or organization, but do not share their goals. The principle of material cooperation recognizes what has been described above: that it can be virtually impossible to completely separate ourselves from participating in sinful actions of others. 

This brings us back to the example of Starbucks. If you believe in traditional marriage, you wouldn’t be formally cooperating with Starbucks’ goal of promoting homosexual marriage when you buy a cup of coffee from them; however, you would be cooperating materially. How do you decide whether it is acceptable to materially cooperate? Here are a few points to consider: 

Is the issue of a serious nature? In this case, the answer is clearly “yes.” That should prompt us to avoid participating if it’s reasonable to do so. 

What level of commitment is the company making? A $5,000 annual donation toward the cause of homosexual marriage from an organization with $12 billion in annual revenues represents a modest level of involvement. Saying that homosexual marriage is a core value of the company and supporting legislation promoting same-sex marriage raises the bar substantially. 

To what extent do you need the product or service the company provides? I’ll leave the coffee question up to you! 

Are there good alternative sources for the product or service of the company? In this case, there are several. 

Recognize that although material cooperation with evil is allowed for sufficient cause, it is meritorious to take extra steps to avoid such cooperation.  

Phil Lenahan is President of Veritas Financial Ministries (www.VeritasFinancialMinistries.com), host of Life and Money radio, and author of 7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free (OSV).