Cooperation with Evil

If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806). This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

The simple answer to the questions is, “Yes, you were right. A person cannot drive another to an abortion clinic knowing that the mother is going there to have an abortion and that an innocent unborn child is going to be killed.”

The moral guidance for this answer is found in an area called, “moral cooperation with evil.” Here moral cooperation is when a person freely and knowingly assists another person in performing an immoral act, i.e. an action that is objectively evil. Such cooperation means that a person concurs in another’s sinful act, and participates in a way that helps bring the sinful act to completion. The Catechism teaches, “Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged.”(#2287)

Now we come to some classic distinctions in morality. Formal cooperation is when a person (the cooperator) first of all gives consent to the evil action of another (the actor). Here the cooperator shares the same intention as the actor. The cooperator also joins in the actual performance of the evil action or supplies the actor with the means of performing it. Essentially, he consents to and helps enact the sin. For example, using the example of abortion, a nurse who assists a doctor in performing an abortion and shares the same intention is formally cooperating with evil. A legislator who actively promotes abortion legislation enabling innocent human beings to perish is guilty of formal cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation with evil is always wrong, and the cooperator shares in the guilt of the sin of the actor.

Material cooperation is when the cooperator performs an action that itself is not evil, but in so doing helps the actor perform another evil action. The moral quality of material cooperation depends upon how close the act of the cooperator is to the evil action, and whether there is a proportionate reason for performing the action.

Material cooperation is considered proximate if the help is closely connected with the evil action. A good question to ask is, “Would this action be done without my help?” For instance, in the question at hand, if a person drives another person to an abortion clinic to have an abortion, then the driver’s cooperation is evil and sinful. Even if the driver says, “I am personally against abortion, but I am supporting my friend and I respect her decision,” the friend would not be arriving at the abortion clinic without the help of the driver, and would not be so inclined to have the abortion without the friend’s cooperation and apparent consent.

Material cooperation is considered remote if it is not so closely connected with the evil action. For example, an employee who cleans the operating rooms of the hospital where abortions are performed (along with many other surgeries) would be remotely cooperating with evil. He provides a service that is good in itself but is remotely related to the evil act of abortion. If this employee was opposed to abortion, but worked at this general hospital because he needed employment, then he would not be guilty of sin for this remote degree of cooperation. (His cooperation would change to proximate if he worked at an abortion clinic; then he would be guilty of sin for his proximate material cooperation.)

In this area of material cooperation, one does have to ask, “Is there a proportionate reason for cooperating with this evil action?” Oftentimes, duress enters the decision making, meaning a person fears that unless he cooperates with the action, although a sinful one, he may face dire consequences. Remember duress impedes a person’s free will in decision making. Keep in mind that in material cooperation, the cooperator is not performing an evil action itself; rather his action only helps an actor perform an evil action.

For example, a nurse may never directly participate in an abortion, like handing the abortionist instruments; such an action is formal cooperation. However, a nurse may work at a general hospital where abortions may be performed; he or she may provide nursing care to other patients or even patients who have had abortions, and are recovering in the general surgical care area. However, a nurse in such a position ought to weigh the circumstances and ask questions like, “Is this the only employment I can obtain?” or “Are my actions primarily helping innocent people recover and return to health?” For anyone in a similar kind of predicament, questions may include, “What is the amount of evil my cooperation helps others do? What is the amount of evil that will happen to me if I refuse to cooperate? How close is my act to the other's evil act?” In considering the frequency of the material cooperation and the more necessary it is to the evil action, the reason to justify the cooperation must be proportionately stronger.

Older moral manuals in their examinations of conscience listed various ways a person could be an accessory to sin by cooperating with evil. Fr. F. X. Lassance listed nine ways (which are exemplified by the author): 1. By counsel (“I think you should have an abortion.”) 2. By command (“If you don’t change the financial statements, I will fire you.”) 3. By consent (“I think you ought to marry that divorced person even though you can’t get married in the Church.”) 4. By provocation (“You should trash that person’s car for what he said to you.”) 5. By praise or flattery (“You look sexy in that bikini.”) 6. By concealment (“I’ll lie for you and tell your parents you were with me last night.”) 7. By partaking (“The two of us can pull off this theft.”) 8. By silence (“I won’t tell anyone you stole the purse.”) 9. By defense of the ill done (“You did the right thing to have an abortion rather than risk having a Down’s Syndrome baby.”) (Fr. Lassance’s listing is found in Catholicism and Ethics.)

Returning to the question at hand regarding abortion, in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium vitae), Pope John Paul II addressed the role people play in cooperating with evil actions against the sanctity of human life. Focusing on abortion, he spoke of the pressure a family may place on a distraught pregnant relative, the responsibility of doctors and nurses who “place at the service of death skills which were acquired for promoting life,” the legislators who have promoted and approved abortion laws, and the “network of complicity which reaches out to include international institutions, foundations, and associations which systematically campaign for the legalization and spread of abortion in the world.(#59) He also affirmed that not only does the person who procures an abortion receive the penalty of automatic excommunication, the penalty “includes those accomplices with whose help the crime would not have been committed.” (#62)

A further note of clarification: In a recent article dealing with the treatment of victims of rape, two readers questioned the statement, “If there is a reasonable doubt that ovulation has taken place, the right of the woman to prevent the pregnancy should be favored.” This teaching is taken on the guidance found in Ashley and O’Rourke’s Health Care Ethics, “A Sexual Assault Protocol for Catholic Hospitals” in Ethics and Medics by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services — all solid Catholic resources.

In these sources as in the article, the term “reasonable doubt” is used in reference to the ovulation, not the conception. Throughout the article, the point is underscored that a child is a person at conception and that life is sacred from conception to natural death. If tests show that ovulation has occurred and thereby conception may have taken place, nothing should be done which would bring harm to the conceived child. However, if there is moral certitude (admittedly a better phrasing than “reasonable doubt” and as used previously in the article when addressing the necessary testing) that ovulation has not occurred, then the woman may be treated with contraceptives to prevent ovulation and thereby conception. I do apologize for any misunderstanding.


Fr. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

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