Q&A with Fr. Ryan Connors

We were delighted to have Fr. Ryan Connors on our blog to discuss his book Rethinking Cooperation with Evil: A Virtue-Based Approach. Fr. Ryan Connors is a priest of the Diocese of Providence (RI) and professor of moral theology at St. John’s Seminary (Boston).

Q: Can you talk a little broadly about what ‘cooperation with evil’ means and how you see this book offering a new approach?

A: Cooperation with evil refers to the set of moral questions that arise when one’s actions participate or assist in some way the bad act of another. Figuring out the difference between good and bad acts can be its own challenge. But the next set of questions is to ask how some activity of mine might contribute to the bad act of another. Discussions in this area really took off in the modern period, especially with more complex economic and social situations. Theologians introduced distinctions between formal cooperation which they defined as desiring the bad act of another to take place, and material cooperation with no such intention present. Today, pastors and moral theologians tell us that the most common questions they receive from interested believers is about this area of the moral life. Can I shop at this store that contributes to immoral activity? Can I vote for this candidate who supports immoral policies? How can I navigate changing views on marriage and gender without giving scandal or contributing to the celebration of unchastity? This book seeks to gives people the tools to answer these questions.

Q: You write in this book about the overall methods of understanding this issue as well as practical counsel for specific cases. Do you think it’s important for the reader to have a grounding in the overall teachings in order to apply the principles to their life?

A: People will certainly benefit from having an overall moral framework from which to make judgements in specific cases. Life is just too complicated and the number of different situations that arise too numerous to rely only on a ready-made list of answers. This book proposes the moral method of St. Thomas Aquinas, invoked by the Church, for how to navigate these situations. Examples and case studies are important and form an essential part of the book. But the overall framework for how to answer any question that could arise is really the indispensable skill to develop. A well-formed prudence and rightly ordered sense appetites represent the only way people will avoid immoral cooperation in the long term.

Q: The subtitle of this book is ‘A Virtue-Based Approach.’ Is that different than past approaches, and if so, how does it differ?

A: It is. The latter portion of the twentieth century saw a recovery of the moral method of St. Thomas Aquinas based on the virtues both in philosophy and theology. Dominicans played a key role in this work. The task that remains for theologians today is to apply this moral method to a variety of areas. Cooperation with evil is one such arena that benefits from virtue-based moral reasoning. This method stresses the moral object of a given act more so than the consequences that may result or the motivation one has for acting. This approach relies on the cultivation of the moral and theological virtues as well as the gifts of the Holy Spirit to navigate the various issues that arise in Christian life. Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor proposed this moral method. This differs from ethicists who isolate acts from the virtues which dispose one to commit them. It also recognizes that moral laws are not extrinsic to human happiness. This method eschews a laxism that is beneath the dignity of a Christian. It likewise rejects a rigorism which would force unnecessarily everyone out of public life.

Q: What was the most interesting and/or gratifying thing that you learned while doing the research and writing for this book?

A: My research convinced me more and more of the enduring wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. I see more and more clearly why the Church continues to invoke him as the common doctor. He proposes a way of understanding the moral life that is both freeing and life-giving. Aquinas’s teaching on the virtues helps believers to live in Christ, free from constraint, with the joy proper to the Gospel. The questions Christians face today can seem frightening. Those who heed the wisdom of the Church, especially as embodied in Aquinas’s virtue-based moral thought, stand ready to develop the virtues necessary to flourish in the world today. And that noble project requires avoiding immoral cooperation with evil.

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