Rhetoric, Action, and Cooperation

On this feast of St. Joseph the Worker, it is time to tone down the corporate language of cooperation in evil and instead begin to take personal, active measures towards cutting out in significant ways our own material ties to evil.

Let me say this first: I am proud of our Bishops.  I am proud that they have made a statement about freedom of religion and the requirement that the government not infringe on that freedom, as I have expressed already here.  The government has stuck its head into the right of religious liberty, mostly especially of Catholics and Muslims, and it is time for it to back off.

But the rhetoric of “cooperation with evil” got out of hand.  Cooperation is one of those things that is very much a matter of personal discernment.  There are “objective” principles to take into account, but the judging of them is highly personal and complex, and many have gotten it wrong.  For example, a well known prelate, in a statement of personal opinion, explained in an interview:

It is not only a matter of what we call “material cooperation” in the sense that the employer by giving this insurance benefit is materially providing for the contraception but it is also “formal cooperation” because he is knowingly and deliberately doing this, making this available to people. There is no way to justify it. It is simply wrong.

Now, with respect to this personal opinion on the matter, this seems to me to be quite wrong.  There are several categories to take into account when looking at the issue of cooperation with evil.

Formal and Material cooperation:

  • Formal cooperation takes place when the one who cooperates intends the wrongful act of the principal agent in any way.
  • Material cooperation refers to situations in which one foresees and permits that one’s acts be used by others for their wrongful purposes while not in any way causing the wrongful acts.  One’s involvement is in the realm of providing the material means necessary.

Formal cooperation is never ok.  Material cooperation may be acceptable in a variety of cases, often and especially in situations of “duress,” when one’s life or one’s job or something else of proportionate value is at stake.  One may also cooperate materially in order to diminish the impact that the illicit action will have on the common good.

Immediate and Mediate cooperation:

  • M. Cathleen Kaveny explains that cooperation is immediate if “the physical extension of the action of the cooperator overlaps with the wrongful action of the principal agent.”  If, described from an “external perspective,” there is complete “overlap” between the action of the principal agent and the cooperator, then the cooperation is immediate.
  • The cooperation is mediate if there is some “distance between the two actions.”

From a simple analysis of these two categories, it is apparent that a Catholic hospital that purchased insurance that offered contraception would neither be in formal nor immediate cooperation with the wrongful act.  At best, this would represent a situation of mediate material cooperation.  There is obviously no formal cooperation, since the hospital does not intend for people to use contraception.  Nor is there immediate cooperation, since there is quite a bit of distance between the hospital and the person who acquires contraceptives.

Clearly the components of duress and the common good would also apply to Catholic hospitals as well if the HHS mandate were to pass.  Catholic hospitals have a responsibility to the common good, and for them to shut down would severely imperil that good.

This does not mean, however, that we should drop the question of cooperation completely.  What we need to do is tone down the rhetoric and increase the action.

Kaveny speaks of the great damage of material cooperation residing in the possibility of “contamination.”  She breaks down contamination into two components: “seepage” and “self-deception.”

  • Seepage refers to the danger that, without great care and vigilance, the “principal agent’s description of the action may ‘seep’ into the cooperator’s moral identity.”  The cooperator in this case begins to see him or herself as in agreement with the action of the agent.
  • Self-deception speaks to the “corrosive effects” that the wrongful action of the principal agent in which I cooperate can begin to have on my motives for doing what I do.  If I work for Nike, for example, instead of seeing my own motives as primarily about raising money for my family, I may begin to align myself with Nike’s imperial policies and even begin to think that their outsourcing of labor is good for Third World countries.

The point is that, on this feast of St. Joseph the Worker, it is time to increase our works of fighting cooperation with evil, while at the same time we tone down our language of corporate cooperation.  Each and every person must constantly evaluate where he buys his fruit, what kind of shoes he has and why, where his jeans are made, whether his computer is ethically assembled, what link the companies he purchases from have to abortion, etc.  This is a painstaking task, but it is the only way to avoid moral seepage and self-deception.

But at the same time, the description above shows why it is so hard to mandate on cooperation questions.  Can I tell someone to stop working at Foot Locker because they are selling shoes that are the product of sweat shops?  That is a very personal decision that must be discussed but cannot be imposed.  It is for each person and family and community to pray and discern on how they can be prophetic in their own situation.

St. Joseph the Worker, give us wisdom and courage.

11 Responses to Rhetoric, Action, and Cooperation

  1. infanted says:

    Nathan, is handing a man a gun to shoot with mediate or immediate? For that reason, hospitals paying for contraception would also be immediate. Mediate would be if I own a window-washing business and I agree to service the insurance company that provides contraception by washing the windows on their office building.

    • I disagree. There is immediate external causality and proximity in handing a man a gun. That is not true with contraception since other people still go and procure it for themselves. The difference between immediate and mediate is not easy to distinguish. I’m not sure I would label your second example as cooperation at all except in the most ambiguous sense.

  2. Just to follow up:

    First, I think that if this were a case of immediate material cooperation, Catholic hospitals could still provide this coverage on the basis of duress and for the sake of the common good. That is not to say that they should not fight the mandate. The danger of providing the coverage is that there is a possibility of contamination through seepage and self-deception. But it would still be allowable.

    Second, I see this as mediate material cooperation rather than immediate. It is more like the situation of say me being a landlord and offering unfiltered internet access as part of the rent. Currently Catholic hospitals offer filtered access. With unfiltered access, I could not guarantee that no one would look at pornography or take part in illegal activities on the internet that I’m paying for, but my cooperation in those activities would only be mediate.

  3. 2ndfltvet says:

    Brother Nathan: I just can’t figure how you can link catholic and
    moslem in your religous liberty discourse. It may remotely be
    possible in just the United States and possibly other western
    nations – but that is where it ends. In the predominately moslem
    nations, there is absolutely no “religous liberty” as you or I know
    it. If we are discussing this as a human rights issue, why not
    include Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, etc., etc? Are you infering that
    it is mostly catholics and moslems who are sensitive to the idea
    of abortion? I do not accept that premise. – James Murphy

    • I link them because they are two religions experiencing persecution in the United States right now. Muslims are experiencing worse persecution I think, and so to speak out for religious liberty these days means to speak out on behalf of our muslim brothers and sisters.

  4. Douglas says:


    Are you suggesting that it is only material cooperation if I pay a company to buy euthanasia kits and stock them in a warehouse down the street from where I work so any of my employees having a tough time in life can get their free death kit? It seems to me that if you pay for something that is intrinsically evil knowing people will likely avail themselves of that evil, then you are formally cooperating in that intrinsic evil. Just because an employer uses a middle man to distribute the euthanasia kits to their employees doesn’t remove them from the realm of formal cooperation.

    • I understand formal cooperation to refer only to overlap of intention: I must intend the evil in which I am cooperating. If I am not, then my cooperation is material in some form.

      • Bob C says:

        From the article I posted above…

        Fr. Petri, however, took issue with this definition, saying that “immediate material cooperation” is normally defined as a situation in which “my action is necessary for the commission of the evil, and without my action the evil would not be committed

  5. Douglas says:

    At what point then does one have an “overlap of intention” if it doesn’t occur when one pays to provide someone else with free abortions or euthanasia kits?

    I’ll lay out a few scenarios to try and see where you come down on this. Feel free to add more if you think it would help draw the distinction.

    1) The government tells employers they must pay for abortifacients/euthenasia kits, though the physical distribution and use will be handled by others.
    2) The government tells employers they must pay for and distribute abortifacients/euthanasia kits to their employees for self administration
    3) The government tells employers that they must pay for both abortifacients/euthenasia kits and for a doctor to supervise their proper use.
    4) The government tells employers that in addition to #3, they must provide office space for the doctor at their place of work.
    5) The government tells employers that in addition to #4, they must provide someone to physically assist the doctor in carrying out the abortion/euthanasia if he or she can’t handle it alone.

  6. Douglas,

    Thanks for the hard examples.

    First, as far as I can tell, none of those constitute instances of formal cooperation. Again, from what I can tell, formal cooperation refers to an overlap of intention on the part of the cooperator. That is completely different from foresight into what his or her cooperation will result in. All of these instances, presuming that there is no intention on the part of the employers that any of their employees use the abortifacients or euthanasia kits, constitute instances of mediate or immediate material cooperation.

    Second, that being the case, the employers must take into consideration the question of material cooperation and to what degree they feel it compromises their mission and causes dangerous “seepage” for themselves and their company and employees. There is also the question of scandal, since from a purely outside perspective, immediate material cooperation looks almost identical to formal cooperation. However, even in the case of immediate material cooperation, discernment is required and allowable since both personal duress and the common good must be taken into account.

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