The Catholic Thing
No Cooperation with Evil Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Sunday, 04 March 2012

A teaching of the Church getting some ill-use recently is the distinction between “formal” and “material” cooperation in evil, with some commentators trying mightily to convince Catholics they have a “free pass” on the HHS mandates because paying for contraceptive services would only be “material” cooperation with evil, and “material” cooperation, they say, isn’t a problem. 

So, for example, Religion News Service’s David Gibson, writing in USA Today, scolds the bishops on these grounds for their continued opposition to the HHS mandate. “This is Moral Theology 101,” he quotes one unnamed moral theologian as saying. “I do not think the bishops and their advisers have thought all the way through the entire bundle of values at stake,” said another. 

Both spoke “on condition of anonymity,” Gibson tells us, “for fear of angering the hierarchy on such a sensitive topic,” dissident moral theologians being such a quiet, reclusive bunch, you know. The article is entitled “Contraception objections fail Catholic’s [sic] moral reasoning.” 

Do they?

Well, when it comes to “Moral Theology 101,” especially on health-care issues, there’s no better place to go than the standard text in the area, The Ethics of Health Care (3rd edition) by Frs. Benedict Ashley and Kevin O’Rourke, O.P. And here, for the record, is what they say:  

Sometimes people cooperate with a person doing evil by approving what the person does, or by willfully and knowingly partaking in the evil action.... This is formal cooperation in an unethical act, and it is always wrong. Conversely, I may cooperate with another person, not because I freely approve or cooperate in the evil action, but because I am coerced into cooperating.... When the duress is present, the cooperation is known as material cooperation, and it may be of two different kinds. If one cooperates in an evil act by performing something that is essential for the performance of the evil action, then it is immediate material cooperation. If one cooperates in an accidental or nonessential manner in the evil action, then it is called mediate material cooperation.

For example, if one works at an abortion clinic only because one needs a job to support one’s family, this is material cooperation. But the type of material cooperation will depend upon the manner in which the person cooperates with the person responsible for the evil action. If one operates the vacuum machine that aborts young fetuses, one is doing something that is essential for performing the evil of abortion. Thus, it would be immediate material cooperation. Immediate material cooperation in the evil act of another is not ethical, even if there is duress present.

However, if one nurses people after they have had abortions, or cuts the grass at the abortion clinic, it would not contribute anything essential to the act of abortion and would be an act of mediate material cooperation. Finally, the possibility of scandal could prohibit acts of even mediate material cooperation because, even though the moral object of the act is good it may lead another into sin.

         Sebelius and Obama leave the stage

Get the picture? Even mediate material cooperation should be avoided. There is no “free pass” for the conscientious conscience.

I once asked the vice president of a major pharmaceutical firm, a good Catholic family man, whether he had faced any major moral quandaries in his job. “Well, there was this pump. It could have been used for a lot of things, but we all knew it was used primarily for abortions. And that bothered me quite a lot.”

“What did you do? “A female colleague organized a prayer group,” which gathered regularly to, as he put it: “pray that pump off the face of the earth.” And indeed, when the FDA eventually changed the specifications on the pump, the company decided it would cost too much to re-tool the plant, so they decided to stop making it. Sometimes the most practical thing you can do is pray.

But there is another little story about that pump. It turns out that whenever the production line would go down, it would take much longer than usual to repair. So this man’s boss asked him to fly down and find out why. When the vice president asked the plant manager about the problem, the manager answered, somewhat sheepishly: “Oh, yeah, that’s that pump! My head of maintenance is a Catholic, and he knows what that pump is used for, so he won’t work on it.” And he didn’t.

Notice that this head of maintenance might well have chosen to consider his repair job mere “material cooperation with evil,” thereby letting himself off the hook, as so many of us do. But he didn’t. He was ready to be fired, and yet oddly, he wasn’t. The plant manager didn’t fire him – one has to assume he had previously built up some real credibility with his boss in terms of honesty, decency, and hard work. The Catholic vice president who told me this story didn’t insist on it. And the executive vice president to whom he reported undoubtedly grumbled, but for some reason, he let it go too. Then eventually God stepped in and made the pump go away.  

Things might have turned out very differently, of course. That maintenance man was risking a lot: his livelihood, money for his family, his reputation. I’ve always found his courage humbling.

But let’s remember that, during the Holocaust, one man ran the trains, another man opened the doors, and another man loaded the prisoners, so that none of them had to take responsibility for the evil being done. Those who want you to violate your conscience will first seek to misinform your conscience, and then try to deaden its voice.  

We’d all better start giving some serious thought to what sort of sacrifices we might need to make in the coming years. Then we should probably double that estimate, and pray for the grace to be faithful when the time comes.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Ken, March 04, 2012
I feel like it stretches beyond that you're doing something in vain. Just Ike Obama's healthcare even though you're doing something to better others or "help" them you're doing it because you have to not because you want to. Charity is a chosen option which Christ proclaimed, you have to choose to do good you cannot be made to do it. The Church is ready for war and I love it!
written by Jacob R, March 04, 2012
Wonderful story about the maintainence manager! I bet I remember that forever. The power of just one person in a key situation to halt this holocaust.

I would love to see an article that says why it is still immoral to kill an abortionist even though in many cases it will literally prevent thousands if not tens of thousands of other (perhaps unknowing) murders. Does the fact that the abortionist doesn't believe he's committing murder mitigate the reality of the death count?
written by Dave, March 04, 2012
Dr. Smith, that the operation of the vacuum for an abortion is merely immediate material cooperation and not formal cooperation itself strains credulity, as the abortion cannot occur without the operation of the pump and the operator knows it and operates it anyway. Perhaps you can elucidate how it is the lesser rather than the greater evil, inasmuch as several wills are directly intending the abortion, including the vacuum operator.

This is the second instance in a short timeframe in which The Catholic Thing contains an article that cites an ordinary person for extraordinary bravery. We would do well to remember that we are all ordinary people and that God expects this kind of bravery from us, as you point out, lest, as the Scriptures say, we receive the grace of God in vain: not a happy place to be at the time of our particular judgements.
written by Manfred, March 04, 2012
This is a fine column, Professor Smith. Question: When Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, at the time president of Notre Dame, arranged for John D. Rockefeller to have a private audience with Pope Paul VI in order to have the pope "soften" the Church's teaching on contraception, and then subsequently support a Notre Dame professor who challenged Humanae Vitae in 1968-would you describe his behavior as formal or material cooperation in an enormous evil? Thank you for your reply.
written by Randall B. Smith, March 04, 2012
The Author Replies:

Nowhere did I say that operating the pump is not immediate cooperation with evil. Re-read the quotation from Fr. Ashley, and you will see quite the reverse. MAKING a pump that can be used for many things, but is ALSO used for abortions, is a different matter. Abortion doctors use surgical gloves, thus surgical glove makers make something abortion doctors use. They "cooperate," but no "immediately." Matters are not always as crystal clear as we would like. There is plenty of room for not judging others and yet for always checking one's own conscience before God.

As for Fr. Hesburgh, I have no knowledge of the events you describe, so I can't comment, any more than I could comment on any other gossip, other than to say that, whatever people said or didn't say to the Pope, I guess he didn't "soften" the Church's teaching, but reiterated it against some pretty serious opposition. He stood firm when the rest of the world turned against him. We should be so faithful when our time comes.
written by jsmitty, March 04, 2012
I don't quite follow. Maybe you didn't choose the title of this piece but the standard of "no cooperation with evil" is impossible. There is no way for a Catholic hospital to avoid some material cooperation with these sins.

1) Is it really the case that having Catholic hospitals buy only policies that don't cover birth control means that Catholic hospitals are not in any way subsidizing these things. If a Catholic hospital buys health insurance from company ABC and ABC writes other policies to other companies that do cover birth control and or abortion, then the Catholic hospital is still subsidizing these things by the nature of risk pooling, no? Insurance companies pay claims out of general funds...they don't earmark moneys from one customer to only pay claims from that customer. All the insurance companies customers are subsidizing all the claims paid by that company. There's no way around that. And I don't think it would be possible to buy health insurance from a company that does not offer coverage for this at all. There is still material participation.

I suppose one could make the case then that by buying any health policies for their workers Catholic hospitals are choosing the good of not allowing their workers to go without health insurance is done while tolerating the lesser evil of having some small but non-zero amount of money go to things that the Church condemns. But then if we say this, does the argument not work if this mandate should go into effect and the Church is forced to buy uniform policies which do cover these things explicitly?

I think the USCCB was smart to frame this issue as being about the more general principle that a religiously affiliated organizations should be able to express moral convictions free from government interference.

This business of "material participation" as a way of framing the issue makes no sense.
written by John, March 04, 2012
How is it that moral decisions have become so convoluted? On what is all this formal cooperation, material cooperation, etc., etc. based? It all seems to be some clever way to rationalize a lot of ill doing, witness David Gibson's initial talking points in the article. Don't get me wrong; I'm sympathetic with Prof. Smith's position.

I've had occasion to read about Bismark's persecution of the Catholic Church in 1870's Germany. It met fierce resistance from the German Catholic bishops, clergy, and laymen of that time, many of whom went to prison. I'll bet there wasn't any fine tuning in those decisions by faithful Catholics of that time. We need witnesses today, not too-clever-by-half mouthpieces.

written by Manfred, March 05, 2012
Thank you for your reply, Professor Smith. I don't trade in gossip but rather facts. All you had to do was Google Father Hesburgh and read and corroborate everything I said.
Fr. Hesburgh's cooperation was FORMAL and this occurred almost fifty years ago. We are reaping today what we sowed then.
written by Mark, March 05, 2012
In reply to jsmitty:
If a Catholic organization is self-insured, HHS still expects it to provide insurance benefits for these atrocities.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle!
written by Randall B. Smith, March 05, 2012
The Author Replies Again:

The reason the distinction between "formal" and "material" cooperation is important becomes clearer when one reads in tandem the comments of "John" and "jsmitty" above.

"John" is quite right to point out that the distinction can be used to justify much mischief. That, of course, was the point of my article.

On the other hand, as "jsmitty" rightly points out, there is no way in this valley of tears of not "cooperating" with evil in at least some ways. We all pay taxes, and our tax money may go to things we think morally wrong, such as Planned Parenthood or a military venture we judge immoral. We buy medicine from a pharmaceutical company, and they use those profits to make contraceptive and abortifacient drugs. We cannot avoid some "cooperation" with evil. And yet, we must never directly facilitate evil ("formal cooperation"), and we should always be vigilant in doing what we can to avoid cooperating even in mediate ways as much as possible.

It's easy to dismiss these distinctions as theological nit-picking --- easy, that is, until you have to deal with the messy realities of the world. One's moral theology needs to be as sophisticated as the complexities of the world demand. At the same time, one's commitment to do good should be as simple and straightforward as can be. In short, one needs to be "wise as a serpent, and gentle as a dove."

When you feel that you don't quite understand how all this complicated business about "formal" and "material" cooperation works or how it applies, you might consider simply heeding the counsel of the Magisterium of the Church. If the Pope and the bishops say "don't," then don't.
written by Dave, March 05, 2012
Dr. Smith: I think we miscommunicated. I haven't accused you of anything as my question was directed to the source you cited. My question put more clearly is why wouldn't the operation of the pump rise to the level of formal participation in evil? Thanks for the clarification.
written by Randall B. Smith, March 05, 2012
To "Dave":

Yes, my apologies. I did misconstrue your question. I see now what you're asking, and your concern is well-taken.

Please note that in Fr. Ashley's example, the cooperation is done under duress. And I suppose we'd also have to understand what it means in this circumstance to "operate the vacuum pump." If by "operate" it, we mean for example that the person only does the maintenance on it, and if the person is doing the job under severe duress, then this might be (depending upon the particulars of the situation) "immediate material cooperation." Note, however, that even were we to consider it such, this too would be impermissible.

To say it is "formal" cooperation suggests that one is not acting under duress and that one cooperates with the act knowingly and willingly. That is to say, you WANT to be part of performing abortions. I think this is what Fr. Ashley is driving at.

My point is that everything about the distinction between "formal" and "material" cooperation is meant, contrary to the way it is often used, to keep people from imagining that, even if I didn't do the abortion myself (or, "even if I didn't turn on the gas on the Jews myself), then I can't be held responsible. Bunk.

Sure, we're all interconnected, and thus we all "cooperate" with evil in some way. But we need to be vigilant about not allowing our "cooperation" in this distant sense to become much more like real "cooperation" in the sense that we're directly involved.

Above all, never ever check your conscience at the door when you go about the business of your life.
written by Frank, March 07, 2012
After a few days of pondering this wonderful article, my thoughts distill into the frustration of "when" and the curiosity of "how." Like one the prophets of old, I ask, "How long oh Lord?" How much longer will your Church and your faithful children have to endure this monstrous evil? And then there are times, when I deliciously wonder how God is going to bring it all crashing down on the Left over this issue in the same vein that working through John Paul II, brought down the Soviet Union. I wonder when our Church leaders will finally tell all elected Catholic politicians that it's either this or either that, choose one, you can't have both. I wonder when Catholics as a whole will wake and see the inconsistent hypocrisy of a President who calls a child a mistake, embraces Saul Alinsky who dedicated his book and his life's work to Lucifer...the first radical, yet this President calls himself a Christian.
This I know and I know it with all absolute surety, IT WILL coming crashing down for the Left and their culture of death. It's not a matter of IF but WHEN and if it happens while I'm still alive, I will admit here and unabashedly, I am going to belly laugh and relish the moment. This is one time I must admit, I will enjoy observing my enemies ideologically destroyed, swept from their position of influence, throughly discredited, marginalized, exiled into the political wilderness, and I will not lift a hand to help them.
written by Kurt, March 07, 2012
And here is the failure of our bishops. They have put much effort, time and money into preserving the right of private employers to not pay for contraception. Yet, from them, the rest of the clergy and even most of the conservative lay organizations, absolute silence on two companion issues:

1) the right of rank and file workers not to pay for contraception. The Blunt amendment, crafted with the input of the USCCB, let the bosses opt out but not the employees. If they have a pro-contracept boss, their premiums go to contraception. Not a word about this, as if workers are dirt.

2) And while fighting for the right of bosses not to have contraception, has any of the criticism leveled against politicans been extended to bosses that elect to pay for contraception and even abortion? Lots of talk about certain politicans not being allowed communion but not a word against rich and powerful businessmen, even those honored at Catholic events, etc.

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