Cooperation In Magisterial Documents

This section examines the application of the principles of cooperation with evil in magisterial documents. There is currently no complete exposition of the principles of cooperation with evil in any magisterial document of the Holy See (of which I am aware). It often happens that theology develops a set of ideas based on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, and then subsequently the Magisterium makes some use of that theology, without answering every question on the same topic. This section compares the use of cooperation with evil in magisterial documents to the three fonts approach.

Evangelium Vitae

Pope John Paul II: “To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested…. The height of arbitrariness and injustice is reached when certain people, such as physicians or legislators, arrogate to themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die.”15

Suicide is an intrinsically evil and gravely immoral act. Therefore, formal cooperation with suicide, whether as a type of euthanasia or not, is also an intrinsically evil and gravely immoral act. Notice that the Pontiff does not even consider the possibility that such formal cooperation could be moral. Formal cooperation is always immoral; only material cooperation is sometimes moral.

And such formal cooperation is not limited to the acts of a physician or other person who is physically present to assist with the suicide. Those legislators who pass laws making such intrinsically evil acts easier to commit are guilty of formal cooperation. But, as the Pope also points out, such acts might extend beyond mere cooperation, to become acts of perpetration. And this is true not only for a person who is physically present for a suicide, but also for persons, such legislators, who, though not physically present, commit acts with the same evil moral object. Those legislators who pass a bill legalizing suicide or euthanasia are committing an act that has the death of many innocent persons as its moral object. Such an act is not merely formal cooperation, but perpetration.

Pope John Paul II: “Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil.”16

The Magisterium teaches that formal cooperation is never morally licit. In the three fonts approach, formal cooperation, by definition, always has an evil moral object, is always intrinsically evil, and is always immoral. The magisterial teaching that formal cooperation is never morally licit is based on the magisterial teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. The Pontiff then goes on to talk about the various types of cooperation.

Pope John Paul II: “Such cooperation occurs 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. This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it. Each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12).”17

Here the Pontiff considers all the types of cooperation: explicit, formal, and material. The term “by its very nature” refers to the second font, the act itself with its essential moral nature (or moral species) as determined by the moral object. In another document on ethics, Pope John Paul II uses the same term, “its very nature,” to refer to intrinsically evil acts.18 The “very nature” of any act is determined by its moral object. An act is cooperative “by its very nature” when the cooperative act has the moral object of assisting the other person in attaining an evil moral object. In other words, an act of formal cooperation, by its very nature, assists another act, one that is intrinsically evil, in attaining its evil moral object. All this pertains to the second font of morality.

Next, the Pope refers to material cooperation, which he describes as an action that participates in the sin of another person “by the form it takes in a concrete situation,” in other words, by the circumstances surrounding the act itself. So this point refers now to material cooperation, relating it to the third font of circumstances. He uses the example of a sin against human life because this explanation is given in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life). The USCCB Catechsim uses the same phrase, “concrete situation,” to refer to the third font of morality:

USCCB Catechism: “Every moral act consists of three elements: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act….”19

Thus, Pope John Paul II distinguishes formal from material cooperation by implicitly referring to the three fonts. In his explanation, formal cooperation pertains to the very nature of the act, which is the second font. When the second font is bad, the act is always immoral; formal cooperation is always immoral. But he considers material cooperation to refer only to the concrete situation, i.e. to the circumstances, which is the third font. Material cooperation is not always immoral because the evaluation of the circumstances allows for some bad consequences, if these are outweighed by the good consequences.

Next, the Pontiff describes explicit cooperation, calling it a “sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it.”20 The three fonts approach considers explicit cooperation to be always immoral because the cooperator has the immoral intention to assist the act of the other person to attain what is evil. The cooperator, by this intention, shares in the immorality of the intentionally chosen act of the other person; it is in this sense that he shares in the intention of the other person. But he need not share in the specific intention of the other person. For the other person might have a good intention, through invincible ignorance; or the other person might have a different immoral intention from the cooperator. Yet explicit cooperation could still occur, if the cooperator intends either the evil moral object, or whatever is evil in the consequences, of the other person’s act.

Therefore, this ‘sharing’ of intention need not be specific, so that the two persons have the same exact intention. Such an overly-narrow definition would make explicit cooperation very unlikely, since any two persons generally have some differences in their intentions, and since the full and exact intention of each person is generally not known to others. To constitute explicit cooperation with evil, it is sufficient for the cooperator to have any evil intention related to the intentionally chosen act of the other person, either intending to assist in attaining the evil moral object of the act itself in formal cooperation, or intending to assist in attaining any of the bad consequences in material cooperation. This basis for determining explicit cooperation is in accord with Pope John Paul II’s description of a sharing by immoral intention, without interpreting his words in an overly-literal fashion.

Notice that the three fonts approach to the principle of cooperation with evil is in accord with this succinct explanation given by the Magisterium. The Pope does not make the claim, found in the usual approach, that immediate material cooperation with an intrinsically evil act is always immoral. He teaches that formal cooperation is always immoral, but not that any type of material cooperation is always immoral. Neither does the Pontiff find it necessary to distinguish between immediate and mediate material cooperation. Only three types of cooperation are distinguished, and each is described in terms of one of the three fonts of morality.

Next, we consider Pope John Paul II’s application of these general principles of cooperation with evil to the morality of laws pertaining to abortion.

Pope John Paul II: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.’ “21

It is never licit to obey a law that requires you either to commit an intrinsically evil act, especially one that is gravely immoral such as abortion or euthanasia, or to cooperate formally with an intrinsically evil act. For formal cooperation is itself a type of intrinsically evil act. The Pontiff gives three examples of such intrinsically evil acts: promoting the law, voting for the law, and obeying the law. Now these examples do not refer to every law that is in any way, or to any extent, unjust. Many laws have some limited injustice in the consequences of the law. The absolute prohibition against such cooperation must refer either to formal cooperation with, or to the perpetration of, an intrinsically evil act, and not to the much broader, and sometimes moral, material cooperation.

The knowingly chosen acts that are part of a campaign to pass a pro-abortion law, or a pro-euthanasia law, have a moral object; these acts are inherently directed toward attaining an end. The moral object of such acts is to assist in passing the law, and the act of passing the law has the moral object of the death of innocent human persons. Notice that these acts of formal cooperation are not assisting in the act of abortion, but in the act of passing a pro-abortion (or pro-euthanasia) law. Such acts are formal cooperation, not merely material cooperation. These intentionally chosen acts are, by their very nature, directed toward the end of assisting the intrinsically evil acts of other persons, acts that have the death of innocents as an end.

Is the act of passing of an intrinsically unjust law intrinsically evil, or is it formal cooperation with the intrinsically evil act which the law permits or requires? Either answer gives the result that the passing of such a law is always immoral, since formal cooperation is itself a type of intrinsically evil act. If the law assists by protecting an abortion clinic from protests, or by reducing restrictions on the circumstances of the abortion (such as a waiting period), then the passing of the law pertains to the circumstances and is material cooperation. If the law assists in the act itself of abortion, such as by paying for the abortions, or requiring health care plans to include coverage for abortions, then the law is formal cooperation. But when a law simply legalizes, or broadly extends the legalization, of abortion, the passing of such a law constitutes a perpetration of the sin of procuring abortion.

But even when the passing of a law is formal cooperation, cooperative acts that seek to assist in passing the law, such as taking part in a campaign to pass the law, are cooperating with an intrinsically evil act. For every act of formal cooperation is itself an intrinsically evil act. Therefore, if your cooperative act has the moral object of assisting another person in his intrinsically evil act of formal cooperation, though not in an act of perpetration itself, then your cooperative act is still an act of formal cooperation, and is intrinsically evil. For your act has the evil moral object of assisting in the intrinsically evil act of formal cooperation by another person. Formal cooperation with an act of formal cooperation by another person is also intrinsically evil and always immoral. Ultimately, any act of formal cooperation, by its very nature, is ordered toward an evil moral object, and so is always immoral.

The Pope also refers to voting for a pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia law as being never morally licit. Voting for such a law is either an act of formal cooperation with abortion, or an act of perpetration (procuring abortion or euthanasia for all those persons who will make use of the law). In either case, the act of voting for a law making abortion or euthanasia legal, or substantially broadening its legality, is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But this question is similar to the question as to whether a women who signs a paper authorizing an abortion to be performed on her commits formal cooperation, or perpetration, of abortion. Although she does not perform the abortion, she has committed an act of perpetration, not merely cooperation, because she has procured an abortion.22 Her chosen act is inherently directed to the death of the innocent prenatal as its moral object. Similarly, if a legislator or citizen votes for a law that legalizes abortion, the act of voting passes the law, thereby authorizing (or procuring) many abortions. Therefore, the act of voting for such a law is an act of perpetration, not merely formal cooperation.

The above quote from Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae includes a quote from the CDF document ‘Declaration on Procured Abortion.’ The full passage sheds further light on the topic of cooperation with evil.

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover, he may not collaborate in its application. It is, for instance, inadmissible that doctors or nurses should find themselves obliged to cooperate closely in abortions and have to choose between the law of God and their professional situation.”23

Any act that is ‘in itself immoral’ is intrinsically evil. If a law requires anyone to commit an act that is intrinsically evil, that law must not be obeyed. And since every act of formal cooperation is necessarily an intrinsically evil act, if a law requires anyone to commit an act of formal cooperation, that law must not be obeyed. Collaboration in the application of such a law is a type of cooperation. So if a doctor or nurse is obliged by the law to cooperate closely in an abortion, the moral law obliges them to refuse any and all such acts of perpetration or formal cooperation. The law of God prevails over all human law. An unjust law is not a law, but a type of violence. A human law that contradicts the eternal moral law is not a law, and must not be obeyed.

Pope John Paul II: “A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on…. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”24

Here the Pontiff gives an example of moral material cooperation. The elected official’s position against abortion should be well-known; this is to avoid the sin of scandal, which is a possible bad consequence in cases of material cooperation. Such a politician’s support for the proposed law is moral because the good consequences of enacting further restrictions on abortion outweigh the negative consequences (the harm done). But if a more restrictive law could be passed, the elected official must support the more restrictive law. Since laws can be complex, having many possible good and bad consequences, which may be difficult to determine in advance, a judgment of the prudential order is used to weigh all the possible good and bad consequences of material cooperation. The result determines if the material cooperation is moral or immoral.

But notice that the Pope does not consider any cases of immediate material cooperation, nor does he even refer to this distinction used by so many authors. The only basis for determining the morality of material cooperation is the three fonts of morality. So if the act is done with good intention, and the act is not intrinsically evil, then the totality of the moral weight of the good and bad consequences determines if the material cooperation is licit or illicit. A more immediate (less remote) act of material cooperation gives the bad consequences of the other person’s act more moral weight in the cooperative act. But immediate material cooperation, even with an intrinsically evil act, is not necessarily always immoral. The Magisterium teaches that formal cooperation is always immoral, and that material cooperation is sometimes moral. There is no magisterial teaching that any type of immediate material cooperation is necessarily always immoral. The morality of every type of material cooperation depends on an evaluation of the third font.

The Address of John Paul II to the Roman Rota

The Roman Rota deals with appeals concerning cases of Church law. In the quotes below, the Pope relates unjust laws on divorce and civil unions to the concept of cooperation with evil.

“The essential witness to the value of indissolubility is given through the married life of the spouses, in their fidelity to the bond, through all the joys and trials of life. However the value of indissolubility cannot be held to be just the object of a private choice: it concerns one of the cornerstones of all society. Therefore, while all the initiatives that Christians, along with other persons of good will, promote for the good of the family (for example, the celebrations of wedding anniversaries) are to be encouraged, one must avoid the risk of permissiveness on fundamental issues concerning the nature of marriage and the family (cf. Letter to Families, n. 17).”25

Christians have a moral obligation to promote true marriage over false ideas about marriage, and to guard the goods of marriage and family.

“Among the initiatives should be those that aim at obtaining the public recognition of indissoluble marriage in the civil juridical order (cf. ibid., n. 17). Resolute opposition to any legal or administrative measures that introduce divorce or that equate de facto unions — including those between homosexuals — with marriage must be accompanied by a pro-active attitude, acting through juridical provisions that tend to improve the social recognition of true marriage in the framework of legal orders that unfortunately admit divorce.”26

Civil divorce, for spouses who have the valid Sacrament of Marriage, is permitted under Church teaching, only in cases of grave necessity, and even then, the bond of the Sacrament of Marriage remains.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law. If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.”27

The couple is divorced only under secular law; in the eyes of God they are still married. Such a separation and its legal recognition is only moral for a grave reason, such as to protect one spouse against abuse by the other spouse, or to protect the right of one spouse to continue to worship God as a Catholic Christian.

“On the other hand, professionals in the field of civil law should avoid being personally involved in anything that might imply a cooperation with divorce. For judges this may prove difficult, since the legal order does not recognize a conscientious objection to exempt them from giving sentence.”28

Civil divorce is not intrinsically evil, and so cooperation with civil divorce is material cooperation, not formal cooperation. The Pontiff does not state that involvement in divorce cases, by a lawyer or judge, is never licit, since material cooperation is sometimes moral, depending on the circumstances. This position contrasts sharply with what the Pope says on cooperation with intrinsically unjust laws (e.g. on abortion or euthanasia), since that cooperation is formal cooperation and is always immoral.

“For grave and proportionate motives they may therefore act in accord with the traditional principles of material cooperation. But they too must seek effective means to encourage marital unions, especially through a wisely handled work of reconciliation.”29

The morality of material cooperation depends on the comparative moral weight of the good and bad consequences. If the good consequences are proportionately grave (weighty), so that they outweigh the bad consequences, then material cooperation is moral. Again, there is no question raised of whether the material cooperation is immediate or mediate. Only the proportionality of the good and bad consequences is considered. A judge who hears a divorce case, and a lawyer who has a client in a divorce case, are engaging in a type of cooperation that is categorized, in the usual approach, as immediate material cooperation; their acts are essential to the sin of the married couple in obtaining a divorce when the circumstances would not justify a divorce (a sin under the third font, not the second font). Yet the Pontiff does not teach that, in such a case of immediate material cooperation, the cooperation is always immoral. Again, there is no magisterial teaching asserting that immediate material cooperation of any type is always immoral. In fact, some magisterial documents, such as this Address, imply that immediate material cooperation is not always immoral, and that the morality of all material cooperation depends on the proportional weight of the consequences.

“Lawyers, as independent professionals, should always decline the use of their profession for an end that is contrary to justice, as is divorce. They can only cooperate in this kind of activity when, in the intention of the client, it is not directed to the break-up of the marriage, but to the securing of other legitimate effects that can only be obtained through such a judicial process in the established legal order (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2383). In this way, with their work of assisting and reconciling persons who are going through a marital crises, lawyers truly serve the rights of the person and avoid becoming mere technicians at the service of any interest whatever.”30

In this section, the Pontiff teaches that we should always decline to cooperate with any end contrary to justice, “as is divorce.” Now all three fonts are directed each to its own type of end: the intended end, the moral object, and the end results (consequences) of the act. So we must determine the type of end that he means. The Church permits some recourse to civil divorce, even while the bond of the Sacrament remains, yet he gives the example of divorce as an end contrary to justice. And his next statement allows for cooperation with divorce in certain circumstances. Therefore, the Pontiff was not referring to intrinsically evil acts, but instead to intention and circumstances, both of which are types of ends. This interpretation is confirmed by the subsequent statement that the intention of the client must not be against marriage, but in favor of justice, such as the equitable distribution of goods, and that the divorce may morally seek certain good effects (i.e. consequences) that cannot be obtained outside the legal process.

But understood more generally, the Pope is teaching that we “should always decline” any type of cooperation in which any end, the intended end (explicit cooperation), the moral object (formal cooperation), or the end results (the moral weight of the consequences), is “an end that is contrary to justice.” In other words, we must refuse to commit acts of explicit cooperation, acts of formal cooperation, and any acts of material cooperation in which the consequences, in the totality of their moral weight, are immoral. So if any one font is “contrary to justice,” then that act of cooperation is immoral.

Again, this confirms the three fonts approach. Cooperation in cases of divorce requires a good intention in the first font. Any act done with a bad intention is a sin. And if a cooperative act intends either an evil moral object in the second font, or the bad consequences in the third font, then the cooperation is explicit cooperation and is immoral. The Pope indicates this truth when he states the requirement of good intention on the part of the client, and therefore also on the part of the lawyer. Then, concerning the circumstances, the good consequences of securing legitimate ends, such as obtaining goods needed for a livelihood or obtaining the return of personal possessions, must outweigh any bad consequences. Here the third font applies, making this act material cooperation, not formal cooperation. For these reasons, the Pope permits lawyers and judges to cooperate in divorces, under the principle of material cooperation.

However, we should bear in mind the words of our Savior: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. And whoever marries her who has been divorced by her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18). If a divorce is directed at the end of enabling a subsequent marriage to another, while the bond of the Sacrament remains, then the act of obtaining a divorce is intrinsically evil because it is formal cooperation with adultery. If an attorney were to formally cooperate with such formal cooperation, he also would be committing an intrinsically evil act of formal cooperation with adultery.

Moral cooperation with an intrinsically evil act is only possible if the cooperation is material, not formal, meaning that the cooperation does not assist the other person in obtaining an evil moral object, but only assists in attaining the consequences of the act. In such cases, the good consequences must outweigh the bad for the act of material cooperation to be moral.

Cardinal Ratzinger

Pope Benedict XVI, prior to becoming the Roman Pontiff, also referred to the principle of cooperation with evil.

Cardinal Ratzinger: “Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”31

Campaigning for pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia laws is formal cooperation, not merely material cooperation. Voting for such laws is also categorized by the Cardinal as formal cooperation. But whether voting for a law is perpetration or formal cooperation depends on the substance of the law. If a law has the effect of procuring abortion for many persons, voting for such a law is perpetration, rather than formal cooperation. Such a vote has the moral object of procuring abortions. By comparison, if a law does not have the direct effect of procuring abortion, but only assists in obtaining abortions, as when a law provides government money for abortions or reduces some minor restrictions, then the vote for that law is formal cooperation, not perpetration. However, both perpetration of, and formal cooperation with, abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

Cardinal Ratzinger: “In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.”32

The Cardinal teaches the positive precept that opposition to grave immorality within society is a moral obligation. Then he states the duty to refrain from formal cooperation “in the enactment or application” of these inherently unjust laws. He permits no exception to this prohibition from formal cooperation.

Formal cooperation applies only to cooperation with intrinsically evil acts. Yet Cardinal Ratzinger allows that cooperation with an intrinsically evil act can instead be material. First he states that cooperation with the application of such a law can be formal cooperation. Next he states that such cooperation can instead be material cooperation. This difference depends on whether the cooperative act assists in attaining the moral object, or the bad consequences, of the intrinsically evil act. But concerning this material cooperation, he uses the phrase “as far as possible” to indicate that material cooperation, even with acts that are intrinsically evil and gravely immoral, is not always immoral.

Pope Innocent XI

Under Pope Innocent XI, a decree of the Holy Office (now called the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), on 4 March 1679, condemned the claim that: “A male servant who knowingly by offering his shoulders assists his master to ascend through windows to ravage a virgin, and many times serves the same by carrying a ladder, by opening a door, or by cooperating in something similar, does not commit a mortal sin, if he does this through fear of considerable damage, for example, lest he be treated wickedly by his master, lest he be looked upon with savage eyes, or, lest he be expelled from the house.”33

If the servant were guilty of drugging or tying the woman, so that she could be raped, he would (at least) be guilty of formal cooperation, because such acts assist in attaining the moral object of the intrinsically evil act. But the set of examples given in the above decree pertain to the circumstances of the intrinsically evil act, not to the moral object, so these are examples of material cooperation. This servant is doing various tasks related to the circumstances, not to the inherent moral meaning of the act itself. He opens a door, or he carries a ladder, or he permits his shoulder to be used to ascend to a window; these acts pertain to the circumstances surrounding the intrinsically evil act. This is an example of immoral material cooperation with an intrinsically evil and gravely immoral act.

However, the main point of the decree is to condemn the idea that duress makes an act of material cooperation either entirely moral, or reduced to only an actual venial sin. Despite this decision by the Holy Office, some sources continue to claim that duress reduces an act of material cooperation to less than an actual mortal sin, no matter what the moral weight of the bad consequences may be, because of ‘diminished freedom.’ Such a position is contrary to the above decree, which finds that, when the sinful act of the other person is very grave, moderate duress is not sufficient to cause the act to become moral, nor to cause the act to be less than a mortal sin, even though the cooperation is material.

The above decree does not state the need for proportionality in weighing the good and bad consequences. But this proportionality, explicitly stated in other magisterial documents already reviewed above, is implicit in this decree. The sin of the other person is severe, “to ravage a virgin,” which is an expression used to refer to rape. This is not a man who is secretly entering his lover’s bedroom for consensual premarital sexual relations (which is still a mortal sin), but rather for the even more serious sin of rape. The woman is a virgin, so, in the particular social context of this decree, she is young and unmarried; it was always, until modern times, common for women to marry at a young age. And the man has a servant, and has the ability to expel this servant from the household, so he is older and is likely, given the same social context, married. This is the severe sin of an older married man who rapes a young woman.

But the examples of duress given in the decree are not proportionately severe. None of the examples of duress include death, or maiming, or imprisonment. The examples of duress are not light, but are “considerable” or moderate: “lest he be treated wickedly by his master, lest he be looked upon with savage eyes, or, lest he be expelled from the house.” The example of being expelled is the most severe, and the other two examples refer either to being treated with bias (“savage eyes”) or to being mistreated openly.

The good consequence of this material cooperation is that harm (of moderate weight) is avoided. But the bad consequence of the material cooperation is that a young woman is raped. Even though proportionality in the consequences is not stated, it is plainly implied. A set of circumstances is given as an example in which the bad consequences plainly and substantially outweigh the good consequences. The harm done to the woman by this intrinsically evil mortal sin is grave, and so the act of material cooperation is also grave.

We can draw several conclusions from this decree, understood in the light of other magisterial documents. First, not every cooperation with an intrinsically evil act is formal cooperation. Material cooperation can occur with a sinful act regardless of whether the sin is immoral under the second or third font. When the cooperative act assists in the circumstances of a sinful act, it is material cooperation, not formal cooperation, even if the sin is intrinsically evil. Second, material cooperation is moral or immoral based on the proportionality of the good and bad consequences in the third font of the cooperative act.

Third, duress, in and of itself, does not constitute a reduction in freedom of the chosen act. Even if a perpetrator threatens you with death, you are still able to exercise free will in your decision as to whether or not you will cooperate. The duress might result in poor judgment, which would reduce culpability, but duress itself does not directly reduce culpability. Fourth, when the third font has bad consequences which gravely outweigh the good consequences, the act cannot be less than a mortal sin. For mortal sin differs from venial sin not merely by degree, but also by type. If one font is gravely immoral, making the act a mortal sin, the other two fonts cannot reduce the act to less than an objective mortal sin.

Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI wrote, in 1932, on the principle of cooperation with evil in order to address the persecution of Catholics in Mexico. At that time, the Mexican government was attempting to control the Catholic Faith: by exiling all Bishops, restricting the number and activities of priests, closing seminaries, imprisoning dissenters, and requiring permission for public worship. There was a concern among some of the faithful that any compliance with these unjust laws might constitute immoral cooperation. But the Pontiff, while condemning these laws, taught that not all cooperation with unjust laws is immoral.

Pope Pius XI: “Certainly, the laws are iniquitous that are impious, as We have already said, and condemned by God for everything that they iniquitously and impiously derogate from the rights of God and of the Church in the government of souls. Nevertheless, it would be a vain and unfounded fear to think that one is cooperating with these iniquitous legislative ordinances which oppress him, were he to ask the Government which imposes these things for permission to carry out public worship, and hence to hold that it is one’s duty to refrain absolutely from making such a request. Such an erroneous opinion and conduct might lead to a total suspension of public worship, and would, without doubt, inflict grievous harm on the entire flock of the faithful.”34

When laws are unjust, not all cooperation with those laws is unjust. Although the Pontiff terms certain acts of cooperation with these unjust laws as being not truly cooperative, such acts are considered, in the commonly used terminology, to be a type of material cooperation. The person who asks for permission to worship, even though it is unjust for the law to require such permission, is not cooperating with the evil moral object of the law to restrict the worship of God; this is not formal cooperation. Rather, the person is cooperating with the circumstances of that unjust law; this is material cooperation. As the Pope notes, the refusal to give such material cooperation results in the very harmful consequences of the “total suspension of public worship” and “grievous harm on the entire flock of the faithful.” But some limited material cooperation results in fewer bad consequences, and the good consequences of permitting public worship and broadening access to the Sacraments. So again, we see that material cooperation is sometimes moral, when the good consequences outweigh the bad. And the Pope, in this same document, encourages the faithful to continue to protest these unjust laws, so in this way the sin of scandal (appearing to approve of the law through material cooperation) is avoided. Even though these laws are intrinsically evil and gravely immoral, implicit material cooperation is not necessarily immoral, but depends on the weight of the good and bad consequences.

Pope Pius XI: “It is well to observe that to approve such an iniquitous law, or spontaneously to give to it true and proper cooperation, is undoubtedly illicit and sacrilegious.”35

In the quote above, Pope Pius XI refers to formal cooperation by the term “true and proper cooperation.” The Pontiff implies that even the mere approval of an intrinsically evil law constitutes a true and proper cooperation that is undoubtedly morally illicit. Therefore, an interior act of approval for any intrinsically evil act of another person constitutes a type of formal cooperation, which is itself intrinsically evil and always immoral. Just as some sins are exterior and other sins are interior, so also some sins of cooperation are exterior and other sins of cooperation are interior. The interior knowingly chosen act of approval for the intrinsically evil act of another person is formal cooperation, and is itself intrinsically evil and always immoral. Exterior acts of approval for intrinsically evil acts are likewise formal cooperation, intrinsically evil, and always immoral.

Previously, the Pope described acts of moral material cooperation as not truly a cooperation with evil; this is correct in the sense that any moral material cooperation is not a cooperation with sin itself (moral evil), but rather a cooperation with the bad consequences (physical evil) of a sinful act. Next, the Pope describes this moral material cooperation in greater detail.

Pope Pius XI: “But absolutely different is the case of one who yields to such unjust regulations solely against his will and under protest, and who besides does everything he can to lessen the disastrous effects of the pernicious law. In fact, the priest finds himself compelled to ask for that permission without which it would be impossible for him to exercise his sacred ministry for the good of souls; it is an imposition to which he is forced to submit in order to avoid a greater evil. His behavior, consequently, is not very different from that of one who having been robbed of his belongings is obliged to ask his unjust despoiler for at least the use of them.”36

In order to be moral, material cooperation must always be implicit, not explicit cooperation. If the cooperator intends the evil moral object, or if he intends the bad consequences as an end, then his cooperation is explicit and is always sinful, at least due to a bad intention. The Pontiff teaches that moral cooperation must always be done, in a sense, “against his will and under protest.” In other words, the cooperator must have no immoral intention, despite the sinfulness of the act of the other person or persons. The fact that a cooperator knowingly chooses an act of material cooperation does not imply that the cooperation is explicit, since he does not intend anything evil in the act of the other person.

In order to be moral, material cooperation must also have good consequences that outweigh the bad consequences. This principle is clearly expressed by the Pontiff in the case of this real life example. He requires his priests to materially cooperate with a law that the Church has strongly condemned, because the good done to souls by the exercise of the priestly ministry, and the avoidance of a great evil (the loss of many spiritual benefits to souls), outweigh any bad consequences of cooperating with the law. Here the Pope is not only teaching about cooperation, but also acting based on that teaching. Nothing makes a teaching clearer than putting that teaching into practice.

These laws are intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. The Pope describes this set of laws as iniquitous, sacrilegious, and a “manifestation of the will to destroy the Catholic Church itself.” These laws are a grievous and clear example of intrinsically evil and gravely immoral law. Yet the Pope permits a type of material cooperation with these laws, even though this cooperation is not very remote. Again, it is clear that the Magisterium permits material cooperation whenever the good consequences outweigh the bad. The Magisterium does not teach that any type of material cooperation, even with an intrinsically evil and gravely immoral act, is always immoral.

In material cooperation, whether the cooperation is remote or proximate is a matter of degree. Therefore, even ‘immediate’ material cooperation is somewhat mediate and somewhat remote; it is not absolutely proximate. But if any act of material cooperation is not at all mediate, then the consequences in question would have to proceed directly from the act of the cooperator. In such a case, the act would not be cooperation, but perpetration. Therefore, the morality of material cooperation always depends on the moral weight of the good and bad consequences in the third font. No type of material cooperation is absolutely immediate. No type of material cooperation is necessarily always immoral, unless it is also formal cooperation, or also explicit cooperation, or also an act of perpetration of some sin.

Pope Pius XI: “In truth, the danger of formal cooperation, or of any approval whatever of the present law, is removed, as far as is necessary, by the protests energetically expressed by this Apostolic See, by the whole Episcopate and the people of Mexico. To these are added the precautions of the priest himself, who, although already appointed to the sacred ministry by his own Bishop, is obliged to ask the Government for the possibility of holding divine service; and, far from approving the law that unjustly imposes such a request, submits to it materially, as the saying is, and only in order to remove an obstacle to the exercise of the sacred ministry: an obstacle that would lead, as We have said, to a total cessation of worship, and hence to exceedingly great harm to innumerable souls. In much the same manner the faithful and the sacred ministers of the early Church, as history relates, sought permission, by means of gifts even, to visit and comfort the martyrs detained in prison and to administer the Sacraments to them; yet surely no one could have thought that by so doing they in some way approved or justified the conduct of the persecutors.”37

Previously in this document, the Pontiff used terminology such that formal cooperation was called “true and proper” cooperation and moral material cooperation was presented as not truly and properly a type of cooperation. Now he changes terminology to the more common terms: formal and material. Pope Pius XI explains that material cooperation is moral when the good consequences outweigh the bad, as in this particular case.

But on the topic of formal cooperation, again, the Pope implies that the mere approval of an inherently unjust law is always immoral. An interior act of approval for any intrinsically evil act does not seek the same moral object, and so it is not perpetration, but formal cooperation. However, if any type of interior act, whether it is called or seems to be a type of approval, has the same evil moral object as another act, then that interior act is the perpetration of that intrinsically evil act, and not merely a type of cooperation. But if we consider that an act of interior approval extends only to approving of the act itself, which is a type of assistance to that act, then this cooperative act is related to the evil moral object of the other person’s act only indirectly, through the act itself of the other person, causing this type of approval to be formal cooperation, not perpetration. The mere approval of any intrinsically evil act is a type of formal cooperation.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

USCCB: “Formal cooperation in the grave evil of contraceptive sterilization, either by approving or tolerating it for medical reasons, is forbidden and totally alien to the mission entrusted by the Church to Catholic health care facilities.”38

Direct sterilization is intrinsically evil; if the moral object of the chosen act is sterilization, then the act is always gravely immoral, regardless of the intended end, or the good and bad consequences. Indirect sterilization is an act that has a good moral object, such as treating a medical condition, but also has the unintended bad consequence of infertility. The term contraceptive sterilization refers to direct sterilization. The intentional approval of any intrinsically evil act, including direct sterilization, is explicit formal cooperation, and is therefore intrinsically evil and always immoral.

But the phase “tolerating it for medical reasons” requires some explanation. This does not refer to indirect sterilization, in which sterility is an unintended consequence (in the third font) tolerated for the sake of a morally good medical treatment (in the second font). Rather, the phrase refers to a Catholic health care facility, whose leaders willfully permit acts of direct sterilization in their facility, which they are able to prevent. This is an example of formal cooperation by omission. When persons having the ability and authority to prevent intrinsically evil and gravely immoral acts from occurring decide to do nothing, they effectively cooperate formally with the act itself, assisting the act (by means of a willful omission) in attaining its evil moral object.

An exterior or interior act of approval for any intrinsically evil act constitutes formal cooperation and is always immoral. Also, even if formal cooperation occurs by a willful act of omission, it is intrinsically evil and always immoral.

USCCB: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.”39

Anyone who acts with immoral intent, sins under the first font of morality. And this is also true for acts of voting, whether by a citizen or a legislator. If a voter intends to assist a candidate in attaining an evil moral object, such as the legalization of abortion or euthanasia, then the voter commits the sin of explicit formal cooperation, which is a sin under the first and second fonts. If a voter intends to cooperate with a candidate in the circumstances of an intrinsically evil act, then the voter commits the sin of explicit material cooperation. But if the voter’s act is inherently ordered toward the evil moral object itself, not through the act of another person, but in a way that is morally direct and deliberate, such as a vote in favor of an inherently unjust constitutional amendment, then the act of voting is perpetration, not merely cooperation.

If racism is defined as a bias or a tendency toward discrimination, then only the knowingly chosen immoral acts based on that bias would be sins. The bias itself is a type of harm or disorder (‘physical evil’). If a legislator seeks to deprive some group of persons of fundamental human rights, because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or even because of sinful behavior, then the act that seeks such a deprivation as its moral object is intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. Formal cooperation with such an act by any means is also intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. Explicit formal cooperation adds a sinful intention to the objectively immoral act, making the act even more gravely immoral.

The Catechism and the Compendium

Compendium of the Catechism: “What is forbidden by the fifth commandment? The fifth commandment forbids as gravely contrary to the moral law:
* direct and intentional murder and cooperation in it;
* direct abortion, willed as an end or as a means, as well as cooperation in it. Attached to this sin is the penalty of excommunication because, from the moment of his or her conception, the human being must be absolutely respected and protected in his integrity;
* direct euthanasia, which consists in putting an end to the life of the handicapped, the sick, or those near death by an act or by the omission of a required action;
* suicide and voluntary cooperation in it, insofar as it is a grave offense against the just love of God, of self, and of neighbor. One’s responsibility may be aggravated by the scandal given; one who is psychologically disturbed or is experiencing grave fear may have diminished responsibility.”40

The Compendium teaches that cooperation in murder is a sin. Abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are types of murder. Even though the Compendium happens not to mention cooperation in discussing euthanasia, cooperation in any type of murder is a sin. Notice that the Compendium distinguishes direct and intentional killing from indirect and unintentional killing. Murder is intrinsically evil, and so it is always direct and intentional. Direct abortion, and any other type of direct and voluntary killing of the innocent, is intrinsically evil.

The type of cooperation referred to here is formal cooperation. Although the Compendium uses only the term ‘cooperation,’ the unequivocal condemnation of this cooperation with intrinsically evil acts implies that the type of cooperation is formal, not material. Formal cooperation is always immoral; material cooperation is not always immoral. Indirect abortion, and any other indirect and unintended killing of the innocent, may be moral or immoral, depending on the circumstances. Cooperation with such an act may also be moral or immoral, depending on the circumstances; this is material cooperation, not formal cooperation. It is also possible for an act of material cooperation to occur in relation to an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion. But the above passage from the Compendium refers only to direct and voluntary immoral acts (intrinsically evil acts) and to formal cooperation with those acts.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense.”41

The Catechism explicitly states that formal cooperation with abortion is a grave offense (an objective mortal sin). Abortion is gravely immoral because it is a type of murder, and this implies that formal cooperation with any type of murder, and with any type of gravely immoral intrinsically evil act, is also a grave offense.

Summary

So from all of the above uses of the term ‘cooperation’ in magisterial documents, several points are clear. Formal cooperation refers to cooperation with the second font of an intrinsically evil act. Formal cooperation takes its gravity, mortal or venial, from the gravity of the second font of the other person’s act, because the moral object of an act of formal cooperation is to assist the other act in attaining that evil moral object. Formal cooperation is always immoral, not merely because it is cooperation with an intrinsically evil act, but because it is an intrinsically evil type of cooperation with an intrinsically evil act. Participation in attaining an evil moral object makes formal cooperation intrinsically evil.

Explicit cooperation occurs as either explicit formal cooperation, or explicit material cooperation. All explicit cooperation is always immoral, at least due to a sinful intention. Explicit formal cooperation is more sinful than implicit formal cooperation, due to the addition of an immoral intention to an act of cooperation that is already intrinsically evil. Explicit material cooperation is always immoral because of the intention, but the material cooperation itself may or may not be objectively immoral under the third font.

The Magisterium does not teach that immediate material cooperation is always immoral, nor that immediate material cooperation with an intrinsically evil act is always immoral, nor that immediate material cooperation with a gravely immoral intrinsically evil act is always immoral. All of the examples of moral or immoral material cooperation given in magisterial documents are plainly based on the weight of the good and bad consequences of the chosen act. No principle is stated, and no example from which a general principle might be drawn is given, which would indicate that any type of immediate material cooperation is always immoral. Material cooperation is sometimes moral, and other times immoral, depending on the moral weight of the good and bad consequences.

Finally, the Magisterium has explicitly rejected the idea that a person who is under duress commits no actual mortal sin, even if he knowingly chooses a gravely immoral act of cooperation. Duress can reduce culpability by adversely affecting judgment, as the Compendium points out in cases of suicide. But the decree of the Holy Office under Pope Pius XI gives an example of duress that is still a mortal sin, despite being only material cooperation, and despite duress of moderate moral weight.

15 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 66.

16 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 74.

17 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 74.

18 Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 80.

19 United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, July 2006, p. 311-312.

20 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 74.

21 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 73; inner quote from Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, n. 22.

22 cf. Canon 1398: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”

23 Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, 18 November 1974, n. 22.

24 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 73.

25 Address of Pope John Paul II to the Prelate Auditors, Officials and Advocates of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 28 January 2002, n. 9.

26 Pope John Paul II to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 28 January 2002, n. 9.

27 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2383.

28 Pope John Paul II to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 28 January 2002, n. 9.

29 Pope John Paul II to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 28 January 2002, n. 9.

30 Pope John Paul II to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 28 January 2002, n. 9.

31 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, General Principles (sent by Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and made public in July, 2004), n. 5; http://www.priestsforlife.org/magisterium/bishops/04-07ratzingerommunion.htm

32 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, n. 5.

33 Decree of the Holy Office, 4 March 1679, n. 51; Denzinger, n. 1201.

34 Pope Pius XI, Acerba Animi, On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico, n. 16-17.

35 Pope Pius XI, Acerba Animi, On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico, n. 16-17.

36 Pope Pius XI, Acerba Animi, On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico, n. 16-17.

37 Pope Pius XI, Acerba Animi, On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico, n. 16-17.

38 National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Statement on Tubal Ligation, 3 July 1980, n. 3.

39 USCCB, ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,’ 14 November 2007, n. 34.

40 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 470.

41 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2272.

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4 Responses to Cooperation In Magisterial Documents

  1. Thomas Mazanec says:

    What about police officers who protect the perpetrators of legal immoral acts or the judges who enforce the unjust law in their favor?

    • Ron Conte says:

      You would need to be more specific. I really do not want to be the judge over every particular case, though. The main point of cooperation with evil is that it is not always wrong to choose an act that is related to the sin of another person. Police must enforce the law, and so must judges. But some laws are so harmful or evil that they must not be enforced (such as laws made by the Nazi regime during the 1930s and 40s). See my book for a full explanation.

  2. Alex says:

    I’d wish someone in the Vatican to declare clearly that all who cooperate with the schism leaders is himself in a schism. Because now all those devote and ultra conservative people believe they serve God more than the rest, and even condemn the rest of Catholics who are faithful to the pope and the magisterium including to Vatican II. While in fact the deluded ones are in a state of a grave error and sin. That is a public scandal as well. We do not have two Catholic churches one ” remnant righteous” fanatical, and one “sinful, official”, according to their ultra distorted views. We have One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. And they defacto do not belong to her due to their own schismatic acts and words, unless they repent and fast.

  3. Matt Z. says:

    Thanks Ron, this was a fantastic post and has helped me understand the Church teaching better on cooperation with evil.

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