Where to Draw the Line on Cooperating With Evil

What Would It Mean to Follow Obama’s Health Care Mandate?

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WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 22, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: It seems that all of us to some degree are cooperating in evil. For example, as tax-paying citizen we know that taxes are used to fund programs such as the Mexico City policy. How do we know when the line between legitimate and wrongful cooperation has been crossed?  

E. Christian Brugger replies:

Most everyone cooperates in some way in the evil activity of others.  Taxpayers cooperate in the wrongful projects of their governments that their taxes make possible.  Pharmaceutical companies that produce abortifacient drugs employ thousands of people in tasks unrelated to illicit drug production; and yet to the extent that each employee contributes to the health of the company, each assists the company in remaining viable and so in remaining capable of doing what it does, which includes producing illicit drugs.  On the darker side, illegal arms traders who sell weapons on the black market to terrorists cooperate in the deaths of the innocents caused by the acts of terrorism carried out with the weapons they sell.  And so on.  

It should be clear that some types of cooperation in evil are legitimate and others are not.  On everyone’s mind at present is the cooperation that the Obama contraception mandate will impose on faith-based employers.  This question is getting a lot of attention by other authors and so I will only address it in passing.  My first interest is to address the principles by which that issue and the many others faced by good people can be morally assessed.

Moral theology going back to the 18thcentury has used the terms “formal” and “material” to specify two categories of cooperation.  The classical formulation comes from Italian moral theologian and Catholic saint, Alphonsus Liguouri (d. 1787).  He states: “that cooperation is formal which concurs with the bad will of another and this cannot be without sin; by contrast that cooperation is material which concurs only with the bad action of the other, outside the intention of the cooperator.”  Two things are worth noting.  First, he says that the basis of the distinction between “formal” and “material” cooperation is the relationship between the wills of the cooperator and wrongdoer; they share badness of will.  One formally cooperates when one intends that some evildoer do evil.  Intends here means willing something for its own sake, or as a means to some other end.  So if I vote for a pro-abortion candidate for congress because she supports abortion, I formally cooperate in her wrongful public endeavors on behalf of abortion ‘rights’; I intend that she protects and advances abortion liberties and so my will “concurs” with her bad willing.  If I willingly drive you to a bank so you can rob it, I formally cooperate in your bank robbing.  If I pay for your abortion, I intend that the abortion be procured, even if I feel reluctant about it.  Liguouri states, with Catholic tradition (see Evangelium Vitae, no. 74), that formal cooperation is always wrong since it constitutes an intention that evil be done.

The second thing to notice is that Liguouri does not state that material cooperation is always legitimate.  He states simply that the intention of the cooperator does not concur with the bad will of the wrongdoer.  One materially cooperates when one facilitates another’s wrongdoing in some way, but without willing that it be done.  One recognizes that cooperating promises some benefit, or refusing to cooperate promises some harm; one is interested in securing that benefit or avoiding that harm; and so one chooses to cooperate knowing that in so doing one facilitates the wrongdoing.  But one does not cooperate in order to facilitate the wrong.  The wrong falls outside the cooperator’s intention; it is unintentional.  Some expressions of material cooperation may include working as a janitor in a hospital that performs abortions; delivering mail or collecting the garbage from an IVF clinic; acting as a defense attorney for obviously guilty clients; paying taxes; filling prescriptions for contraceptive pills (writing them would be formal cooperation); casting a vote for a pro-choice candidate; attending the wedding of a child who is marrying outside the Church.  Most moralists agree that concurring with the Obama contraception mandate need not be formal cooperation, but only material.

To say cooperation is material is not to say it is morally legitimate.  Since sometimes it is clearly immoral freely to accept harmful side-effects (e.g., a drunk man who drives himself home from a party rather than accepting a ride, calling a cab or staying put for the night, wrongfully puts others at risk), it can also be wrong to accept the harms that arise from materially cooperating in another’s wrongdoing.

Moral theology distinguishes between legitimate and wrongful material cooperation with the terms “remote material” and “proximate material” cooperation.  I will simply refer to “legitimate” and “wrongful” cooperation.  Distinguishing between the two, Liguouri writes: “this latter [type of material cooperation] is licit when the action is good or indifferent in itself, and when one has a reason for doing it that is both just and proportioned to the gravity of the sin and to closeness given for carrying out the sin.”

By saying the action must be “good or indifferent”, Liguouri means one’s cooperative act itself must not be evil.  If I cooperate in another’s wrongdoing, say, by lying, then even if the cooperation is material, the act of cooperation is wrong because lying is wrong.  

If the action is legitimate in itself (e.g., voting, or providing health insurance), then, Liguouri says, one must have a just and proportionate reason for tolerating the harm that one facilitates in cooperating.  To say one must have a just reason implies that the unintentional harm must not be unfair to those who suffer it.  Although the cooperator does not intend the harm, he tolerates it.  If tolerating it would be unfair to anyone, then he tolerates it wrongfully.  To say the reason must be “proportioned to the gravity of the sin” means that one only rightly tolerates serious unintentional side-effects (e.g., death) for serious reasons (e.g., to save life); one tolerates lighter harms for less serious reasons.

So, for example, if by providing health insurance that covers contraception, sterilizations and chemical abortions a Catholic institution’s example would lead some to lose trust in the faith of the Church that sponsors that institution (this is called “giving scandal”), then the material cooperation would be wrongful, since no reason can be just or proportionate to leading another away from the faith.

Or again, if materially cooperating in evil prevents me from fulfilling some grave obligation, then I cooperate wrongfully.  Every Christian has an obligation to bear witness to the truths and values of the Gospel.  This is particularly the case with those responsible for Catholic institutions, all of which in different ways form part of the Church’s evangelical apostolate.  Many Catholics believe that cooperating in the provision of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortions will compromise the Church’s ability to bear perspicuous witness to the Gospel.  If this is true, then complying with the Obama mandate, although an example of material cooperation, would be wrongful.

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

[Readers ma
y send questions regarding bioethics to bioethics@zenit.org. The text should include your initials, your city and state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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