Evil – what’s a person to do?

by Father James Ermer


Father James Ermer

In today’s world, people are often confronted with situations in which their actions seemingly make them accomplices of things they deem wrong or even evil. Not long ago there was a news story about a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses under her name because she objected to same-sex marriages, which the United States Supreme Court had deemed to be constitutional.

Daily life seems to abound with such conflict stories. Should a pacifist, who does not believe in violence or war, be made to pay taxes to government entities who build weapons of war? Should a person patronize a business, who in turn gives money to organizations that fund abortion, or violate child-labor laws in the production of the products they sell? Should a taxi driver transport a person to a ‘house of ill repute?’ This kind of list could go on and on.

Beyond such individual one-on-one conflict situations, what about making a living within social and cultural settings that operate with less than the best intentions or the purest of motives? What is a person to do? By participating in these actions and/or ‘questionable’ systems/structures, am I culpable of sinning?

In the world of moral theology, these questions and situations are treated under the topic of cooperating with evil. This is not a new phenomenon in the world of moral theology, but shifting cultural mores, global economics and technological innovations have made us more aware of how our lives relate and intersect with other people and social structures. In turn, the arena of ‘cooperating with evil’ has become a hot topic of public discourse and debate.

I remember the first time as a young priest being asked for help about this kind of situation. A young man, who was an active and practicing Catholic, was working at a convenience store. As a store sales clerk he would occasionally be asked to reach under the store counter and give a person a packet of male contraception. For this young man he saw himself as being asked to cooperate with evil. What should he do? Should he get another job?

The moral tradition of the Catholic Church has always made a distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil.

Formal cooperation means you either explicitly or implicitly agree with the wrongful action being done, even though you are not specifically doing the wrongful action, but your action helps facilitate the wrongful action. The Church has always understood formal cooperation with evil to be wrong. In an analogous way, civil law speaks of such people and their actions as being accessories to crime.

On the other hand, material cooperation with evil means you do not agree either implicitly nor explicitly with the wrongful action being done, even though your actions may participate at some level in the wrong being done. As you can see there is a significant difference between formal and material cooperation with evil, but that does not mean material cooperation is always without culpability. Intention alone does not define the moral quality of a human act, nor one’s culpability or lack of culpability in terms of wrongdoing.

Perhaps this quotation from Msgr. David Bohr’s book Catholic Moral Tradition is helpful: “Material cooperation is in itself a good act which is abused by another to do evil, for example, a taxi driver transporting someone to an abortion clinic, or a nurse preparing a patient for a morally illicit operation. Both of these are instances of mediated material cooperation; the former being remote and the latter proximate. Such material cooperation is licit when there is a proportionate reason and when scandal is removed as far as possible by suitable explanation. There remains immediate material cooperation, an example of which would be any form of employment in an abortion clinic; in the objective order this is really equivalent to implicit formal cooperation because the object of the moral act of the cooperator is indistinguishable from that of the principal agent.”

Given the interconnectedness of modern living, it seems doubtful anyone can totally escape all situations that might involve some cooperation with evil. The Church’s distinction between formal and material cooperation is a helpful start in assessing one’s culpability of sinning when it comes to material cooperation with evil.

The counsel/advice of a confessor or spiritual director should be sought in discerning whether the circumstances of one’s material cooperation (e.g. bad effects, duress, proximity to the evil done, proportionate reason, etc.) would be considered either sinful or not sinful.

The moral and spiritual life is not a ‘walk in the park.’ In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ counsels us to “enter through the narrow gate” all the while encouraging us when he says, ‘with God all things are possible.’ Praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit’s counsel should be a continuous part of our moral and spiritual lives, especially in a world filled with so many ‘dips and curves.’

Father James Ermer serves as pastor of St. Leo’s Church in Casselton and St. Thomas Church in Buffalo. He may be reached at james.ermer@fargodiocese.org.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.