The Corner

A Moral Theologian Replies to David Gibson

In his recent piece “Contraception objections fail Catholic’s moral reasoning” (USA Today, February 14), religion journalist David Gibson, a Catholic, argues that the U.S. bishops are being stubbornly unreasonable in continuing to object to the Obama contraception mandate, especially in light of the “elegant” compromise offered by the White House last week. He appeals to principles of Catholic moral theology to argue that complying with the objectionable legal provisions is “a perfectly legitimate way for a Catholic individual or organization to function in a sinful world.”

The bulk of the piece is dedicated to a consideration of the concept of “cooperation with evil.” Catholic moral theology uses the terms “formal cooperation” and “material cooperation” to refer to ways in which the actions of one party can participate in the wrongful actions of another. One “formally” cooperates in another’s evildoing when one intends that the wrongdoer’s evil be done. When one commands, advises, approves, or actively defends something immoral one formally cooperates in the immoral act; one shares in the bad will of the wrongdoer. One who pays for another’s contraceptives or abortions wills that the contraceptives be used and the abortions be performed. Gibson notes, rightly, that Catholic teaching holds that formal cooperation “is always and everywhere morally wrong.”

One who does not instigate the immoral act, but is involved in some other way in the wrongdoer’s action, is said to materially cooperate in the wrongdoing. The cooperator does not make the wrongdoer’s intention his own. His cooperation does not entail a will that the wrongdoer do evil. Material cooperation is sometimes, but not always, morally legitimate.

The HHS mandate will require Catholic institutions to cooperate in the provision of contraceptives, sterilizations, and chemical abortions. What kind of cooperation is this and can it ever be done? Since administrators of Catholic institutions who are truly committed to Catholic identity do not want the health insurance they provide to cover these things, and since — if given the alternative — they would surely refuse to offer such plans, most moralists agree that complying with the HHS mandate need not be formal but may only be material cooperation.

Concluding this does not settle whether it is legitimate material cooperation. All it settles is that the cooperation is not formal. Gibson reviews two expressions of material cooperation, immediate material cooperation, which moral theology judges to be wrongful (immoral), and mediate material cooperation, which can be legitimate. He muddles his definition of the first by saying it means that “the action of both the wrongdoer and the person aiding the wrongdoer are the same.” But where the actions are the same, we are no longer dealing with cooperation, but straightforward evildoing (e.g., gang members who rob a bank together). Cooperation refers to involvement with wrongdoing by an act more or less distinct from the wrongdoing.

Be that as it may, Gibson is clearly more interested in the second type of cooperation, the legitimate type. But he also muddles the definition of “mediate material cooperation.” To him, “mediate” means mediated in the sense that the cooperation is “several steps removed” from the wrongdoing — there’s “distance” between the cooperator and the evildoer. But multiplying “mediators” between a cooperator and some evildoing is in itself irrelevant to the question of whether the cooperation is legitimate or illegitimate. Distance may imply a reduced level of knowledge of my facilitation of another’s wrongdoing, and so, perhaps, reduced culpability. But distance per se does not determine the moral legitimacy of the act.


What then is the basis of legitimate material cooperation? We can answer with a negative definition: Material cooperation is wrong when it constitutes a violation of some moral obligation. My obligations include the many duties arising from the requisites of fairness between persons. Knowingly doing what constitutes material cooperation means accepting harmful side-effects to persons, most prominently the goods affected by the wrongdoing to which the act contributes. This can be unfair to those who are harmed, and so wrong for a cooperator to (unintentionally) cause.

One human good that we’re always obliged to respect is the integrity of another’s moral character. And so we have an obligation not to lead another into sin. If by materially cooperating in the federal government’s intention to provide objectionable services, the cooperator leads some people to believe the institution is formally cooperating with evil, the material cooperation is wrongful.

I am inclined to think that if all non-exempt faith-based — especially Roman Catholic — institutions begin supplying insurance plans that cover contraceptives, sterilizations, and chemical abortions, it’s likely to give the appearance that the institutions lack commitment to the critical values at stake (especially marriage, chastity, and life). Some may lose trust in the Church as a moral authority, may cease going to Mass, drop out of RCIA, etc. Some might begin to tolerate as legitimate the illicit acts that the cooperation facilitates.

But even if we take the more cynical (some might say realistic) perspective that few people are likely to be influenced much by the examples of Catholic universities, hospitals, charities, and their leaders, there is a more serious objection against materially cooperating with the Obama mandate: It would interfere with the solemn obligation of Catholic institutions to bear perspicuous witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and his moral teaching, which includes witnessing to the truth about those objectionable activities. For Catholics, the distinction made under the HHS policy between “houses of worship” and other faith-based institutions misses the critical point that all Catholics and hence Catholic institutions share in the Church’s evangelical commission (Matt. 28:18-20). When charities feed the hungry and hospitals tend the sick, they always also should be doing so for the sake of Christ’s “kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Many Catholics believe their institutions’ ability to do this would be culpably compromised by cooperating with the federal government’s intention to provide services that the Church judges to be intrinsically evil. If the credibility of the Church’s witness is undermined, then those responsible for Catholic institutions have an obligation to refuse to comply with the mandate.

Given that the alternatives to complying are very serious and, for varying reasons, undesirable — companies would have to decide between simply ceasing altogether to provide health insurance to employees, or ceasing institutionally sponsored insurance while simultaneously raising employee salaries commensurate with what it would take to purchase private insurance, or shuttering the institution altogether — we might ask whether compliance and witness to the faith can ever be compatible. Might the objectionable provisions of the mandate afford Catholic institutions a greater opportunity for witness? For example, what if Catholic institutions required every new employee to sign a kind of moral disclaimer form stating that the institution judges that contraception, sterilization, and abortion are morally wrong and harmful to those who choose them, that it provides the objectionable aspects of the coverage only by compulsion of law and under protest, and that it urges its employees not to take advantage of those aspects? And what if their leaders frequently and conspicuously publicized statements to the same effect within and outside the institution? For many Catholic institutions, this would increase their witness to the truth of Catholic moral teaching on these controversial issues. But it might be more witness than many are willing to bear.

— E. Christian Brugger, D.Phil., is J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and Senior Fellow of Ethics and Director of Fellow’s Program at the Culture of Life Foundation.


The Latest