In his textbook of moral theology, Henry Davis, an English Jesuit theologian, wrote that of all the principles of moral theology, the principle of material cooperation is the most difficult to apply. The principle is used to analyze the contribution one makes or the assistance one gives to the wrongdoing of another. The principle has been at the heart of the work of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Task Force on Catholics in Political Life, especially since many of the candidates label themselves pro-choice when it comes to the issue of abortion. The need to be clear about the principle became urgent, however, with one archbishop’s willingness to refuse holy Communion to certain legislators because of their stance on abortion. He was followed by others, who expanded the number of critical issues to include same-sex relations and stem cell research. Some even suggested that Catholics who vote for these politicians may not receive Communion until they have recanted their positions and have gone to confession. Others, including Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explicitly refer to the principle and, using its traditional categories, have applied it in a way that respects the legitimate plurality that is inherent in the democratic process.
A friend of mine once called the principle of cooperation the “ladder-holding” principle. This analogy helps explain the categories of the principle and brings the principle to bear in what has become a most contentious issue as we approach the November elections.
Let us say that there are three men. The first makes ladders; the second sells them in his hardware store; the third holds the ladder for a friend who is a burglar. In each instance, the agent gets closer to the wrongdoing (robbing houses); but only the first two cooperate in a legitimate way. They provide material assistance to the wrongdoer; their assistance, however, is misused by another. The man who makes the ladder materially cooperates in a remote way. The owner of the hardware store materially cooperates in a proximate way.
The man who holds the ladder for the burglar, however, cooperates in a formal way to the extent that he is a partner in crime; he may select the homes to be robbed, determine the best times to commit the crime and encourage the actual thief to hurry up and down the ladder as fast as possible. Even if our third character tries to dissuade his friend from his life of crime and urges that he take up a new line of work—say, painting houses—his holding the ladder is indistinguishable from the crime. Though he may not share the intention of the burglar, he is an accomplice who will not be able to rationalize his way out when caught by the police.
Pope John Paul II, in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae defines formal cooperation as taking place when “an action...can be defined as a direct participation in an act [that is wrongful]...or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it.”
Formal cooperation is never allowed; sin can never be the object of one’s choice. Material cooperation—either remote or proximate—can be justified for a proportionate reason. If each and every circumstance of wrongdoing, or even knowledge that wrongdoing was to occur, were to be exaggerated into formal cooperation, however, then all distinctions within the principle would collapse.
Today, the textbook cases of the tradition will strike us as anachronistic: the mail carrier who delivers pornography on his route, the Catholic musician who plays the organ at a non-Catholic church, or the Catholic judge who must give a decree of divorce. Though these cases are no longer pressing, they provide exemplars from which to draw similarities and dissimilarities for the cases faced today: a woman who sits on the board of a community hospital that offers a full range of family planning services; a clerk who provides a marriage license for a same-sex couple; or a politician who supports legislation that would allow the use of spare embryos for research aimed at curing debilitating and life-threatening diseases.
The case that has been the focus of many bishops is that of the citizen who votes for a pro-choice candidate. It is true that some older moral theologians—Bernard Häring, C.S.S.R, for instance—concur that it is a “grave sin” to vote for certain political parties, such as the Communist Party. It may appear that he removes any ambiguity about the issue when he says it is “simply a senseless subterfuge” to claim that one is voting for the economic policies of the party. The voter here would cooperate in a formal way; the voter would be analogous to the man who holds the ladder for the burglar.
Though the prohibition against voting Communist was effectively overturned by John XXIII in Pacem in Terris with his distinction of persons, ideologies and political movements (No. 158), this case remains illuminating. Part of moral casuistry, after all, is to recognize similarities and dissimilarities in cases. Voting for a pro-choice candidate is not like voting for a party whose platform is explicitly atheistic and openly hostile to religion, and calls for the suppression of churches, confiscation of land and the imprisonment of the clergy. This would be tantamount to removing oneself from the political sphere with no hope of influencing public debate or promoting Catholic interests. Keeping in mind the dissimilarity between the cases means that voting for a pro-choice candidate can be a form of material cooperation.
In the tradition, formal cooperation was defined as consent to or direct participation in the wrongdoing of another; material cooperation was an otherwise good act that was abused by another. The voter participates in the democratic process by voting, which in itself is a good act and is to be encouraged; that good is then misused by others in order for wrongdoing to occur. The citizen is analogous to the man who makes ladders; the politician is analogous to the man who sells the ladders; those who work in the clinic are analogous to the man who holds the ladder; and the abortionist is analogous to the burglar. In other words, voting for a pro-choice candidate is an example of remote material cooperation and can be justified in light of a proportionate reason.
As voters prepare to exercise their civic responsibilities, there will be a wide range of issues that must be taken into consideration in order to reach an informed decision. It is true enough that life is a fundamental good. Life is the basis for the pursuit of higher or more excellent goods. Human life, however, is far from an absolute good; life can be sacrificed for higher goods such as one’s faith, defense of one’s country or the protection of one’s family and friends. The state can take life by means of capital punishment or by waging war, including the loss of civilian lives through so-called collateral damage.
The defense of life is not always the most urgent good, either. A woman on a fixed income may choose a candidate whose platform guarantees better medical care or prescription drug coverage. A father whose son is at war may support a candidate with a plan to end the conflict. A community hard hit by job layoffs may choose a candidate with a plan to provide more immediate jobs to the area. A district that suffers from the vicious cycle of poverty may rally behind a candidate with the hope of welfare reform, better schools and broad educational opportunities. A neighborhood that has been devastated by drugs and violence may be rightly drawn to the candidate who will provide security, housing and landmark development. People who are in a state whose native beauty and natural resources are put in jeopardy by unrestrained development may find it compelling to support a candidate with a more balanced focus on the environment. These and other issues may provide a serious enough or proportionate reason to vote for one candidate over another. For a voter to be guided only by the fundamentality of human life risks falling into a radicalism that is foreign to the Catholic moral tradition.
For some bishops the only case in which the use of proportionate reason is legitimate is when there is no pro-life candidate for whom one could vote; that is, when neither candidate is aligned with the Catholic teaching on abortion. This naïve approach to the formation of conscience fails to consider the likely success of a candidate’s platform to limit the wrongdoing in either the near or distant future.
For bishops to limit their concerns to a narrow number of political issues, such as abortion and euthanasia or, as others have added, stem cell research, cloning and same-sex unions, means that success in their areas is too often measured by the existence of legal constraints. The emphasis on legal initiatives almost inevitably fails to address the complexity of the issues. A candidate’s support for same-sex unions, for instance, is not of necessity an attack on the institution of marriage or the promotion of sexual activity, but can be interpreted as a response to a perceived injustice toward people, like support for divorce laws in order to prevent even greater harms from occurring.
More important, identifying certain priority issues for voters to take into account runs the risk of narrowing the meaning of Catholic identity. Catholic identity takes on a negative connotation; Catholic identity becomes reduced to what we do not do. Such a position precludes deep and radical solutions to problems. This is most clearly seen when dealing with abortion.
All may agree that abortion is a tragic choice, but people will differ on the best strategy to reduce the number of abortions. Some candidates will favor a legal solution, perhaps even a constitutional amendment; others will promote the educational opportunities, social services and familial and communal support that are so often lacking to a woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy.
In light of proposed alternatives, bishops must respect the autonomy of the political process and allow voters the freedom to determine the feasibility of the various initiatives that aim to diminish the wrongdoing.