When donating to charity, here’s what to keep in mind

This summer, people from all over the country were dumping buckets of ice water on themselves to raise awareness and money for the ALS Association’s fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease. As the ice bucket challenge became both more widely known and wildly successful through social media, many pro-life advocates were morally conflicted because the ALS Association funds embryonic stem-cell research in its hope to find a cure for the dreaded disease.

Not wanting to support an organization that is involved in taking embryonic life, even while recognizing its noble goal, one began seeing urgings online to donate to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, which uses only morally upright methods such as adult stem cell therapies, which don’t involve the creation and destruction of embryonic life.

With fall here, the excitement over the ice bucket challenge has largely cooled off, but the controversy raises the larger issue for Catholics and others concerned about innocent human life and the moral principles that should govern our charitable giving. Simply because we give to a “good cause” doesn’t absolve us of moral responsibility if, for example, the means used by the organization to further its cause are in some way morally tainted.

Cooperation with evil

In the Catholic moral tradition, we need to ask ourselves if our charitable giving is a form of formal cooperation or material cooperation. Formal cooperation with evil is always wrong because we freely make our act one, as it were, with the principal moral agent who has initiated the immoral activity. We intend the immoral act. But material cooperation is another story; at times it can be justified when there is a serious reason for doing so. With material cooperation in another’s wrongdoing, one provides some assistance but intends (and does) only the good, not the bad.

It would seem that contributing to the ALS Association (especially the substantial sum of $100 that people were encouraged to give via the ice bucket challenge) would be a form of material cooperation that wouldn’t meet the test of moral licitness given the following reasons:

— The ALS Association admits using some charitable dollars to fund an intrinsically evil act: embryonic stem-cell research.

— The possibility of causing scandal (i.e., leading others into thinking that it’s morally OK to support a charity that funds embryonic stem-cell research).

— And the fact that alternative charities exist that do not support morally illicit embryo research.

Thus, one can achieve the great goods that the ALS Association hopes to achieve while also avoiding the great evils it performs by means of other charitable groups. As well, it should be noted, a person is under no moral obligation to contribute to a particular charity, especially when their particular circumstances in life would make it difficult to do so.

Education is key

Many who took the ice bucket challenge wisely made it known that they were sympathetic to the cause, but that they would be donating to other charities — and making it clear why they were doing so. This had the salutary effect of bringing awareness to the issue of embryonic stem-cell research and its medical and moral failures. But it also kept the need to find a cure for ALS front and center, as well as pointing out the value of using adult stem cells.

A similar phenomenon occurred a few years ago (and it often recurs) with the controversy over Susan G. Komen’s affiliation with Planned Parenthood. I know of Catholic schools that will no longer support Komen’s “Race for the Cure” events on account of this past and present relationship.

All of us want to see the scourges of breast cancer and ALS eliminated, but not at the cost of supporting abortion providers or contributing to human embryo killing — however small our financial contribution might be or however tenuous the connection between the charity we give to and its support of other organizations at odds with our moral values.

Given all of this, Catholics have a moral obligation to educate themselves on how their hard-earned dollars can play a role, however unintentional, in funding the “culture of death.” They have a responsibility to do their homework in researching where a charity stands on the human life issues before writing a check to them. But not just the life issues: There are other moral issues — same-sex marriage and pornography come to mind — that one should attend to. The Internet, for all its negatives, can be a valuable tool in investigating a charity’s vision and values.

A teaching moment

But as Catholics know all too well, the issue of whether to give or not to give can be very emotionally charged. We have family and friends who, having been affected by some of these terrible diseases, see nothing wrong with supporting charities that may not be in accord with Catholic teaching. It’s especially difficult when the fundraiser is a fun activity or event such as the ice bucket challenge. Catholics don’t want to appear as killjoys or overly judgmental. Thus, we should patiently explain why we have not only moral objections, but why we are substituting some other charity or event to take its place.

We shouldn’t underestimate the possible faith-witness our stance on the issue may have. We can respect other people’s conscientious choice to give generously but also share information with them that they may not have been aware of. Some give — with lessened moral culpability — to charities involved in immoral research but are largely unaware that their donations help fund some of this work.

So, if the ice bucket challenge pops up again next summer, feel free to participate. But make it known why your donation will be going to an organization that is in line with Church teaching. This effort will help build a culture of life.

Mark S. Latkovic is a professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and the author of “What’s A Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter” (OSV, $14.95).