No Cooperation with Evil

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.