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Bishop Paprocki on abortion, Communion and the boardroom

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision last month overturning Roe v. Wade, many states have acted to limit access to abortion. At the same time, it’s become a trend for major companies to announce that they’ll pay for their employees to undergo abortions, and even cover travel costs if that’s needed.

In his diocesan magazine last week, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, called on Catholics “to keep these companies in mind and avoid buying their products whenever possible.”

The bishop also said that corporate officers responsible for those policies were engaged in formal cooperation with the evil of abortion, and should not receive Holy Communion — he issued a similar warning for Catholic politicians like President Joe Biden, who have promoted or launched policies aim ensuring access to abortion for federal workers.

Bishop Paprocki responds to controversy, criticisms over decree on same-sex  “marriage” – Catholic World Report
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield. Pillar file photo.

Bishop Paprocki spoke with The Pillar on Monday about “formal cooperation” in abortion by Catholic politicians and corporate officers, and the ways in which Catholics can engage in ethical investing and consumerism.

He also discussed the responsibilities of bishops to teach on the ethics of engaging with abortion in politics or corporate life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Bishop, in a recent column you discussed a number of serious moral, pastoral, and even canonical issues around abortion and our society.

Before we get to those, can you clarify what kind of a document a bishop’s column really is? Because a bishop is not a pundit — he has authority, and so do his teachings.

Is a bishop’s column a teaching work, a legal pronouncement, or a discussion of ideas?

I’d see it as a teaching moment. Calling the attention of the faithful to some important shifts that I think have taken place here. 

First of all, the shift in the moral analysis here is from what in the past might have been characterized more as “material cooperation” [with abortion] and therefore excusable, to what I now see as formal cooperation. 

In the past you would have a politician, for example, saying “Well, Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. There's nothing I can do about that. You know, I'm personally opposed to abortion, but the fact is that it’s the law in our country.”

Whereas now, post-Roe and post-Dobbs, with the Supreme Court leaving it up to the states, what we’re seeing is elected officials proactively taking steps to promote abortion.

President Biden’s issuing an executive order, for example; clearly his intent is to promote abortion, to make abortion accessible. I think that's a significant moral shift.

So, any argument that a person is “personally opposed,” or just a materially cooperative with abortion, and only by “remote cooperation” — I think those arguments are gone for someone who’s taking actions like this. 

When we are talking about “formal cooperation,” this means you have the intent. And that means if you’re formally cooperating in something that's gravely sinful, then you can’t go to Communion unless you first go to confession and receive absolution. 

The other point I’m calling to people’s attention here is with business leaders, and those companies which have announced that they will pay for their employees to travel if they're in a country or in a state that does not allow for abortion, that they will pay in some cases up to $4,000. 

Again, this is formal cooperation — it’s their intent to help employees get abortions. In fact, you might even argue that this makes them an accomplice, if they’re paying for somone to get an abortion. 

But I’m raising this point as a matter of awareness, because for the most part, the conversation on this whole Communion question has been with regard to politicians. But now we see the business world getting involved in this.

So I think the same analysis that we’re using for politicians who are promoting abortion — that they shouldn’t go to Communion — is true for these business leaders. If they're promoting abortion, they shouldn't go to Communion either. 


In moral theology, people talk about “formal” and “material” cooperation with evil — different kinds of cooperation, with different moral consequences. A key distinction between them is the intention of a person.

Can you unpack this distinction a little more as it relates to business leaders?

How far does “formal cooperation” extend? To those who create policy, those whose consent is needed to bring it into place?

What about senior corporate officers who weren’t directly involved in the creation of these policies? 

So that would be a fact-specific inquiry for each of those companies. You know, who are the movers and shakers behind this? Those would be the ones that would have culpability as formal cooperators. 

In a huge corporation, you might have some people that are in management positions that had nothing to do with this. Just because you're working for a company like that, it might make you a “material cooperative”, but I think that individual person could say “Well, you know, I don’t share this intent. I don't like what my company’s doing.” 

I have heard from some employees that this is all raising questions for them, if they want to continue to work for companies that are doing things like promoting abortion. 

But then again, that’s an individual determination. If it’s a material cooperation, you have to weigh that with the fact that this is the person’s livelihood, to support their family. How easy would it be simply to get another job somewhere else? And as this becomes more common, how many places will there be that would provide policies like this? Are they going to wind up just going to another company and have the same policy again? 

It is different if it’s the CEO of the company, or the person that issued a directive that this is going to be the policy of their company, or it’s the board of directors that voted on this and you have to consider who voted for that. 

These are individual circumstances and judgments. That’s why I’ve said that really the burden is on business leaders to discern their involvement in something like this.

In terms of canon law, I’m invoking canon 916 [which says they are not to present themselves] more than canon 915 [which says they are to be denied], and not putting the burden of discernment on the minister of Holy Communion. 

And in most cases, I don’t know who any of these executives are in any of these companies. I mean, if they came up to me in the Communion line, I wouldn’t know who they were.

In that sense, it’s a question of their own integrity — if you’re conscious of grave sin, that you should not approach Holy Communion until you’re reconciled in sacramental confession. But that’s the burden on them — to have that integrity, to be mindful of that.

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You quoted in your column Pope Francis speaking about President Biden, saying he needs to talk to his pastor about the incoherence of his position. His pastor is obviously both his parish priest and another diocesan bishop, not you.

And there has been a lot of debate over bishops making public decisions about the Eucharist and pro-abortion Catholic politicians, as Archbishop Cordileone did with Speaker Pelosi. 

But apart from questions of “denying” individuals Communion, you're talking about Catholics applying the Church’s teaching and discipline to themselves.

Is this the sort of thing that the bishops have the ability to speak about as a body, or is this something that is really down to individual bishops to speak on as they see the need?

Well, I wish that we would be able to speak on this corporately, and we did speak on it, in a sense, last year with our document on the mystery of the Eucharist.

But without getting into specific examples, I think that principles are clear and I’m very grateful that the Holy Father used the word “incoherence” with reference to President Biden. When he was asked about him, the Holy Father said, “let his pastor let him talk to his pastor about that incoherence.” 

“Incoherence” is an interesting word, because that is the word that was used by the bishops of Latin America in their Aparecida document, which then-Archbishop Bergolio was very involved with writing. In fact, even as Pope Francis, he has referred to the Aparecida document as providing a blueprint for pastoral ministry. 

The document uses that phrase very specifically, “Eucharistic incoherence,” that it is incoherent for a pro-abortion politician, for example, to be receiving Holy Communion. So for the Holy Father to use that word is going back to that document, indicating that, well, it’s incoherent for a Catholic politician to be both promoting abortion and going to Holy Communion at the same time. 

And let President Biden talk to his pastor — the Holy Father is not the policeman of the Church throughout the world, and it really does pertain to local pastors. And by that could be understood not only the pastor of a parish, but the pastor of a diocese, the diocesan bishop. 

I would wish that we bishops could speak with a common voice on that. It’s unfortunate that there are some not upholding Eucharistic coherence, and I pray that they would themselves have a change of heart. 

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How does your moral analysis apply more widely to shareholders in companies like the ones you mention? 

In your distinction between material and formal cooperation, you stress the importance of intention, of having a choice, and the effect of that choice.

But no one has to invest in, for example, Disney or have shares in Amazon.

That's a choice, right? Are there moral implications to choices like that?

That’s a very good question and a very timely one too, because the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops just issued new guidelines on socially responsible investing. 

The revised guidelines discuss more fully than the previous versions the possibility of retaining shareholder interests, precisely because it gives you a voice in that company. So it could be that you don't want to be holding stock, for example, if the only thing a company does is abortions. You don't want to be in that business at all.

On the other hand, if it’s - let’s say - a pharmaceutical company doing a lot of good things, producing a lot of good drugs and saving people’s lives, but a small percentage of what they do is to provide abortifacient drugs. Well, in a case like that, somebody might say “Well, maybe it’s better for me as an individual, or even in the case of a diocese or not-for-profit, to decide that we’re going to retain our shares, because that will give us a voice at a shareholders’ meeting.”

And I have personal experience with that. 

Back when I was auxiliary bishop of Chicago, the Governor of Illinois, then it was Rod Blagojevich, announced that there was going to be a policy or a state mandate that pharmacists had to fill abortifacient contraceptive prescriptions. No questions asked, you just had to do it. 

I made a public statement criticizing that. I come from a family of pharmacists, so my ear’s a little bit more attuned to issues that affect pharmacies. 

Anyway, that became an issue at Walgreens, and Walgreens was putting pressure on their pharmacists to fill these prescriptions to comply with the governor's mandate. And I happened to have stock in Walgreens because of my family’s pharmacy background. We used to have our own pharmacy business, and when our family business closed, I actually bought stock in Walgreens, because I wanted to own part of a pharmacy. 

So when this issue came up, I called Walgreens because I was concerned about what they were doing. And the fact I identified myself as a shareholder, that immediately put me on another track to get a lot of attention. I wound up with representatives from Walgreens — they had their general counsel, their communications person and their shareholder relations person come out to my office to meet with me. And I’m sure they would not have done that if I was not a shareholder. 

So they came and they listened to me and they explained their position that they felt caught between the governor’s mandate and they didn't want to lose their license to practice pharmacy, but they were sympathetic to the pharmacists and eventually they worked something out — in fact, not just Walgreens’ employees, but other pharmacists took this to court and the pharmacists won in Illinois.

My point in telling that story is that I didn't just say “Well, Walgreens is doing something here that I don't agree with. I have to sell my stock.” I kept my stock. And in fact that gave me a greater voice.

So I think that with any of these companies, if somebody’s a shareholder, it could be at least an initial step to raise your voice as a shareholder and perhaps get their attention and voice your disapproval of what they’re doing. 

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You’ve mentioned that Catholics should consider a company’s ethics when deciding where to shop. What is the obligation of Catholics when they think about where to spend their money? How should people discern that?

Right. To be clear: it wasn't my intention to try to organize a formal boycott. But I am suggesting that consumers look at this list [of companies with policies to fund abortions] and ask themselves if they do have alternatives and to consider them if they are going to use the income from your purchase to help pay for abortions. 

Amazon is a good example of that. There are a lot of things that Amazon offers that you can buy in local department stores or malls or in some local setting. 

And I think that Disney is on that list [of companies with abortion funding policies]. If I were a parent, I would certainly be considering - or reconsidering - my support for Disney.

If I had the impression that Disney was a family-friendly company, where I can have my children paying for what they’re doing, and participating in what they're offering, I’d give that a second thought and say “I'm not sure I want to support Disney anymore.” 

So, yes, I think there are alternatives. And in some cases it may be that there's a provider, like your telephone company or something, where there’s a real difficulty in switching, and there’s not another easy alternative. But to the extent that you have market competitors and one is promoting for their employees to have abortions and another is not, I would support the latter. 

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In the Church’s debate about a credible Eucharistic witness and the issue of abortion, people often ask, “What about other issues, not just abortion?” 

Is there a need for a wider application of this concept of Eucharistic coherence? How does it apply to politicians and corporate officers on other topics, like the production of pornography or weapons, or the unjust application of the death penalty?

Absolutely. Those other kinds of issues should absolutely be taken into account. 

Again, if you look at the new socially responsible investment guidelines from the USCCB, they talk about a number of different issues that have to be taken into consideration. And I know the board meetings that I've attended on not-for-profit corporations look closely at socially responsible investment guidelines, as do meetings of my diocesan finance council, we have these conversations. 

As an example, we’ve had this conversation about companies that build weapons. Well, on the one hand, we don't want to be promoting or profiting from war. On the other hand, we have a right of self-defense. And we’ve had some of those same kinds of conversations on the whole question of gun control, and to what extent should a non-profit or a church be investing in companies that make guns? 

And again, there are considerations: we're a very rural diocese and I have people that live miles away from a police station, and they say that if their home is being invaded, they need to be able to defend themselves against an intruder. So, these are complex questions, and in those investment guidelines you can rarely get a black-and-white answer. 

To use another example, if you have a company that all they do is produce pornography, well, you don't want invest in a company like that. 

But let's say you have a large hotel chain and their main business is providing hotel rooms and restaurant and banquet facilities. But part of what they do is to offer pornographic movies in their rooms. Well, in that case, do you say you can’t invest in that hotel chain because they offer that? Or is this another case where you might say “I'm going to try to use my shareholder influence and raise this at a shareholder's meeting, or propose a resolution that our company should stop showing pornographic movies,” you know? 

That’s why these questions are not always black-and-white, but they invite very serious conversations that have to be taken seriously. 

And it’s a live issue in every parish, in every diocese, because companies have branches in different places. 

Now, I don't know to what extent there are executives living everywhere, though you have a lot of people working from home now.

But you've got people who are consumers everywhere, and they’re buying products from these companies. So, I think these are concerns that really touch on everyone, wherever you are. Where you do your shopping, and what choices you are making — those things need thought.

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