formal vs material cooperation
Question from Phil Smaldone on 02-27-2002:
Dear Father Torraco,

I write to you to gain some insight into the differences between formal and material cooperation in commission of an evil act.

The only actual definition that I could find regarding formal and material cooperation was from the Manual of Guidelines on Clinical-Ethical Issues published by The Catholic Health Association (pg. 82-83) and which reads: ”Formal cooperation involves actually intending an evil purpose, regardless of the extent of physical participation in executing the act, e.g., advising, counseling, promoting, or condoning an evil act – all constitute formal cooperation. Material cooperation, on the other hand, is any type of cooperation in which one does not intend the evil effects, but only the good. When such material cooperation is immediate, it amounts to the same as formal cooperation because it is a direct contribution to an evil act in which the cooperator shares the responsibility for the act. On the other hand, mediate material cooperation, which can be either proximate of remote, under certain conditions is sometimes justified and even necessary.”

Now I read in the February issue of The Catholic World Report (pg. 34), quoting canonist Phil Gray, that: “Canonically speaking, ‘formal cooperation’ involves the doctor who performs the abortion, the nurse who assists, the woman having the abortion, the man who agrees to take his wife or girlfriend, the person who drives the woman to the clinic – and even that last one is questionable. With legislators, what you have is probably best termed ‘material cooperation.’”

This confuses me. It appears to me that a legislator who runs as a pro-choice candidate, assures his constituents that he will protect the right to have an abortion and votes for funding for abortions, is indeed “promoting and condoning an evil act,” let alone enabling those who choose to exercise this option. Further more, it would appear that his “intent” is for the evil act to occur if a woman should choose it. If “intent” is a distinguishing factor between formal and material cooperation, it would appear that the legislator is cooperating formally.

My request is that you provide me with accurate definitions of formal and material cooperation. And, if time allows, that you would be so kind as to comment, however so briefly, on the issue of intellectual support for evils such as abortion.

Thanks you for your assistance.

Sincerely in Christ,

Philip Smaldone

Answer by Fr.Stephen F. Torraco on 02-27-2002:
In order to introduce the principle of cooperation, consider as an example the honest citizen who operates a liquor store. His purpose is to support his family. he knows that some of his customers will drink to an extent that is objectively evil. But that is not his purpose in conducting his business.

Note carefully that the evil effect which he foresees and only permits is not the sin of the intemperance of his customers. The sin, if it is committed, is their own doing. The evil effect of his conducting the business is to supply to some people an occasion of sin. This would obviously be wrong if he directly intended it, if that were his motive in going into the liquor business. There is, in a sense, a cooperation on the part of the liquor store owner in that his business is providing the means through which the intemperate drinker commits his sin.

In what circumstances is cooperation morally justified and in what circumstances is it not? Of course, every situation in life, every moment in which an act is done, has its own set of circumstances. However, there are some principles which can guide us. These principles distinguish between degrees or kinds of cooperation.

Formal cooperation takes place whenever one takes part in the immoral action of another, while at the same time adopting the evil intention of his associate. For example, if an obstetrical assistant, such as a nurse practitioner or intern, intended to cause an abortion when he or she cooperated with the obstetrician performing the abortion, the assistant's cooperation would be formal. Formal cooperation in an immoral act is always wrong and the cooperator is equally as guilty as the principal agent. With formal cooperation, we call the cooperator an accomplice.

Immediate material cooperation occurs when one person actually performs the action in cooperation with another person. Immediate material cooperation is the immoral act of another is always wrong, and the cooperator is equally as guilty as the principal agent, since both actually do the wrongdoing. Immediate material cooperation is the external evidence of intent to do the morally wrong act, and so it follows that immediate material cooperation is reducible to formal cooperation, and thus we call the cooperator an accomplice. The material aspect is the enactment of the intention made in the formal aspect. The only case in which immediate material cooperation is not reducible to formal cooperation and is not make the cooperator guilty of wrongdoing is that of the hostage.

Mediate material cooperation is concurrence in the morally wrong action of another, not by actually doing the act in any way and not by intending to do the act, but by supplying some peripheral assistance, or preparation for the act to be performed. This assistance must be in itself a good or at least morally indifferent act.

Since the mediate cooperator does not intend but foresees an evil effect of his action, the principle of double effect applies. This is a very important point because foreseeing this evil effect is an activity of conscience in and of itself, and therefore requires appealing to the principle of double effect as well as to the principle of cooperation. Therefore, we must make two further distinctions. First, we distinguish between mediate material cooperation which is proximate (if it is closely involved in the commission of the morally wrong action) and remote (when it is further removed from the action itself). This distinction corresponds to the fourth criterion of the principle of double effect: the good consequence must not be the effect of the evil consequence. In other words, the end does not justify the means. Here, remember, one is considering the circumstances of the action.

Second, we distinguish between mediate material cooperation which is necessary (supplying what is essential to the commission of the morally wrong action) and non-necessary (supplying what is non-essential). This distinction corresponds to the fifth criterion of the principle of double effect: the good consequence must be morally proportionate to the evil consequence. Here, remember, one is considering the very consequences themselves in relation to each other.

The proportion between the morally good or indifferent cooperating act and the gravity of the evil effect is one of those factors in the principle of double effect that is pivotal to a correct judgment. Therefore, the degree of cooperation must be assessed.

Proximate mediate material cooperation means being closely involved in supplying an occasion or material for the commission of the morally wrong action by another. For example, a pharmacist employed by a nursing home is ordered by his superiors to issue frequent doses of Haldol. There are orders from the physician for these specific doses on an "as needed" basis for the health of the patient. However, this was sometimes used as a means for drugging the patient for the convenience of the staff even when it affected the patients' health. The pharmacist does not intend to over-drug the patients. He simply is trying to do his job, obeying his superiors so that he can earn a living. His is proximate cooperation. Proximity can vary in degrees with one cooperative action being more proximate than another.

Remote mediate material cooperation is cooperation by supplying the occasion or material for the commission of a morally wrong action, but is further removed from the immoral act itself. In the nursing home example above, the person who sells drugs to the nursing home would know the kind and quantity of drugs sold. She has no intention of providing the means for the nursing home to endanger patients by drugging them into a stupor to reduce staff requirements. She sells drugs to legitimate customers and provides any informational assistance necessary about the drugs. Her intention may be to earn a living in a field that can heal or reduce the suffering of others. Remoteness can vary by degrees, with one cooperative action being more remote than another.

Necessary mediate material cooperation is cooperation that is supplying of occasion or material that is essential to the commission of an immoral action. In the nursing home situation above, the written doctor's orders are necessary for the nursing home to be authorized to administer the drug to the patient. The doctor may not intend for the abuse to occur, but without his orders (in this case we are assuming that no other doctor is available) there would be no authority to administer the drug.

Non-necessary mediate material cooperation is cooperation in supplying occasion or material that is not essential to the commission of an immoral action. The employee who was ordered to give the medication could refuse, but there are several other employees who could be so ordered and would comply. If he didn't follow the order, someone else would.

Negative cooperation in the immoral action of another occurs when a person neglects to do something which he is obliged to do either by office or position. Negative cooperation can be formal or material, immediate or mediate, and its morality is determined according to the principles delineated below.

Principles for Determining the Morality of Mediate Material Cooperation

There are five principles governing the assessment of the morality of mediate material cooperation in the immoral action of another:

1. In a serious evil, proximate mediate material cooperation is permitted only if necessary to escape a very serious damage.

2. In a serious evil, necessary mediate material cooperation is permitted only if necessary to escape a very serious damage.

3. In a serious evil, mediate material cooperation that is both proximate and necessary is permitted only if necessary to escape an extremely serious damage. Moreover, where cooperation could bring serious harm to a third party, proximate and necessary cooperation (i.e., harm to the third party would not occur if the cooperator were to refuse) is permitted only if the cooperator would suffer damage commensurate with the injury suffered by the third party. In this case of harm to the third party, the law of charity requires this greater constraint, but not at the cost of greater harm to the cooperator.

4. Mediate material cooperation which is non-necessary and very remote is permitted for a reasonable cause.

5. In other cases the degree of necessity or proximity of cooperation must be judged in proportion to the evil effect and in proportion to the degree of the good effect achieved by the cooperator.

Notice that in the example of the manager of the liquor store, his cooperation in the immoral action of some of his customers by supplying them with an occasion of sin is mediate material cooperation (he is not in the liquor business in order to supply occasions of sin). It is non-necessary cooperation because there are other liquor stores available to his customers. It is remote cooperation (many circumstances of time and place intervene between the customer's purchase and the abuse of its contents). Therefore he needs only a reasonable cause to engage in his honest work of managing a liquor store. The advantages of conducting the business constitute a reasonable cause for doing so.


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