On Formal and Material Cooperation with Evil

The issue of formal and material cooperation with evil came up in a conversation recently.  My interlocutor was disconcerted when I expressed some reticence.  Isn’t this a standard distinction in moral theology?  Why wouldn’t we use it?

I suggested she read Fr. Kevin Flannery’s recent book, Cooperation with Evil: Thomistic Tools of Analysis.  If she did, she would find that the origins of that distinction are unclear and its application to specific instances contentious.

The classic case (much discussed and much disagreed upon) involves a servant who is told to carry a ladder to a house which his master intends to use to climb up to a window so he can commit adultery with the mistress of the house. Everyone agreed (then, if not always now) that adultery was evil and a sin.  The question was the degree of the servant’s cooperation with evil.  Was it “formal” or “material”?  Disagreements were rife among the casuists, but opinions also varied depending on the details.

Did the servant know this was what his master intended?  Did he know and concur with the plan?  Or did he know but was resistant?  Was he resistant and tried to convince his master?  Or was he resistant but said nothing?

Did he not know his master’s plan but should have known, especially as they approached the house?  Should he have questioned at that point whether his master intended some evil?  Was his ignorance culpable or non-culpable?

Could we say that his intention was simply to aid his master and avoid punishment, not to help a man commit adultery, in which case the adultery would be praeter intentionem (besides his intention) – a result foreseen but not intended – in which case he would be innocent of any guilt?

Perhaps you can see why such questions bedeviled moral theologians for centuries – and still do, although usually with more contemporary examples.  If a man uses contraception intending to avoid giving his wife HIV, and his wife consents, are both innocent of blame?

I have no higher wisdom to impart on how to untie these intellectual knots to everyone’s satisfaction. I merely wish to express why I am reticent to go down this path altogether.  The confusion this sort of thinking generates might suggest one reason.  But another is the way this approach causes people to think about how far they can go rather than what good they can and should do.  They start negotiating rather than resolving to do what they can.

Consider a more contemporary example, which is no easier to resolve and about which there would likely be similar difficulties and disagreements.  Let’s say I own stock in a company, perhaps directly or perhaps as part of a mutual fund.  Now let’s say that this company (a) supports abortion; or (b) abuses its female employees; or (c) fails to pay a living wage to its employees.  Take your pick.


This isn’t a matter of being conservative or progressive.  Isn’t my cooperation in whatever evil that company is doing merely “material,” so I have no need to sell my stock and can keep getting the profits?

When I pose this problem, the first question I usually get is: “What if I don’t know what the company is doing?”  I ask: “Are you responsible for knowing?”  The common reply is: “Most people don’t.”  That’s not an argument; it’s an admission.

But then people wonder:  If my cooperation is merely “material,” would it matter if I know?  I might know that some of the steel my company makes is used in abortion clinics, but that wouldn’t make my cooperation formal, only material.

And what if my intention is to support my family, not support abortion?  Does that change the morality or immorality of my owning that stock?  Well, consider this: If the intention of the German guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp was to support his family, was he therefore innocent of any blame?

I have no Solomonic wisdom to convince everyone on these questions either.  My concern is that instead of asking “What good can I and should I do in the world, even if it involves sacrifice on my part?” we ask: “How far can I go before I am culpable and get blamed?”  The first, it seems to me, is the question we should be asking; the second looks more like the road to perdition.

Often the key issue is how the question is framed.  So, for example, in the case of the servant with the ladder, instead of asking himself whether this would be “material” or “formal” cooperation, he might ask what he would want a person carrying this ladder to do if he were the husband of the woman or the wife in her better moments?  He might reason this way:  The rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  In that light, how should I act?  What should I do?

Or he might ask himself: “What would God want me to do?  If Christ came at this moment and found me with this ladder, would I be ashamed? Would I look into that face and make arguments about formal and material cooperation with Him?

We might not always be able to keep from cooperating with evil; it’s part and parcel of living in a fallen world.  Some of the steel beams that go into making churches also go into building abortion clinics. Some cooperation with evil is unavoidable.

But shouldn’t we do everything we can to resist evil and become as much as possible instruments of God’s light and love shining in the darkness?  I’m not saying that I am such an instrument – far from it – merely that I think we would all be better off if we were.

So, although the categories of formal and material cooperation likely have their place, it may not always be the best way to start thinking about the moral decisions we must make in our lives.


Image: David Sees Bath-Sheba Bathing by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1896-1902 [Jewish

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s Three Mistakes about the Common Good

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s Rome Failked on McCarrick – and Needs to Change

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.