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Chapter 7: Equal Dignity, Communication, Interpersonal Relationships, and Resitution

Question F: When Should One Cooperate with Those Who Are Doing Wrong?

Cooperation often refers to the action of a group of more or less coequal participants, each making a distinct and appropriate contribution in pursuit of a common end. In such cooperation, involving the exercise of authority and the practice of obedience, one fulfills one’s responsibilities toward others by personally doing what is right and avoiding scandal.

Sometimes, though, cooperation refers not to communal action but to the subordinate action of one who contributes something to the wrongdoing of another, who is the principal agent pursuing his or her proper good. In this sense, cooperation is either formal or material. (This distinction has been treated in CMP, 12.G, and so need only be summarized here.) Formal cooperation always is morally excluded. Material cooperation is sometimes justifiable, sometimes not, depending on the acceptability of the side effects.

1. Formal Cooperation in Others’ Wrong Acts Is Always Wrong

Cooperation is formal in the following three kinds of cases: (i) one intends or one’s purpose includes that another commit a sin; (ii) one shares the other’s wrong intention, in the sense that the proposal one adopts—that is, precisely what one chooses to do—includes something (and perhaps everything) objectively wrong in the other’s proposal; or (iii) one’s proposal includes the other’s successfully carrying out an objectively wrong choice.

In all these cases, one wills moral evil; thus, formal cooperation of all three kinds is always wrong. It occurs in the first way, for example, when a misguided counselor encourages a person to commit embarrassing sins, imagining that this will lead to his or her spiritual growth; in the second way, when a nurse who favors abortion volunteers her service in an abortion clinic, in order to help women seeking abortions to get them; in the third way, when an inspector takes bribes to approve faulty construction, wishing the fraud to succeed so that the bribery will not be exposed.

Formal cooperation with others’ sinful acts can be by means of an omission. For instance, a police officer who ignores criminal activities in order to obtain a percentage of the proceeds intends the success of the criminal acts; thus, he or she formally cooperates with them by omitting the police work that would impede them.

2. Formal Cooperation Is Not Limited to Private Life

People sometimes formally cooperate in others’ sinful acts in fulfilling their professional roles. Legislators who support what they recognize to be an unjust war want their nation to win; thus, they formally cooperate in treating the enemy nation unjustly. Again, a hospital administrator acts on a proposal which includes the purpose of some patients that they be sterilized when he or she decides that the obstetrics department will offer sterilization and sees to it that all patients about to be sterilized fulfill the usual requirement to give their informed consent. In doing so, the administrator formally cooperates with sterilization, even if he or she finds it repugnant, disapproves of it, and tries to dissuade patients from undergoing it.59 It is a rationalization of such cooperation, not a justification, to claim that its point is respect for the consciences of those who judge sterilization morally acceptable. For anyone else’s state of conscience is irrelevant to the administrator’s own act, which includes seeing to it that each sterilization is both consented to and effectively carried out.

3. Cooperation That Is Not Formal Is Called “Material Cooperation”

A person materially cooperates with the objectively wrong acts of others by doing something which helps them carry out their choices (and which may even be absolutely necessary to their doing so), while intending as one’s own end and choosing as one’s own means something which neither is nor includes their objectively immoral actions or proposals, or their sinning. In material cooperation, these results are only accepted as side effects of carrying out one’s own choice. For example, an engineer who keeps the utilities working in a hospital where abortions are done, only to make a living and further the other good things done there, materially cooperates with those abortions. Again, a locksmith forced at gunpoint to help robbers break into a bank’s safe and carry out the money only materially cooperates in the robbery, although the locksmith’s actions are essential to the robbery’s success. Legislators who, having tried and failed to exclude abortion funding from a general appropriation bill, then vote for the bill only to bring about the good things it will fund materially cooperate in the abortions the appropriation will pay for.

Whenever there is a morally acceptable way to prevent another’s unjust action, anyone noticing this possibility has reason to intervene: the prevention of the injustice and protection of the good at stake. Thus, a choice not to intervene is cooperation by omission, and it is material, if not formal, cooperation.

4. Material Cooperation Is Sometimes, but Not Always, Permissible

Obviously, if the act by which a person materially cooperates is itself sinful, the material cooperation also is sinful. But even if that act otherwise would be morally acceptable, the material cooperation sometimes is not permissible. Material cooperation in others’ objectively wrong acts involves accepting as side effects of one’s own acts both their contribution to the wrongdoing and its harmful effects; however, one is responsible not only for what one intends and chooses, but also, though not in the same way, for what one accepts as side effects (see CMP, 9.F). In materially cooperating in others’ wrong acts, therefore, a person bears some responsibility, and it is necessary to consider whether one is justified in accepting the bad side effects or not.

The engineer, the locksmith, and the legislators of the preceding examples may well be justified in their material cooperation. But suppose the owner of a gun store happens to learn that a regular customer uses guns and ammunition purchased there to fulfill contracts for murder. In continuing to sell the merchandise simply for the sake of profit, the owner would only materially cooperate in bringing about the victims’ deaths, but would hardly be justified in accepting that side effect.

Assuming cooperation is material and the act by which it is carried out otherwise would be morally good, the question is whether one has an adequate reason to do that act in view of its bad side effects. Often, one bad side effect of material cooperation is the temptation to cooperate formally. For someone who begins by cooperating materially in many cases already has or soon develops an interpersonal relationship with the wrongdoer and thus is led to deeper involvement, including a sharing of purposes. For example, whenever friends, relatives, or members of any group or society materially cooperate, solidarity inclines them to hope for the success of the wrongdoing which they are helping. Thus, material cooperation easily becomes the occasion of the sin of formal cooperation. Then it should be dealt with in the same way as other occasions of sin (see 4.D.3), and may be excluded on this basis alone.

5. The Golden Rule Helps Determine Whether to Materially Cooperate

If material cooperation is not excluded as an occasion of sin, the problem is that one’s own interests in doing what constitutes material cooperation are more or less in conflict with the interests of others who will suffer bad side effects. In such cases, the Golden Rule provides the test. (On the use of the Golden Rule to exclude partiality, see 5.H.3.)

To make the test, it is necessary to take into account not only what one’s own cooperative act would be in itself (precisely what one would intend as an end and choose as a means), but all the morally relevant circumstances:

  • Is there a morally acceptable option other than doing the act and materially cooperating, on the one hand, and, on the other, simply omitting the act so as to avoid the side effects? Plainly, someone who cannot fulfill some important responsibility except by materially cooperating with another’s wrongdoing has more reason to do so than someone with a morally acceptable alternative.
  • What kind of loss or harm will result from the wrong act in which one would materially cooperate, how extensive will it be, how certain is it to occur, and who will suffer it?
  • What other bad side effects will follow from doing the action that involves material cooperation? What kind of loss or harm will result from them, how extensive, how certain, and who will suffer it?
  • What kind of loss or harm will result from forgoing the otherwise good act, how extensive, how certain, and who will suffer it?
  • If one does not materially cooperate, will that prevent the wrong? Or will the wrongdoer nevertheless be able and likely to act?
Because mercy is the justice of the kingdom, a Christian reflection before applying the Golden Rule brings fully into play the specific claims of love. Hence, in considering various losses and harms, one always should ask:
  • Does this loss or harm involve a probable and avoidable risk to anyone’s salvation? For instance, if the wrongdoer is not in good faith and material cooperation is avoided, is he or she likely to repent and reform?
  • Will accepting this loss or harm seriously impede one from finding, accepting, or in some respect fulfilling one’s personal vocation?
  • Will accepting it impair the witness that should be given by oneself or one’s community to God’s truth and love?
Answering all these questions as well as possible does not settle whether one should materially cooperate or not, but it does gather together an adequate description of the alternatives. The Golden Rule must be applied to this description in order to exclude either the alternative of materially cooperating or that of forgoing the act involving material cooperation, if, as often is the case, one of those alternatives cannot be chosen without partiality.60

6. If Cooperating and Not Cooperating Are Both Good, One Must Discern

The presupposition here is that the cooperation in question is not formal but material, and that, in all respects other than its side effect of helping another’s sin with its bad effects, the act by which one materially cooperates is morally acceptable. Having judged that the action is not excluded on other grounds (for example, as an occasion of sin), carefully applied the Golden Rule, and concluded that neither doing nor forgoing the action would be wrong, one can conclude that both alternatives are good, insofar as they agree with right reason. Which to adopt is then a matter for discernment. In discerning, love is allowed to have the last word, for discernment rests on emotions integrated by one’s commitments of faith and personal vocation, and these commitments spring from and express Christian love (see 5.J).

7. The Church’s Leaders Can Authoritatively Decide in Some Cases

In trying to put the Church’s social teaching into practice, Catholics often must work closely with people who have radically erroneous world views. Perhaps they have good will and pursue good immediate ends, but they also may use objectively bad means and/or pursue objectively wrong long-term ends. Collaborating with them in doing otherwise good acts thus involves the problem of material cooperation. Whether this is acceptable and appropriate is a judgment primarily to be made by lay people who have responsibility in the particular field involved. Still, as John XXIII teaches, they must

act in accordance with the principles of the natural law, and observe the Church’s social teaching and the directives of ecclesiastical authority. For it must not be forgotten that the Church has the right and duty not only to safeguard her teaching on faith and morals, but also to exercise her authority over her sons by intervening in their external affairs whenever a judgment has to be made concerning the practical application of this teaching.61
Thus, when the Holy See or one’s bishop (usually in concert with other bishops of a region or nation) provides authoritative direction regarding material cooperation in social and economic matters with those acting wrongly in some respects, that direction should be followed.

59. One can do an act of which one disapproves, sinning against one’s conscience. By the same token, one can formally cooperate with an act which one disapproves. See Germain Grisez, “Public Funding of Abortion: A Reply to Richard A. McCormick,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 85 (June 1985): 46–47.

60. Classical modern moral theologians offered opinions on many recurrent kinds of actions involving material cooperation. See, for example, seventeen pages of “examples of licit and illicit cooperation” in Bernard Häring, C.Ss.R., The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser, C.Pp.S., 3 vols. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1961–67), 2:500–517. The opinions Häring proposes on most of the examples, considered just as he frames them, seem sound, although sometimes additional circumstances could be specified in which they would be unsound. However, many of the norms (“principles”) which Häring provides for judging material cooperation are questionable unless they are understood as defeasible indications of judgments to be made by applying the Golden Rule.

61. John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 300–301, PE, 270.160. Underlying the possibility that the Church’s leaders might authoritatively judge the suitability of material cooperation in some cases is the necessity that, for effectiveness in the social apostolate, Catholics maintain solidarity.