Formal and Material Cooperation

The moral universe in which people are plunged today can be very complicated.  Though most Catholics know that they cannot do evil, one of the real problems in both politics and economic life arises as to how much one may cooperate in the evil which others do.  For example, can one buy a coffee from Starbucks if the company itself has come out in favor of radical redefinition of marriage?  Is there a moral obligation to boycott Starbucks coffee if one believes radical redefinition of marriage to be evil?  Is purchasing a Starbucks coffee tantamount to cooperating in gay marriage?

The Church has traditionally made a number of distinctions regarding cooperation in the evil of another.  First, the Church distinguishes between formal and material cooperation.  Formal cooperation consists in consent to the evil of a deed performed.  This consent may or may not involve actually participating in the material action of the evil.  For example, a person may sweep a floor in an abortion clinic and wholly concur in the actions performed there.  Though their own action is very removed from the operation, it is still connected in some way to the maintenance of the place where abortions are performed.  In this case, agreeing with an evil procedure, the person who sweeps the floor would be guilty of abortion by intention.  This agreement may be implicit or explicit.  The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services [1994] appendix of the USCCB clarifies:  “When, even though the cooperator denies intending the wrongdoer’s object, no other explanation can distinguish the cooperator’s object from the wrongdoer’s object.”  This would be the case when someone rented a building to the abortion clinic.

Material cooperation can be either immediate or mediate.  What makes this cooperation material is the fact that one is actively participating in the deed by which the evil is performed.  What makes it immediate is that one actually performs the action with another.  In the case of abortion, this would be a nurse who hands the doctor the implements by which the baby is killed.  Immediate material cooperation is more or less the same as implicit formal cooperation.  It would entail someone saying:  “I am personally opposed to this action, but I supply the means.”  A Catholic hospital supplying a room and staff for abortions or contraception would be an example.  The “Reply of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sterlization in Catholic Hospitals” (Quaecumque Sterilizatio), March 13, 1975, Origins 6 (1976): 33-35: “Any cooperation institutionally approved or tolerated in actions which are in themselves, that is, by their nature and condition, directed to a contraceptive end . . . is absolutely forbidden. For the official approbation of direct sterilization and, a fortiori, its management and execution in accord with hospital regulations, is a matter which, in the objective order, is by its very nature (or intrinsically) evil.” This is never permitted for any reason.

Mediate material cooperation consists in a concurrence in a sinful action of another when one’s actions are not central to the deed or one does not agree with the evil intention of the evildoer.  The action which one does must be good or at least indifferent in object.  Such would be the case again with regard to a custodian who sweeps the floor in a hospital where abortions are performed and does not agree with the procedure.  As to this cooperation, the possibility of doing this deed must be judged by how necessary or unnecessary it is and how proximate or remote it is.

For example, a necessary case of mediate cooperation would be if one were to sweep the floor in a large hospital which performed many abortions because it was the only place one could get a job and his family would starve.  This is justifiable at times because the act is good, it is not the means for the performance of the evil act, there is proportionate reason and one does not intend it.  An unnecessary example of mediate cooperation would be when one who could get a job anywhere and just prefers to work in this hospital.  Both of these cooperations would be proximate.

Remote cooperation refers to a deed which someone does very far removed from an evil which is done or tolerated.  For example, paying taxes in a large country which on some level are used to support contraception.  One would be justified in doing this since if he does not pay his taxes he will be sent to prison and the small amount of money he pays is so remote to the actual support that it is hard to see how this directly relates to the deed.  Of course, a Catholic could still refuse to pay taxes in such a situation but they are not morally obliged to do so.

As to the case of Starbucks, this is a huge corporation providing basically a coffee service.  These owners may personally be of the opinion that gay marriage is good.  This does not seem to be an institutional stance which in any way relates to the good or service they supply.  Buying a cup of coffee would be very remote from whatever evil might result from this stance and really does not seem in any way to contribute to it except in the sense that the people who own the business would go out of business.  They would still hold the same opinion though presumably as they had not money they would have no institutionally influence in forming public opinion.  One wonders what purpose it serves for business for this company to take such a stance as a company.  Though one might boycott this company as there are many coffee companies in most places in this country and one certainly does not need that company, one does not seem morally obligated to do so.

Though a boycott would not be morally obligatory, still taking one’s business elsewhere would still be a laudable thing for a Catholic to do.  This would signal the business in general that their support for immoral causes is noted and that they will not serve a portion of prospective customers by such practices.  It would be an excellent example of Catholic action.

Father Brian Thomas Becket Mullady, O.P. is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. In 1966, he entered the Dominican Order and he was ordained a priest in Oakland, California in 1972. Father Mullady received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Angelicum University in Rome, Italy, where served as a professor for six years. He has taught at several colleges and seminaries in the United States and is an academician of the Catholic Academy of Science, the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life, and the author of the Question and Answer column in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He has been featured in several series on Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). The author of three books and numerous articles, Fr. Mullady has served as a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, and mission preacher.
Articles by Fr. Mullady:

  • Tom Reynolds

    Fr. Mullady, thank you for a clear explanation. Please chime in on the HHS Mandate discussion re Catholic business owners who are required to provide coverage for immoral practices, such as contraception, for their employees. Formal or material, proximate or remote, moral or immoral.

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  • Walter Welborn

    Thank you Father, I try to watch your shows on EWTN, as this article they are very informative. Do you think if the US continues killing almost 4000 babies a day God is going to allow, not make, something happen that will make 9-11 look like a spark, to bring us back to our knee’s to Him ? God Bless All ! JMJ

  • http://www.facebook.com/holytrinity.activism Holy Trinity Parish Activism

    Perhaps I just don’t understand what you mean by “institutional stance.”

    Starbucks is a corporate sponsor of Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest homosexualist activist advocacy group in the US who is, not surprisingly, lobbying aggressively for same-sex “marriage.” Go to hrc.org, scroll down to the slideshow window “Our Corporate Partners.” You won’t have to wait long to see Starbucks logo appear.

    I think it’s a safe assumption that they are bankrolling HRC with the proceeds garnered from selling their coffee.

    Unless one intentionally buys their coffee from Starbucks to assist in corporate contributions to HRC there would, of course, be no sin. It would certainly constitute an act of virtue to buy one’s coffee elsewhere, however, to avoid mediate material cooperation with Starbucks corporate irresponsibility.

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