Avoiding Cooperation with Evil: Keeping Your Nose Clean in a Dirty World

The most important distinction, when it comes to evaluating cooperation in evil, is the distinction between formal and material cooperation—formal cooperation being always wrong, while material cooperation might be wrong if a person does not have a sufficient reason to cooperate.


Should a Catholic nurse help care for women who are in the hospital for an abortion?  Can a Catholic taxi driver accept a passenger who asks to be taken to a strip-club?  May a Catholic postman deliver pornographic magazines?  Is it right to pay taxes when part of it is being used to fund In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and experimentation on embryos?  These are real questions facing upright people in the modern world. What all the above questions have in common is that they are questions about cooperating with evil.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most important aspects of morality for Catholics living in the modern world, and for their pastors to understand in advising them.  The mores of western culture are departing from those of the Catholic faith, more and more. Yet, Catholics surely cannot divorce themselves from society; this is neither possible nor desirable.  One of the consequences of this fact is that faithful Catholics are necessarily cooperating with fellow citizens who are acting immorally.  So, the question before us is: how can we decide whether our cooperation is morally acceptable or not?

Cooperation, as we are considering it here, is an act by which one person helps another to do what is wrong.  The cooperator’s action is distinct from the action of the evil-doer and is not wrong in itself.  However, what may be wrong is that the help ought not to be given.  Cooperation should be distinguished from inciting another to do wrong—encouraging them to lie or fornicate, for example—and from collaboration with others—where two or more people work together in doing the same bad action, such as robbing a bank.

The most important distinction to have in mind, when it comes to evaluating cooperation, is the distinction between formal and material cooperation. Remember that formal cooperation is always wrong, while material cooperation might be wrong if a person does not have a sufficient reason to cooperate. 1 This is the key statement of truth in this article.  The rest of the essay shall be given over to unpacking and understanding it.

Formal cooperation
Formal cooperation is when the cooperator not only acts in such a way to help an evil-doer achieve his goal, but also joins with the evil-doer in the latter’s bad willing.  For example: Jane becomes pregnant and she wants to have an abortion.  Peter helps her by driving her to the abortion clinic.  If Peter agrees with Jane’s decision to have an abortion (willing with her that the baby be aborted), then this is formal cooperation because Peter helps her achieve the abortion by driving her to the clinic and Peter also intends what Jane intends, namely the death of Jane’s unborn child.

This kind of cooperation is always wrong simply because it includes willing what is wrong— in the case of Peter, willing an abortion.  To will what is evil is to have an evil will, and this is wrong.  In addition, the fact that a person is willing to cooperate in achieving this evil, makes matters worse than if a person simply concurred in willing the evil—it demonstrates a will more firmly fixed upon what is wrong. 2  Jane has a friend called Molly who does not help Jane procure an abortion, but thinks it is fine, willing that she would terminate the pregnancy.  Molly has an evil will to will something like this; but Peter—who not only wills that Jane have an abortion, but also acts to help Jane procure one—demonstrates a will more firmly fixed on what is evil. This is worse.

However, note this: the very same act on the part of Peter—driving Jane to the abortion clinic—could be material cooperation.  It all depends on what Peter is intending (willing).  If Peter drives her to the clinic but wishes Jane would change her mind (perhaps he even tries to dissuade her on the way), then his cooperation is material.  This does not necessarily make Peter’s action right, but we cannot say it is wrong simply because of his bad willing (his bad intention).  As we shall see, more aspects of this situation would need to be considered.

It should also be noted that in some cases of formal cooperation, the cooperator might only implicitly intend what the evil-doer intends.  When Peter drives Jane to the clinic, willing that she have the abortion—perhaps her baby is also his “unwanted pregnancy”—then, Peter has an explicit intention that Jane have the abortion.  But, now consider the situation of Robert who works as a security guard, and whose company occasionally posts him to that abortion clinic because of the pro-life protests that take place outside the clinic.  Robert is generally ambivalent about abortion but likes to work at the clinic owing to a special financial bonus attached to the work, as there is an unpleasant and confrontational character to the job.  Robert does not explicitly intend the abortions that the women who come to the clinic (explicitly) intend, though he does cooperate with the abortions in the sense of helping the clinic to function.  Yet, since he wants the extra money, he must intend that the abortion clinic stays in business, and so he implicitly intends the abortions.  Such an implicit intention is sufficient to speak of it as formal cooperation.

In regard to formal cooperation, it is enough for the cooperator to reluctantly will what the evil-doer wills. There is no need for enthusiasm.  Imagine the situation in a country where, by law, health care providers, if they are to operate at all, must provide a statutory range of services including abortion.  What can St. Raphael’s Catholic Hospital do?  It could, perhaps, join forces with Rosemount Hospital, which does abortions. However, Rosemount has no maternity unit, which is also a mandatory service.  Together, the hospitals form one legal entity, fulfilling the requirements.  While none of St. Raphael’s staff are involved in abortions, nor its facilities used for that purpose, there is a problem with this.  The Catholic hospital cooperates with Rosemount in the sense of facilitating its existence as a legal health service provider, a provider which does abortions.  Moreover, St. Raphael’s administration must implicitly will—even if only reluctantly—that Rosemount provide these illicit services, since, without this, St. Raphael’s cannot function as a hospital. 3 This is formal cooperation.

Finally, what about when the evil-doer is ignorant about what he or she is doing?  Imagine Jane, while having an abortion, is genuinely ignorant that the fetus is a human person.  She does not, thereby, intend to kill the child.  But suppose Dr. Jameson, who acts as anesthetist during the abortion, does intend the death of the child.  Since Jane has no direct intention to kill the child, it seems that the bad willing on the part of Dr. Jameson cannot coincide with her bad will, since there is none with which to coincide.  Nonetheless, this is still formal cooperation by Dr. Jameson since Jane does choose (and so wills) an act that is objectively bad, while Dr. Jameson coincides with willing that choice.

Material cooperation
Formal cooperation is always clearly wrong.  Accordingly, it is often easier to spot and morally assess than material cooperation.  Therefore, most dilemmas in regards to cooperation relate to questions of material cooperation: after all, we are thinking here of good Catholics who are seeking to live upright lives.  To this, then, we must now turn in detail.

In order to do this, let us take another example.  James is a young Catholic university student.  He is studying law.  When he graduates as a lawyer, he intends to use his skills to help the disadvantaged, especially in pro-life work. Before that, he needs to find a job to pay some of his college expenses.  He finds a Saturday job in a local bookstore owned by Mr. Smith.  James is responsible for making sure the shelves are properly stocked, and neatly presented.  Sometimes, people come in to buy pornographic magazines, which Mr. Smith stocks.  James does not like this, realizing that in some small way he cooperates with the immorality of selling pornography. 4  Since he does not want Mr. Smith to sell these magazines, his cooperation is material rather than formal.  He in no way wills that these magazines would be sold in the shop, nor indeed that the customers would buy or read these magazines.

The question now becomes whether James can morally do what he is doing?  That is, can he help, even in this small way, to sell the pornographic magazines?  The general answer is that, as long as he does not intend the evil, he may cooperate if he has a sufficiently good reason to do so.  Therefore, the question before James is whether or not he has a sufficiently good reason to help Mr. Smith in his immoral activity of selling pornography?

To answer this question, James must begin by considering a couple of things.  First, he must consider the proportion between the goodness and obligatory character of the goal he is pursuing, and the gravity of the evil he is facilitating.  Second, he must consider how closely he is cooperating in the evil, and what the significance of this is in his concrete situation.

A good reason to cooperate?
As we have seen, the goal James is pursuing (paying for university studies) is good.  Yet, it is not so obligatory and so surpassing in goodness that cooperation with any kind of evil would be justified.  We must ask whether, in this case, the proportion between the good pursued, and the evil tolerated, justifies toleration.  Also, we could conceive of some more important goals than earning money for studies.  John also works in the bookstore doing exactly what James does. But John is a father of six children who is barely able to pay his rent and put food on the table.  Such serious obligations might excuse John’s cooperation with the selling of pornography, while James is not excused because his obligations are less serious.  For both James and John, of course, the question of how easily they might find alternative equivalent employment must also be considered.

As we have said, the good to be pursued must be considered in the light of the gravity of the evil that the evil-doers are themselves pursuing, and that the cooperator is unwillingly helping them to do.  Pornography is certainly an evil that, as far as possible, everyone should avoid any association with. However, it is not as bad as homicide.  Imagine, for example, that James and John worked in a pharmacy (a drugstore) rather than a bookshop.  This pharmacy dispenses the so-called morning after-pill.  Since these pills are potentially abortifacient (they impede plantation of the embryo if conception has occurred), cooperation in selling these pills is potentially cooperation in killing innocent human beings, similar to selling a suicide pill. 5  Other things being equal, cooperation in such a grave crime is less easily justifiable than cooperation in the sale of pornography. 6

To summarize: the point of these examples is to show that there must be a proportion between the good pursued, and the evil tolerated.  As the evil worsens, a proportionally greater good is needed to justify cooperation.

Proximity of help
As we have said—along with the gravity of the evil being cooperated with—there is the question of how closely James is cooperating by working at the bookstore where pornography is sold.  It is important to consider several things here.

Proximity can make a difference because, the closer the action of the cooperator is to the action of the evil-doer, the more the cooperator shares in the action of the evil-doer.  Consider the situation of Anna, a nurse, and Jessica, a cleaner, who both work at Rosemount Hospital.  Both help, in different ways, in facilitating sterilizations.  Anna passes instruments to the doctor, while Jessica cleans up after procedures in the operating theater.  Let us suppose neither Anna nor Jessica agrees with the sterilizations.

Anna’s cooperation is called immediate material cooperation, while Jessica’s cooperation is mediate material cooperation.  This difference comes from the fact that Anna’s help is directly ordered to the evil of sterilization, while Jessica’s help is not, since she cleans the operating room before and after many different types of surgeries, not just sterilizations.  There are also degrees of mediate cooperation: proximate and remote.  Jessica’s cooperation is mediate but proximate.  Alan, on the other hand, offers mediate remote cooperation, since he helps run the computer system that deals with patient records.  He helps the hospital (a hospital where sterilizations are performed) function.  But, clearly, his involvement in the sterilizations is very remote.

Normally, a proportionally greater reason would be needed to excuse closer cooperation.  An exception to this is when there is coercion.  So, for example, a man who lends a would-be bank robber a shotgun may have less excuse to cooperate, than the female bank teller who fills the sack with money at gun-point, despite the fact that his cooperation is more remote than hers. 7

Some would argue that immediate material cooperation is always illicit, and that, in fact, it is equivalent to formal cooperation. 8  They base this on the fact that sometimes a person’s action is so closely related to the evil action of the evil-doer that their protestations that they do not intend this evil are effectively empty.  Consider the situation of Emilia, who is an anesthetist at Rosemount.  She assists at some of the sterilization operations.  Her cooperation is so closely tied to that of the doctor that, even if she says she does not intend the sterilization, her actions contradict this, since they are objectively a choice in favor of the operation.  Such close cooperation is probably formal.

In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II says that formal cooperation takes place when “an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life, or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it.” 9  This definition seems to include the situation just described: a person whose actions, independent of his or her professed motivations, are objectively a choice for evil.

Sometimes, the evil-doer is very dependant upon the particular cooperator, sometimes not.  The doctor performing the sterilizations as Rosemount is obviously more dependent on Emilia, the anesthetist, than on Jessica, the cleaner.  Jessica is more remotely related to the operation, and so the doctor is less dependent upon her.  However, it is important to note that whether or not refusal to help will impede the evil-doer, or not, has little bearing on the rightfulness, or otherwise, of cooperation.  Jessica’s cooperation is not justified because she cannot impede the sterilizations; but, if it is justified, it is for other reasons.  It is important to note this because, according to Luke Gormally, the main reason given by those in the medical world for illicit cooperation is that it “makes no difference” whether they help or not, because someone else surely will. 10

Other aspects of the significance of proximity include the fact that closer cooperation could give greater scandal, or would be more likely to corrupt the moral sensitivity of the cooperator, factors we shall now consider.

Scandal and the corruption of moral sensitivity
It should be clear by now that the question of material cooperation is a particular application of the theory of double effect.  In aiming at some goal that is, in itself, good, someone might accept, but not intend, a bad side effect—namely assisting the evil-doer—when there is a proportionate reason to do so; that is, there is a reasonable proportion between the good sought, and the evil tolerated. 11  However, helping the evil-doer is not the only possible bad side effect of cooperation, even if it is the main one.  Four more potential bad side-effects should be considered.

First, in materially cooperating with evil, there is a danger for the one cooperating that their moral sense will be corrupted.  James must consider that in regularly cooperating in the dissemination of pornography, he might become overly resigned to the presence of this evil in society.  Perhaps, he will become desensitized to its inherent badness, or to be led into condoning its use, or, even worse, to read it himself.  If his moral sense is corrupted in this way, and if he begins to condone the selling of pornography, his material cooperation might become formal cooperation.  These dangers might be a reason for him not to cooperate at all.  What we are really saying here is that material cooperation might be an occasion for sin that James is obliged to avoid.

Second, there is the danger of scandal.  Harry, another of James’s colleagues, was brought up as a Catholic but does not regularly go to Church.  Seeing James—whom he knows to be a devout Catholic— helping in the selling of pornography, may cause Harry to conclude that pornography must be fine, , subtly encouraging him to indulge in it himself.  In this way, Harry is scandalized (led to sin) by James’s material cooperation.  Of course, James (if he keeps the job) could explain to Harry (and indeed ought to) why he is cooperating, making clear his conviction that pornography is immoral.  In this case, it is possible to undercut the occasion of scandal, but this is not always possible.  The corollary to avoiding scandal is bearing witness to the evil nature of what the evil-doer is doing (e.g. selling pornography) by refusing to cooperate.

Third, there is our moral responsibility towards the evil-doer.  As Christians we ought to have some compassion for them also!  While, strictly speaking, we cannot scandalize them, since they have already chosen to sin without our help, we can act in ways that either entrench them in their bad ways, or lead them out.  By not cooperating, even materially, with evil-doers, there is a chance that they will be convicted that their current actions are wrong.  Shocked by James’s refusal to cooperate, Mr. Smith may be moved to stop selling pornography in his shop.  Individualism has made us less concerned about the moral state of others.  In this, perhaps, we should take a lesson from St. Maria Gorretti whose main concern, in resisting the evil of her assailant, was the moral state of her would-be violator.

Fourth, cooperation can lead to alienation and a breakdown in solidarity.  This happens when our cooperation helps the evil-doer harm other people.  Cooperation in the exploitation of poor workers in other countries by unjust consumer practices would be such an example; it places between us, and them, a wall of indifference.  Another way to express this is that cooperation can break the golden rule that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Mt 7:12).

Imagine the following scenario: Angela, a nurse, observes a doctor removing a feeding tube from a terminally ill patient, thereby stopping the patient’s nutrition and hydration.  Since this particular patient can still benefit from this care without discomfort, the intention of the doctor in this case is to kill the patient.  Does Angela cooperate with this by turning a blind eye?  Can a person cooperate by doing nothing?

The answer is: “Yes, they can.”  When a person can act, and should act, in a given situation, and they do not act, then the omission is voluntary, making them guilty of negligence. 12  In this scenario, we would assume that Angela is generally responsible for the well-being of the patients on her ward.  Therefore, she is obliged to report situations where the health of a patient is compromised.  So, we conclude that she can and, moreover, ought to do something. To omit to do so is to will not to report the offence. She therefore wills not to come to the aid of the patient.  This is negligence, and this is wrong.  How wrong the negligence is depends, of course, on what the negligence is related to.

Sometimes, however, while there may be a general obligation to do something, this obligation does not exist in a given case because of particular circumstances.  For example, we are generally obliged to help people who we come across who are in particular need. However, if we see someone being mugged, reasonably fearing that intervention will result in grave physical harm to them, us, or others, there would no longer be, perhaps, an obligation to help.  This means that if Angela witnessed some lesser maltreatment of the patient, such as lack of courtesy, and feared reporting this would lead to her being fired, she might perhaps not report this.

The corollary of accepting that we can cooperate with evil by doing nothing is that we sometimes have an obligation to resist the evil actions of others.  All things being equal, the greater the evil, the greater is the corresponding obligation to oppose it.  Abortion is a great evil, and every upright person should do something to oppose it.  Misleading advertising is an evil, but there is not the same imperative for all to do something to combat it.

Concretely, however, the obligation to oppose evil depends on individual circumstances.  Different people have different opportunities to oppose evil.  So, for example, a politician has a different type of opportunity to oppose abortion than a doctor.  The former can influence legislation, while the latter can influence individual pregnant women.  Much also depends on our vocation.  It would not be right for a mother with small children to neglect her duties as mother by engaging in too much pro-life lobbying.  An unmarried person, on the other hand, depending on their personal circumstance, may have more time to engage in such worthy activity, and so a corresponding greater obligation. 13

Sometimes the state of affairs is clear.  The evil is very grave, while the good being pursued is rather trivial.  No nurse would be excused from cooperating in a direct sterilization simply to earn extra money to pay for a luxury cruise down the Nile.  At other times, the situation is more subtle: such as James’ cooperation in the selling of pornography.  In such cases, it is a task for the virtue of prudence to make the correct judgment, since prudence is “right reason about things to be done.” 14

Ultimately, the question before the would-be-cooperator is whether acting would promote the common good more than not acting. The prudent person is the one who can best answer this question, judging whether or not a person has sufficient reason to cooperate in the evil of another. This is because the prudent person is the one who sees reality most clearly.  Accordingly, making right judgments in regard to cooperation with evil is closely connected with growing in the virtue of prudence.  Now, since a person grows in the virtue of prudence by acting prudently, it would certainly be legitimate for someone in James’ position to ask how one breaks into this virtuous circle!

Without being exhaustive, several points might be useful for James to consider.  First, he should be encouraged to make the teaching of the Church the primary formative influence of his conscience, reading part three of the Catechism would be a good start. Second, it might be helpful for him to seek the advice of other Christians who are spiritually mature—asking advice from someone who clearly has the virtue of prudence, since they are often the best judge of what is prudent. Third, it is imperative that he makes the effort to free himself from selfishness, and from inordinate attachments (such as his studies). Self-centeredness warps our perception of reality like nothing else, and accordingly, undermines prudence. Finally, he should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer, especially asking for the gift of counsel.

Benefiting from evil
Sometimes, in the modern world, what seems to be at stake is not our direct cooperation with others in their evil actions but that, without cooperating, we stand to benefit from the evil they do.

Consider another customer who comes into the pharmacy where Thomas works.  Annemarie comes in to pick up a vaccine prescribed by the doctor, ready to return with it to the health clinic so her children can be inoculated.  She wants to vaccinate them against various serious (or even deadly) diseases.  However, she has heard that this particular vaccine has been developed by a research company that used tissue from aborted children to isolate and culture the relevant viruses.  Can Anne use this vaccine?

Or what about the situation of Vincent, a medical researcher, who works at Rosemount Hospital?  It is proposed that his department uses embryonic stem cells taken from “spare” embryos that have been generated in the hospital’s In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) clinic.  The project will seek to find cures for various devastating diseases.  Should Vincent agree to be part of the team?

While benefiting from evil is not wrong as such—for instance, you inherit a lot of money because someone else murdered your rich uncle. In the case outlined above, there is obviously the question of scandal, and the duty to bare witness to the sanctity of human life.  There is the added danger for Vincent that his research might lead him to more direct involvement in the destruction of embryos, since he might need to arrange to get embryonic stems cells at certain times, and in a certain condition. 15

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document, Dignitas Personae, addresses these precise issues, pointing out that, in the current environment, where there is an on-going production and destruction of embryos, the use of stems cells in the way proposed to Vincent is wrongful cooperation .16  It is cooperation because benefiting like this, using the embryonic stem cells from destroyed embryos, goes some way to supporting the evil structures and attitudes that are behind the production and killing of embryos.

This is similar, in some sense, to consumers who knowingly purchase products made in third world sweat shops, motivated by the cheap price of the products.  In voluntarily benefiting from this situation, such customers cooperate with the companies that run these shops by supporting these structures of exploitation.

Likewise, Anna’s use of the vaccine is, in the current legal situation where abortion is permitted, cooperating with this unjust situation in the sense of supporting it, and giving it a motive of self-justification.  However, her cooperation is much more remote since she is making use of vaccines derived from abortions, and not fetal tissue itself and, unlike embryo creation and destruction, abortion is not done explicitly for gaining research materials. Accordingly, her use of the vaccine is not so clearly supporting the murderous structure.  Therefore, for a grave reason, namely the protection of her children from serious disease, her use of these vaccines is permitted.

It should be noted that, were the legal situation different— abortion laws were repealed and embryo creation banned—then the use of this material of illicit origin would not have the same note of cooperation.  However, even in such a hypothetical situation, if the use of these materials implied approval of their origin, this would be complicity and still wrong.

Formal cooperation with evil is always wrong, since it involves willing what is evil, and helping to bring this about.  In contrast, material cooperation with evil is not always wrong.  It can sometimes be justified, when it is done in the pursuit of goals that are sufficiently good to warrant tolerating the unintended evil of the evil-doer.

Let us remember that God himself cooperates with evil in the sense that he keeps us, and our actions, in existence even when we do evil!  This is material cooperation since God does not will the evil we do, but rather the good of our existence and freedom.  For the sake of that, he justifiably cooperates in our sinful actions.  Moreover, as Fisher notes, Jesus himself told his followers to pay taxes, some of which, no doubt, would be used for some evil projects, just like today! 17

Nonetheless, even material cooperation with evil should never be taken lightly.  By causing scandal, we can fail in our love for others, leading them into sin. While wrongfully cooperating with evil, corrupts our own moral sensitivity, making us participators in the evil action of the evil-doer, thereby deforming our own moral character.  This is a failure to love ourselves.  Ultimately, wrongful cooperation with evil is a failure to love God, above all things. It represents a disordered desire for lower goods, since in seeking them, we are willing to turn away from the supreme good, God himself. 18

Admittedly, keeping a clean nose in a dirty world is not easy.  Therefore, let us call upon the Lord: “Libera nos a malo (Deliver us from evil)!”

  1. The distinction between formal and material cooperation is clearly expressed by St. Alphonsus Liguori, when he says: “That {cooperation} is formal which concurs in the bad will of the other, and it cannot be without sin; that {cooperation} is material which concurs only in the bad action of the other, apart from the cooperator’s intention. (St. Alphonsus Liguori, Theologia Moralis, ed. L. Gaudé, 4 vols. (Rome: Ex Typographia Vaticana, 1905–12), 1:357 (lib. II, §63)
  2. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I II q.20 a.4.
  3. Joseph Boyle, “Collaboration and integrity: how to think clearly about moral problems of cooperation,” in Issues for a Catholic Bioethic, Edited Luke Gormally, London: The Linacre Centre, 1997, 196. Cf. Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus. Volume 3: Difficult Moral Questions (Quincy, Illinois: Franciscan Press, 1997), 397
  4. CCC 2354.  Note, selling pornography is wrong, let alone reading it.
  5. Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus. Volume 3: Difficult Moral Questions (Quincy, Illinois: Franciscan Press, 1997), 374-380.
  6. For more detail on the question of cooperation in the sale of contraceptives, see, Pius XII, Address to Participants of an International Congress of Pharmacists, 2 September 1950.
  7. For a description of these distinctions see Thomas O’Donnell, Medicine and Christian Morality (New York: Alba House, 1996), 34-39.  Cf. Grisez, Difficult Moral Questions, 890.  Since, in his analysis of the object of moral choice, Grisez gives such prominence to the intention of the agent, the question of proximity plays a diminished role.
  8. Anthony Fisher, ”Cooperation in evil: understanding the issues” in Cooperation, Complicity, and Conscience, Edited Helen Watt (London: The Linacre Centre, 2005), 50.
  9. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 74.
  10. Luke Gormally, “Why Not Dirty Your Hands,” in Cooperation, Complicity, and Conscience, Edited Helen Watt (London: The Linacre Centre, 2005), pp.12-26.
  11. The doctrine of double effect and material cooperation can be expressed in terms of a person having a “proportionate reason” to cooperate with the evil deeds of another.  By expressing things in this way, it is very important that this notion of “proportionate reason” should be distinguished from the condemned moral theory of proportionalism (cf. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 75).  Proportionalism claims that a person can chose to do what is evil as a means to attaining a good goal when he judges that the proportion of good to evil realized in his so acting justifies such action.  For proportionalists there are no moral absolutes.  So for example, a couple can choose to contracept in order to achieve the ‘greater’ good of marital harmony.  In contrast, the principle of material cooperation never permits the chose of evil, only its toleration.  For a critique of proportionalism see, William May, An Introduction to Moral Theology (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), 141-158.
  12. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I II, q. 6 a.3
  13. Grisez, Difficult Moral Questions, 845-847.
  14. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, q.56 a.3.
  15. Grisez, Difficult Moral Questions, 385-388.
  16. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae, 34-35.
  17. Roger Fisher, “Cooperation In Evil: Understanding the Issues,” 29.
  18. Cf. Fisher, “Cooperation In Evil: Understanding the Issues,” 58-64.
Dr. William Newton About Dr. William Newton

Dr. William Newton is an associate professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Chair of Faculty, Austrian Program.


  1. I truly believe many people who wish and intend to be moral these days simply give up in the face of the overwhelming challenges to morality all around us. It is plain to see even in the examples you cite something as simple as working as a clerk in a bookstore can raise serious moral questions. I know many people of good will who are so overwhelmed by the daily tsunami of moral challenges, concerning even the simplest of things, who eventually just give in, accept the evil as impossible to avoid, and cooperate with it. These days the right decision may not only bring the loss of some good that was enjoyed (say, a friendship or a paycheck), but vitriolic criticism from those around you, and often the loss of their support and love as well. It takes great moral courage and much grace from God to live in these very difficult times. Yet, if there are not those who will make those decisions, risk those losses to defend the good, how will evil be stopped?

  2. “Pornography is not as bad as homicide.” Pornography (lust) kills love. It destroys the soul, families, and can lead to homicide, i.e., Ted Bundy. Ask anyone trying to break free of a pornography addiction, it is harder to break free than from heroin. Read some of Dr. Patrick Carnes and Dr. Mark Laaser’s books on this subject. Also read “Lust Virus” by Roy K.

    • Chris- I am following your thinking, I really am; but your use of Bundy is a bad example. He was a sociopath, and would have been a sociopath with or without pornography. Otherwise, I’m totally on-board.

  3. It’s why I believe all good Catholics should register Independent. Both major parties severely violate Catholic morals and teaching. The Republican Party may have an anti-abortion platform, but it’s economic system is grounded in the cult of Ayn Rand, anarcho-libertarianism which leaves millions to suffer by themselves in a mechanically cold environment. And their environmental policies are horribly destructive of God’s Creation, the natural ecosystems which God gave unto to us to survive and thrive as a human race.

    There is no alternative with the Democratic Party: abortion on demand is the fatal flaw with that organization.

    • Strait liberal propaganda. Like Dr. Ron Paul I’m tired of hearing liberals accuse Conservatives of not caring for the poor, or caring about the plight of the poor. Not one Republican I have ever known is a anarcho-libertarianist who wishes to “leave millions to suffer by themselves in a mechanically cold environment.” They simply believe the cycle of self-victimization and government dependency that liberal policies have created do not help the poor. While “the poor will always be with us,” there is no reason that we should except that the number of the poor in our society should be accepted at the level that exists now. The best way to help the poor not be poor is not to give them stuff. It is to create an environment where they can earn enough money not to be poor. It is to foster an environment where the greatest contributor to poverty among women and children, lack of marriage, is an exception rather than a rule. It is to create schools and an environment where pursuit of education, not for its own sake, because only a small number of people will ever value education for its own sake (sad but true), but because education leads to greater earning power is clearly the goal. Yeah its great to create lifelong learners, but pretty impossible when you aren’t creating any kind of learners. I’ve never meant a Republican who wants to dump poisons in the rivers or create acid rain. Natural ecosystems experience extinction, change and populations shifts all the time, and have for all of creation. CO2 is not a pollutant. Humans are stewards of God’s Creation. From the very beginning they have been allowed to harvest the creation for what they need. Good shepherds are allowed to drink the milk of the flock.
      Do anarcho-libertarian Republicans exist? Probably. But their beliefs are not enshrined in the Republican Party platform.
      All of these issues, which you seem to have with Republicans are matters of prudential judgments. You certainly have the right as a Catholic to decide not to be a Republican because of them. It is, however, morally indefensible to try to create a moral equivalence between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party because of them, and state that Catholic should not be a Republican.
      Until both more bishops and laity willing to stand up and say that strongly and with conviction millions of Catholics will continue to support the Democratic Party.

  4. What about socializing with those who love off-color/shocking statements as well as vulgar or uncivilized behavior? In socializing with them, we add our imprimatur to their actions, leading others to believe it’s OK to behave that way and yet call one’s self “Catholic”. Even our everyday interactions with people and our social choices are a form of cooperation with evil.

  5. I get it, I get it all, However if you are voting in this election
    how can you vote for the current administration when it is
    obviously an evil accumulation of politicians. Dem.or Repub.is
    not the issue its the person at the helm right now! Be honest
    with yourself ask yourself, look what’s going on our moral values
    have disintegrated thanks to all the” what about me ” special
    Interest groups! What does it say on our currency? Is that the
    next to go? just because someone or group is offended?

  6. Very nice article …


  1. […] Avoiding Cooperation with Evil: Keeping Clean in Dirty World – Dr. Wil. Newton, H&PR […]

  2. […] material cooperation might be wrong if a person does not have a sufficient reason to cooperate. 1 This is the key statement of truth in this article.  The rest of the essay shall be given over to […]

  3. […] Avoiding Cooperation with Evil: Keeping Your Nose Clean in a Dirty WorldThe most important distinction, when it comes to evaluating cooperation in evil, is the distinction between formal and material cooperation—formal cooperation being always wrong, while material cooperation might be wrong if a person does not have a sufficient reason to cooperate.    Should a Catholic nurse help care for women who are in the hospital for an abortion? Can a Catholic taxi driver accept a passenger who asks to be taken to a strip-club? May a Catholic postman deliver pornographic magazines? Is it right to pay taxes when part of it is being used to fund In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and experimentation on embryos? These are real questions facing upright people in the modern world. What all the above questions have in common is that they are questions about cooperating with evil.…more […]

  4. […] material puede ser mala si una persona no tiene una razón suficiente para cooperar. [1] Esta es la afirmación clave de la verdad en este artículo. El resto del ensayo se dedica a […]

  5. […] zone’ so to speak. Anyone who wants a detailed account of why, give me your email in the ComBox. A good explanation of the moral theology around the phrase ‘cooperation with evil’ can be found ……and Fr Neil Vaney sm in Auckland is my go-to guy for questions of this nature too (hope he […]