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Question 88: Should a head nurse cooperate with her hospital’s United Way campaign?

I am a laywoman and the head nurse in a large Catholic hospital. The administrator, Sister Jane, and I disagree about participation in the local United Way campaign.282 In the past, no organization providing abortion services was included; this year, Planned Parenthood, which operates abortion clinics here, is listed. That might not seem a problem, since donors can designate the organizations they want to receive their contributions. But that is unlikely to make any real difference, because designation has an effect only if the total designated for an organization is greater than the amount it would receive as its budgeted share of the total amount donated in the campaign283—which seldom happens in this city, because most people do not designate. Consequently, our local right-to-life organization is urging people who oppose abortion to refuse to contribute to United Way unless and until it takes Planned Parenthood off the list, and instead to contribute directly to organizations of their choice. Personally, that is what I am going to do.

The hospital gets some money from United Way, though, and Sister Jane insists that we must urge everyone on the payroll to contribute enough to reach the target set for us by the United Way guidelines. Otherwise, she argues, the hospital will seem deficient in community spirit, with potentially disastrous consequences. Though the hospital has won a broad base of support by serving the whole community (most of our patients are not Catholics), she is afraid that being perceived as sectarian will cost us some support, so that we may not be able to balance our budget. Although I told her I am not going to contribute to United Way, she is pressing me to cooperate with the campaign. I feel that would be hypocritical and told her so. She cannot compel me to cooperate but is quite angry with me. Do you think I should cooperate? If not, can you give me any arguments that might change Sister Jane’s mind?


This question concerns material cooperation in abortion. Though participating in a United Way campaign that helps fund abortion providers need not be formal cooperation in abortion, even as material cooperation it would be morally unacceptable, in my judgment, in the absence of compelling reasons. Sister Jane argues that there are compelling reasons for the hospital to cooperate. But the questioner sees no compelling reasons to cooperate personally, and so rightly refuses. Sister Jane might argue that the questioner’s conscience is in error, and that the hospital’s common good provides her and other loyal employees with a compelling reason to cooperate. However, contributing to civic causes pertains to people’s responsibility as citizens rather than as employees, and the common good of the civic community is not served by participating in a United Way campaign that funds abortion providers.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Even though it is likely that a portion of every contribution to the United Way campaign you describe funds abortions through funding Planned Parenthood, organizations such as your hospital could cooperate with the campaign without intending that abortions be done; so, too, could individuals such as you. The sole intention could be to serve good purposes, including assisting worthy recipients, while only accepting as an unwanted side effect the use of part of each contribution for killing unborn babies. Participation on that basis would not be wrong in itself. Yet, in the absence of compelling reasons, it seems to me such participation would be unjustifiable.

In the first place, it is easily avoidable. Nobody wishing to contribute to worthy organizations needs to channel contributions through United Way. Then too, even if contributing to the United Way campaign probably will provide little funding for abortions, doing so tends to undercut the clear witness that should be given to the truth about abortion. By suggesting it is not as horrible as it is, contributing could lead some women to have abortions who otherwise would not do so. Moreover, in the absence of compelling reasons, donating money that facilitates abortions is fair neither to the babies who will be killed nor to people whose genuine needs would be served by channeling one’s donations more appropriately.

Considering your question in this perspective, I think reformulating it as two questions will clarify your disagreement with Sister Jane. Are there compelling reasons for the hospital to cooperate with the United Way campaign? Are there compelling reasons for you and other employees to contribute? She argues that there are compelling reasons for the hospital to cooperate—not doing so will weaken the community support it needs. You personally see no compelling reason to contribute, however, and so you rightly refuse. Assuming other employees also lack compelling reasons, you cannot consistently urge them to contribute. That would not be hypocrisy—a pretense of virtue by someone lacking it—but a more serious sin, since advising others to do what you consider wrong would be scandal, that is, leading them into sin.

If you explain your position in these terms to Sister Jane, she may see that your refusal to cooperate with her in administering the United Way campaign is principled and may stop pressing you to act against your conscience. But she may argue that your conscience is erroneous. Thus far, her argument to you has been that the hospital’s common good depends on broad-based public support, to retain which employees must contribute enough to meet the hospital’s United Way quota. To complete this argument, she could supply some missing premises: You and other employees should be loyal, and loyal employees should protect and promote the hospital’s good. Therefore, she might conclude, you and other employees have a compelling reason to contribute.

The first point to make in reply is that, while loyal employees certainly should act for the sake of the hospital’s good insofar as they are members of this health care community, they also have other roles and responsibilities. Voluntarily contributing within their means to worthy causes in the local civic community pertains to their role as citizens, not to their role as participants in the hospital’s health care community. So, in pressing you to cooperate with her in carrying on the United Way campaign in the hospital, Sister Jane is abusing her authority. Moreover, in deciding whether to contribute despite the campaign’s funding of Planned Parent~hood’s baby-killing activities, you and other hospital employees, like all citizens, should consider, not the hospital’s common good, but the common good of the civic community. That good is corrupted rather than served when the community actively assists abortion. Therefore, neither hospital employees nor other citizens should contribute to a United Way campaign that helps fund abortions.

Furthermore, you and other hospital employees can question whether reaching the hospital’s quota in order to maintain broad-based community support actually will serve the hospital’s true common good. If the community really needs it, the hospital probably will be given the means to continue providing service, even if its current Catholic sponsors and administrators lose public support and have to turn it over to the city or some other sponsoring body. It is likely that some employees—and perhaps many—have no commitment to health care as a Catholic apostolate; for them, a change in the hospital’s sponsorship and administration might seem no harm or even a benefit. Other employees, no doubt, do have such a commitment; but, understanding the hospital’s good in terms of apostolate, they can reasonably deny that its cooperation in this campaign really will serve its good. How can a Catholic hospital cooperate even remotely in killing babies without betraying itself so utterly that it would do far better to bear witness faithfully by ceasing to exist? Martyrdom can be required of any individual Christian. Why not also of Christian institutions?

Nevertheless, while martyrdom should be accepted joyfully when it is inevitable, it may be avoided provided there is an acceptable way of doing that. Perhaps then there is a way for the hospital to retain both its integrity and the broad-based support it needs. In concert with the hospital’s board of directors, for instance, Sister Jane could state publicly that the hospital cannot cooperate in this year’s United Way campaign because its funding of Planned Parenthood’s baby killing is not only wicked but wholly repugnant to the hospital’s purpose. At the same time, having prepared a plan with the hospital’s employees and perhaps with other employers in the community, she could announce that the hospital will encourage and facilitate contributions by its employees to a separate fund, to be distributed to acceptable United Way beneficiaries. In this way, the hospital would bear witness to the truth about abortion while manifesting appropriate community spirit.

Sister Jane might argue that this alternative would not retain the support the hospital needs. But if that is so, the hospital must have already deeply compromised its Catholic character: not by serving non-Catholics, since extending its apostolate to everyone, especially the poor, is its very reason for being; but by soft-pedaling its Catholic character to get money from sources that do not respect its religious commitment. Thus it has become the agent of contributors who wish it to provide services, not as a Catholic health care apostolate, but on some other, incompatible basis. If that is not the case, members of the community who have supported the hospital will continue to do so, for they will not expect its administration and those of its employees who are committed to a Catholic health care apostolate to violate their consciences in fulfilling civic responsibilities, and will be satisfied with the plan for a separate fund.

If Sister Jane accepts the proposal I have sketched out, the hospital (and any other employers that collaborate in setting up a separate fund) will conform to the advice of your local right-to-life group that everyone refuse to contribute to United Way and instead contribute directly to organizations of their choice. Unfortunately, that advice and the publicity likely to result from acting on it may have the bad effect of increasing Planned Parenthood’s funding from the United Way campaign. For proponents of “abortion rights” can be expected to respond by urging people to designate Planned Parenthood to receive all or a large part of their contributions, and the total designated for it may well exceed its share of the total amount raised by United Way. But this prospect is not a sound argument for cooperating with the United Way campaign, because the argument against is not based on the desirability of depriving Planned Parenthood of funds but on the undesirability of helping to provide those funds. Killing is profitable in money, but bearing witness to the truth about killing and defending life as best one can are profitable in everlasting wealth (see Mt 16.26, Mk 8.36, Lk 9.25).

282. A United Way campaign is a method of fund raising for many charitable and welfare organizations in a particular city or metropolitan region. By participating in a common effort, the organizations reduce the costs of fund raising. The rules for dividing the funds raised differ somewhat in various places.

283. The possibilities and effects of designation by donors to United Way campaigns have varied at different times and in different places; see Eleanor L. Brilliant, The United Way: Dilemmas of Organized Charity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 103–9.