Is it Moral to Donate to the ALS Association via the Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge is spreading by means of online social media. A person either dumps a bucket of ice water on their head, or donates money to the ALS Association to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or both. [Note: correct spelling is Gehrig, not Gherig.] The ice bucket feat often includes posting a photo or video to social media. Then the individual challenges three more persons. One challenge becomes three, then three becomes nine, and so on. The ALS Association estimates it has raised over 22 million dollars so far from this challenge.

“Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.” [The ALS Association]

Why would this clever way to raise money for research to fight a terrible disease be considered immoral by anyone?

Some of my fellow Catholics have pointed out that the ALS Association (ALSA) funds a variety of different research projects, including at least one current project using a line of human embryonic stem cells. ALSA also takes the philosophical position that both adult and embryonic stem cells should be used in research to fight ALS.

Fr. Michael Duffy on his blog at has taken the position that it is immoral to donate to the ALSA. He cites the American Life League website (ALL) and its quote of an e-mail from ALSA:

“The ALS Association primarily funds adult stem cell research. Currently, The Association is funding one study using embryonic stem cells (ESC), and the stem cell line was established many years ago under ethical guidelines set by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS); this research is funded by one specific donor, who is committed to this area of research. In fact, donors may stipulate that their funds not be invested in this study or any stem cell project. Under very strict guidelines, The Association may fund embryonic stem cell research in the future.”

He then quotes Pope Saint John Paul II from his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“Any treatment which claims to save human lives, yet is based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state, is logically and morally contradictory, as is any production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation or eventual destruction.”

Fr. Duffy then suggests that donating to ALSA might “violate the Sanctity of Human Life.”

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati recently adopted a similar position to Fr. Duffy. The official monthly newspaper of the Archdiocese explains:

Though the ALS Association does many good works towards the goal or treating and hopefully one day curing ALS, one of the methods they support is embryonic stem cell research. Catholic blogger and priest Father Michael Duffy reported that an email from the ALS Association to the Life League showed ALSA supports embryonic stem cell research.

The Archdiocese is not dissuading individual Catholics from making donations, but they are encouraged to be fully informed and make their own prudential judgments. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has determined that its Catholic schools will not, as organizations, donate to that particular charity.

To quote St. John Paul II, “Any treatment which claims to save human lives, yet is based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state, is logically and morally contradictory, as is any production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation or eventual destruction.”

The Archdiocese does not say that donating is necessarily immoral. They frame it as a prudential judgment. But they will not permit any of their schools to be involved in donations to the ALSA. The superintendent of the diocesan school system took the ice bucket challenge, but he donated to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute.

A number of online Catholic commentators have taken the same position as Fr. Duffy, that donating to the ALSA is immoral.

My position: Under Catholic moral teaching, it is moral to donate to the ALSA and similar charities. A Catholic may take the ice bucket challenge and donate money specifically to the ALSA; it is not a sin.

Donating to a charity, which has some involvement with embryonic stem cell research, is not an inherently immoral act on the part of the donor. Under the Catholic moral principle of cooperation with evil, the act of donating to a charity, whose principle works are moral, is not an intrinsically evil act. The act is not wrong by its very nature. Giving alms is an inherently good act; it has the good moral object of helping persons in dire need.

{12:32} Do not be afraid, little flock; for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom.
{12:33} Sell what you possess, and give alms. Make for yourselves purses that will not wear out, a treasure that will not fall short, in heaven, where no thief approaches, and no moth corrupts.
{12:34} For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The principle of cooperation with evil applies when your inherently good act (e.g. giving alms) is associated with an immoral act on the part of other persons. An act is moral only if all three fonts of morality are good. An act is immoral if any of the three fonts are bad. The three fonts of morality are the basis for Catholic ethics as taught by Pope Saint John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Yet this teaching of the Magisterium is thoroughly ignored by most Catholics when they write about ethics.

1. intention — the end intended by the person choosing the act
2. moral object — the end toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. A bad moral object makes the act intrinsically evil and always immoral.
3. circumstances — the reasonably anticipated good consequences of the chosen act must equal or outweigh any reasonably anticipated bad consequences.

Your act must have only good in the intention. You cannot intend to assist the other persons in anything that is immoral. In the case of almsgiving, your intention must be only to help those in need (e.g. helping persons with a disease).

Your own act must not be intrinsically evil. You cannot morally choose a bad means to a good intended end.

But the act of donating to a charity whose principle works are good is not intrinsically evil; the object of your chosen act is to assist the charity in those good works. It is a good means to a good intended end. So the first two fonts of morality are good.

Then finally the good and bad consequences in the circumstances of the act must be weighed. And this requires a prudential judgment. In the case of ALSA, the vast majority of their work and money has no association with human embryonic stem cell research. They take a philosophical position supporting embryonic stem cell research. But the donor can specify that the money not be used toward that end.

So a Catholic donor to ALSA can reasonably anticipate that his donation will do much good, supporting the fight against a terrible disease. And he can prevent any of the money from being used for embryonic stem cell research (by specifying that limitation with the donation).

I should also point out that the same principle of cooperation with evil can be applied to the above described research study, which merely uses a cell line originally derived in an immoral way. Such a research project is not so thoroughly immoral that a donation, part of which went to that study, would be immoral. The researchers are only using an established cell line. The donation has no role in the original immoral act of killing a prenatal. So the act of donating, in such a case, is not intrinsically evil. With a good intention and a prudential judgment that the donation does more good than harm, the act is moral. So even if the ALSA did not allow a donor to specify that a donation be excluded from studies related to embryonic stem cells, the donation would still be moral.

The American Life League (ALL) is right to point out that many charities do not adhere to Catholic moral principles concerning the protection of life from conception to natural death. However, it is quite a leap — requiring a stunning ignorance of Catholic moral teaching — to conclude that a Catholic may never support such a charity. The Archdioceses of Cincinnati does not say Catholics should “never donate”, but only that they should use prudential judgment, that is to say, weigh the good and bad consequences of the donation.

The ALL says:

“A red negative/minus signs indicates that ALL does not consider the organization worthy of support from pro-lifers. If the organization supports, in any way (theory, advocacy, lobbying, granting and/or research) any offenses to life, it is not considered pro-life. Further, if any organization refuses to answer our inquiries, refuses to be clear about its position and/or attempts to couch its answer in terms of referring to another agency (i.e., federal government branches), it is not considered pro-life.”

The ALL list of charities that are given a “red negative” sign is lengthy. But it certainly includes many charities whose principle works are good and moral, and which are worthy of the support of Catholics. These “red negative” charities include:

Alzheimer’s Association
American Cancer Society
American Diabetes Association
American Heart Association
American Lung Association
American Medical Association
American Parkinson’s Disease Association
American Red Cross
Amnesty International US

Catholic Relief Services [Yes, the ALL gave CRS a “red negative” rating.]
Children’s Defense Fund
Children’s Leukemia Research Association Inc.
Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America

Doctor Without Borders
Epilepsy Foundation
Girl Scouts of America
Huntington’s Disease Society of America
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation

Lance Armstrong Foundation
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
March of Dimes National Office
Muscular Dystrophy Association
National Brain Tumor Society
National Breast Cancer Foundation
National Kidney Foundation
National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy
Rotary International
Salvation Army USA
Spina Bifida Association
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
United Way

The idea that a Catholic should not or cannot support any of the above charities because they are labeled as “red negative” or because they, in some limited way, contradict Catholic teaching is itself contrary to Catholic teaching on the three fonts of morality and the principles of cooperation with evil.

As for the above quote from Pope Saint John Paul II, let’s consider what he actually says:

Any treatment which claims to save human lives, yet is based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state, is logically and morally contradictory, as is any production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation or eventual destruction.

Yes, a life-saving treatment would contain an inherent moral contradiction if it were based on killing human embryos. This does not imply, nor does the holy Pontiff say, that a person with a grave illness could not take such a treatment. Many vaccines are unfortunately based on cell lines that go back (many years ago) to a single aborted prenatal. And the quote does not suggest that donating to a charity, which has only a remote material connection to the “destruction of human life in its embryonic state”, is immoral. The leap that Fr. Duffy and other commentators take in this regard is unsupportable under Catholic teaching.

But often what passes for Catholic teaching is an oversimplification and a distortion of what the Church actually teaches. The principle of remote material cooperation permits a Catholic to donate to any of the above listed “red negative” charities, without sin. A good intention, the fact that the charity principally does good and moral works, and a judgment that the act of donating will do more good than harm, necessarily implies that the act is moral.

If a Catholic could not donate to a charity because something that it says or does (or is associated with) is immoral, then a Catholic also could not pay taxes. For some tax money is used to promote immoral ideas or to fund abortions or to fund immoral acts of war. What did Jesus say about taxation (which certainly falls under a type of cooperation with evil)?? He said to pay the tax (Luke 20). This teaching of our Lord is an example of remote material cooperation.

My booklet: Roman Catholic Teaching on Cooperation with Evil is available at Amazon in Kindle format.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
available in print (paperback, 752 pp.) and in Kindle format.

This entry was posted in ethics, health. Bookmark the permalink.