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Can dirty money be made good again?


What is the moral status of money from an immoral source?

usmoneyNot to fear — this column is not about Harvey Weinstein's dirty deeds.  It's about whether money from a dirty man can be made clean.

Since the world came to learn that Hollywood was cool with Weinstein's sexual predation, there has been a mad scramble by those who took Weinstein's money to demonstrate that they are not cool with it anymore.  Especially now that there are no further donations to be had.

Hillary Clinton, whose 2016 presidential campaign took in $1.4 million from Weinstein, announced that she would give an equivalent sum to charity.  The Clinton Foundation, over which Bill Clinton presumably has some say, is going to keep the cash it got from Weinstein.  Bill may well feel that Harvey was a bit on the cheap side, given all he did in the White House to normalize workplace sexual harassment.  After all, the foundation only got between $100,000 and $250,000, and, way back in 1998, Weinstein threw in a paltry ten grand to Bill's legal defence fund.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee, which took in $300,000 from Weinstein, decided to split the difference, largely in its own favour.  It kept 90 per cent of the booty for itself, and gave 10 per cent to an allied political group.

All of which raises the question: what is the moral status of money from an immoral source?  And if the money is too dirty for Hillary, how does it become clean when given to a charity?  Should the charity accept the Weinstein cash, so that Hillary can wash her hands in public?

It's not a new question.  What about the mafia don who pays to build the church where his wife goes to mass?  Or the drug gang that supports the local community centre?  Or the corrupt contractor who pays kickbacks to city council, but also supports the scholarship fund for children of the union local?

If the disreputable donor is looking to make the donation precisely as a means of purchasing supposed absolution for his sins, it would seem that the charity ought not participate in that scheme.  But if the money is given quietly, is it irredeemably tainted by its provenance?

"The Devil has had that money long enough!"  That was the response of the late Jerry Falwell, one of the most influential evangelical pastors in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.

While it is not the case for political donations, it is quite plausible to imagine a donor, having regretted how he made his money, wanting to give it away in a manner of reparation.

There is something to that.  Mother Teresa, the saint of the gutters, was criticized for accepting donations from unsavoury sorts, but no one could ever influence her to compromise her faith or morals, and she thought the poorest of the poor whom she served had a claim on the world's prosperity too.

The other view, though, also has merit: that the devil should keep his own money.

"I think of some benefactors of the Church, who come with an offer for the Church and their offer is the fruit of the blood of people who have been exploited, enslaved with work which was underpaid," Pope Francis said in 2016.  "I will tell these people to please take back their cheques.  The People of God don't need their dirty money but hearts that are open to the mercy of God."

Years ago, closer to home, Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary took a strong stand against gambling, forbidding his parishes from taking money raised from gambling, including bingo and charity casinos.

The politics of dirty money is quite clear: keep taking it until it becomes damaging to do so, and then ostentatiously pass it on to others.

The morality is more complicated.  While it is not the case for political donations, it is quite plausible to imagine a donor, having regretted how he made his money, wanting to give it away in a manner of reparation.  Perhaps a pornographer, having had a conversion of heart, now wishes to fund programs that promote the dignity of women or combat sex trafficking.  Or a developer of video games now looks to fund child fitness.  Or an arms trafficker supports those wounded in war.  In such cases, if sincere, donations would seem a praiseworthy thing.

On a larger scale, tyrants who have despoiled their people not infrequently engage in a little fig leaf philanthropy, perhaps to collect an international bauble, or ensure that they still get invited to parties in Mayfair and Manhattan.  That could be a harder question, as the money could be considered stolen goods.

It is too far to suggest that a charity that accepts money is automatically complicit in the sins of donor.  Yet there is a relationship, especially if the donor is well known, and it might be more prudent for the charity to refuse the money in order to be clear about its mission.

Another question relates not to benefactions, but to those many people whom Weinstein made rich and famous, and who looked the other way because they wanted to remain rich and famous.  How, then, will they make reparation?  That will be a most costly enterprise.



NationalPostFather Raymond J. de Souza, "Can dirty money be made good again?" National Post, (Canada) October 18, 2017.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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