By James Powers
Back around Christmas, there was a big furor about an incident of apparent blasphemy on Netflix. A comedy special called The First Temptation of Christ had recently premiered on the streaming service, and portrayed, well… a gay Jesus bringing his boyfriend home to meet the family, among other things. Oof. The film, produced by Brazilian comedy troupe Portas dos Fondos, was especially controversial in its home country (one of the most predominantly Catholic in the world), but outrage about it quickly spread through Christian media at large.
A bunch of petitions ensued, both for Netflix to remove the special from their library, and for the Brazilian government to take some kind of censorship action against it. The Porta team fired back with a series of snarky tweets, and the whole media circus continued to escalate until, eventually, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the front door of Porta’s studio. Seems like things ultimately worked out in the troupe’s favor, though: they’ve gotten a ton of press from the whole debacle (much of it sympathetic), the aforementioned attack caused no injuries and little damage, and The First Temptation is – surprise surprise – still on Netflix.
Personally, when I heard about all this hullabaloo, I responded with an eye roll. I guess I’ve just always felt that big studios, networks and publishers don’t particularly care about offending Christians (although they do still want our money, which is why more and more of them are snapping up faith-based divisions). Consequently, when we raise heck about a Dan Brown novel or a blasphemous episode of Family Guy, it seems our efforts only serve to draw more public interest to a piece of art that probably doesn’t deserve it in the first place. Besides, is it really our job to police the culture at large? We live in a post-Christian culture after all, and real art cannot thrive under censorship, and don’t we have bigger fish to fry anyway?
So goes my knee-jerk reaction. But to be fair, the whole issue is more complex than that. Blasphemy is still blasphemy, and although I haven’t watched The First Temptation of Christ, it definitely sounds like that film fits the bill. And then, of course, there’s the material support that media giants often give – both in money and publicity – to lots of things that we, as Christians, find morally reprehensible. This is far from the first time that Netflix has earned the ire of Christian viewers, to say nothing of all the other studios and networks. Last spring, for example, they made a big show out of protesting Georgia’s attempt to crack down on abortion, and Christians in turn made a big show out of protesting that.
So this question keeps coming up – should Christians not be using Netflix? Never mind whether or not we should make a loud fuss and boycott it as a group; as individuals, should we just not be giving our money to a company that loudly advocates for “reproductive rights,” and that also gives a platform to blasphemous and/or generally smutty content? It’s easy to see how this line of questioning becomes a slippery slope. If we shouldn’t subscribe to Netflix, then perhaps we shouldn’t give studios our money at the box office either, or visit Disneyland, or listen to most of popular music? Goodness knows that many of the luminaries in mainstream media don’t do very wholesome things with the money we give them.
Obviously, the very existence of this blog presupposes a certain answer to that question. We wouldn’t be here talking about mainstream movies and TV and whatnot if we weren’t putting up a certain amount of our own money to consume them. But in doing so, are we actually contributing to the degradation of culture rather than uplifting it? Does my Netflix subscription (for example) do more harm than good by contributing – however minimally – to the production of, well, a lot of crap? How do our individual choices, as consumers of media, affect the culture at large? And what responsibility does that impose upon us?
Just a bit of cursory thought and research into these questions has led me down a rabbit hole to basically one unsatisfactory answer: “it’s complicated.” But I think it’s worthwhile for us to dig into that complication a bit, rather than just settling for a reactionary “boycott Netflix!” or a glib “calm down, it’s not such a big deal” (@Taylor Swift). For those readers who are more versed in moral theology, the following might be a review. But as one of my undergrad professors was fond of saying, repetitio mater studiorum est, so here we go.
The basic question of our responsibility for where our money goes is definitely not a new one. And it has always been very thorny. As Catholics, we’re sometimes tempted to think that there is some definitive magisterial answer for every moral conundrum under the sun – but that is frequently not the case, and in those instances we have to use our own individual discernment and hope for the best (yowch). But more often than not there is some kind of guiding principle to be found within Tradition to help us navigate these things.
Thankfully, people much older and smarter than me (such as Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Alphonsus Ligouri) have already fleshed out the morality of “cooperation in evil,” which is exactly what it sounds like – somehow helping another person or persons to commit sin. And it definitely comes to bear on this whole “should we boycott Netflix?” thing.
Cooperation in evil may or may not be sinful in itself, depending on the circumstances, and can be broken down into two types – formal and material cooperation. In brief, formal cooperation means that we assist another person to sin with the intention, specifically, of aiding that sinful action itself. By contrast, material cooperation means we give that assistance unintentionally; it’s a side-effect, so to speak, of our pursuit of some other goal. Formal cooperation is always wrong, but material cooperation might not be.
The giving and spending of money is one big area where cooperation with evil comes into play because, after all, money frequently changes hands between two parties who may intend very different things with it. A person who donates to Planned Parenthood precisely because they wish to help make abortions available would be formally cooperating in the act of abortion itself, at least to some extent. By contrast, someone who donates to the Susan G. Komen Foundation because they want to support breast cancer research – while knowing that the foundation also donates to Planned Parenthood – would only be materially cooperating in abortion.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Susan G. Komen donor is off the hook, morally speaking. More generally, it doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for giving money to organizations that then turn around and do bad things with that money, even if we don’t intend to support said bad things. Conversely, though, we’re not necessarily guilty by association either. It is – again – complicated. To help us sort through that complication, the Church’s moral tradition offers still more distinctions within the notion of cooperation with evil – but I’ll save that for my next post. So stay tuned, dear readers…
Continue reading Part 2 here.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog and an alumnus of JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing (’19).
For all articles by James, click here.