The most important distinction, when it comes to evaluating cooperation in evil, is the distinction between formal and material cooperation—formal cooperation being always wrong, while material cooperation might be wrong if a person does not have a sufficient reason to cooperate.
Should a Catholic nurse help care for women who are in the hospital for an abortion? Can a Catholic taxi driver accept a passenger who asks to be taken to a strip-club? May a Catholic postman deliver pornographic magazines? Is it right to pay taxes when part of it is being used to fund In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and experimentation on embryos? These are real questions facing upright people in the modern world. What all the above questions have in common is that they are questions about cooperating with evil.
This is, without a doubt, one of the most important aspects of morality for Catholics living in the modern world, and for their pastors to understand in advising them. The mores of western culture are departing from those of the Catholic faith, more and more. Yet, Catholics surely cannot divorce themselves from society; this is neither possible nor desirable. One of the consequences of this fact is that faithful Catholics are necessarily cooperating with fellow citizens who are acting immorally. So, the question before us is: how can we decide whether our cooperation is morally acceptable or not?
Cooperation, as we are considering it here, is an act by which one person helps another to do what is wrong. The cooperator’s action is distinct from the action of the evil-doer and is not wrong in itself. However, what may be wrong is that the help ought not to be given. Cooperation should be distinguished from inciting another to do wrong—encouraging them to lie or fornicate, for example—and from collaboration with others—where two or more people work together in doing the same bad action, such as robbing a bank.
The most important distinction to have in mind, when it comes to evaluating cooperation, is the distinction between formal and material cooperation. Remember that formal cooperation is always wrong, while material cooperation might be wrong if a person does not have a sufficient reason to cooperate. 1 This is the key statement of truth in this article. The rest of the essay shall be given over to unpacking and understanding it.