Coopted by Evil?


How involved can you become in someone else’s wrong¬doing without becoming morally tainted by it? This is a question we all face, whether we worry about giving a coworker ten dollars to buy cigarettes that will eventually kill him, or regret paying taxes that help support an unjust war and/or unjust population-control policies. It is a question that the Catholic moral tradition has long analyzed under the concept of “cooperation with evil.” Basic features of this moral teaching have remained the same over the centuries. But there have also been significant points of development, and new points of controversy that demonstrate the challenges the church faces in a society that is far more interdependent and pluralistic than the one in which the concept was first established.

Here are the basics. Intentionally furthering the wrongdoing of another, traditionally known as “formal cooperation,” is never permitted. So you can’t give your coworker cigarette money with the intention that he smoke himself to death so that your best friend can take his job. The real arguments are over “material cooperation,” which involves performing a morally good or neutral action foreseeing that it may contribute to someone else’s wrongdoing but not intending for it to. It is sometimes permissible, sometimes not, depending on a number of factors, including the distance between the cooperator’s act and the act of the wrongdoing party. Other factors point to a cost-benefit analysis that considers the good to be gained by cooperation, the gravity of the wrongful act, and whether refusal to cooperate can prevent the wrongdoer from acting. Finally, we ask whether the potential cooperator is under duress or some sort of obligation, and whether the cooperation will cause “scandal,” which means leading people into sin by making them think that morally wrong behavior might just be okay after all. So, paying taxes is generally permissible cooperation; the duress is significant, and the connection between a taxpayer’s contribution and unjust governmental policies is remote. Nobody thinks taxpayers morally endorse every policy and program supported by public money, so there is little danger of scandal.

How has our understanding of the context in which cooperation creates a moral problem changed? The first and most important question is how to weigh the pervasiveness and degree of moral disagreement. Two hundred years ago, the moralists writing about cooperation with evil took for granted that respectable society would agree with their judgments about which actions were morally permitted and which were prohibited. Today’s controversies involve Catholics cooperating in actions that many respectable people do not acknowledge as wrong: abortion, euthanasia, surgical sterilization, homosexual marriage.

Second, the class of potential cooperators now includes institutions or corporate persons as well as individuals. Should Catholic hospitals enter into affiliations with secular hospitals that offer services prohibited by church teaching? Should Catholic Charities go out of the adoption business rather than agree to place children with homosexual couples in accordance with a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? The stakes raised by institutional cooperation are higher here in every respect. On one side, failure to cooperate may mean going out of business, and leaving vulnerable people in the lurch. On the other, if Catholic institutions engage in close, ongoing cooperation with those engaged in practices prohibited by church teaching but widely accepted by the broader community, they may run the risk of giving scandal. People may doubt that the church is really serious about its moral objections to those practices.

Third, for some members of the church hierarchy, the emerging motivation seems to be not merely avoiding scandal but taking an active prophetic stand against a morally hostile culture. Consider the case of Amnesty International (AI), which recently abandoned its neutral position on abortion in favor of a limited prochoice position (it advocates abortion rights in the case of rape, or when the life or health of the mother is in danger). In response, Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace not only denounced AI, but also urged all Catholics to withdraw their support of it.

AI is one of the most effective human-rights organizations in the world; it won a Nobel Prize for its efforts in 1977. Giving to AI in order to support its many other endeavors entails only a slight connection with the performance of abortions. Scandal is unlikely; it is doubtful that anyone will interpret a Catholic’s continued support of AI’s antitorture programs as support of abortion. So continued financial support of AI is probably justified under the traditional understanding of what constitutes cooperation with evil. But under the more radical demands of prophetic witness, which abjures all connection with the practice of abortion, no matter how slight, supporting AI may not be justified.

Some people are called to bear prophetic witness against abortion. But is everyone? If everyone is a prophet against abortion, who will take up the cause of the refugee, the detainee, the “disappeared,” and the tortured? Surely, these other victims are made in the image and likeness of God no less than the unborn.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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