On the Ethics of Material Cooperation with, & Associations with Evil

“Let him eschew evil, and do good…”

1 Pet. 3:11

“I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators:  Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.”

1 Cor. 5:9-10

“Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge.  As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world…  Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled…  But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.”

1 Cor. 8:1-9




On Passive Obedience

That a Lesser Evil may Not be Done to Avoid a Greater Evil



Order of Contents

Major Distinctions
The Distinctions Illustrated

Reformed Material
General Material
Romanist Material



Need to Add

Tools not magic solutions

2 Case Studies after Further Distinctions

Marketing picture with 2 people

Nursing Depovera

Footnotes on Theology Proper

Read over



It is nearly impossible to function in society without in some way using services or goods that have some connection or association to the immoral actions of others.  The clothes you wear may have been made in a foreign sweatshop under unnecessarily inhumane conditions, and your money is de facto going to support, continue and expand that.  Would you buy the same clothes again if you knew this and there were other options?  What if your kids needed clothes and the only ones you could afford were of that kind at a used clothing store?  What if you had no money and they were given to you out of charity, would you use them?

These sorts of issues are endless for a God-fearing Christian living in an ungodly society.  To separate from every degree of evil, no matter how remote or incidental to one’s purposes and actions would necessitate one to leave off society altogether, which Christ and the apostle Paul have exhorted us not to do (Jn. 17:15; 1 Cor. 5:9-10, for the reason of the greater good, Mt. 5:13-16).  On the other hand, to have no conscience about evil associations, who we are cooperating with or what things we are contributing to, is simply to cause scandal, injure and harden our conscience, and to support immoral persons in doing further evil.

Your answers to the questions above may have (rightly) varied.  Besides making decisions by your gut-feeling (which may reflect something of natural law, though it may also err totally or by degrees), how may one know what one ought to do, and why it is right?


The Beginnings of Answers

Naturally in the examples above there are things that differ according to the varied circumstances, connections, and degrees of necessity and morality therein.  To understand why some may be right and others wrong, one needs to be able to clearly distinguish the differing parts or factors in the situations.  One needs to know and be practiced in the major, legitimate ethical distinctions on this subject, namely, the difference between:

1.  Formal vs. Material Cooperation:

The cooperator sharing in the perpetrator’s evil intention, vs. cooperating with the immoral action without sharing in the intention.

2.  Immediate (Direct) vs. Mediate (Indirect) Cooperation:

Cooperating in the sinful action itself (per se), vs. providing the conditions or means by which the immoral action is able to be performed.

3.  Proximate vs. Remote Cooperation:

The closeness or distance (whether physical distance or material connection) between the act of cooperation and the sinful act.

4.  Active (Positive) vs. Passive (Negative) Cooperation

The performance of an act of cooperation in a sinful action carried out by another person, vs. the omission of an act of denunciation or hindering of that sinful action.

Passive cooperation is further distinguished into instances where there is a moral duty to denounce or hinder the sinful action, and where there is not.  Generally speaking, passive actions where there is not a moral obligation to act further is not actually a cooperation, but counter-examples exist where the category of it being lawful (as opposed to always immoral) is useful.

Every form of formal cooperation (though indirect, remote and passive) is always sinful due to the sinful intention.  An immediate material cooperation in a sinful act is likewise always sinful.†  However, material, indirect cooperation (whether proximate or remote, or active or passive) may not be sinful.

† Sometimes counter-examples are given seeking to disprove the latter claim, but on a closer analysis the counter-proofs always fail.  For example, a person destroying another’s property, told to do so at gunpoint, is an immediate material cooperation in what appears to be a sinful act (against the 8th Commandment).  However, the property is repairable, and doing so, the cooperator knows, gives time for the police to come and arrest the main perpetrator.  Further, specific societal property laws are positive laws and are not ultimate.  The cooperating action is ultimately materially indifferent, and actually good, in light of the larger context of it being an effective means for saving human life and arresting the main perpetrator.  In addition, the owner of the property is morally obliged to sacrifice his property for the life of another (which is much more valuable than his property).  Hence this is not a cooperation in an inherently sinful action.

If the command under gunpoint was to kill another human being, that would be unrepairable and hence inherently sinful; and would be an immediate material cooperation in a sinful act, despite whatever other formal purpose the cooperator may have had in the action.  The cooperator ought to desire to die before taking the life of another, and before sinning against God.

These distinctions will be further explained and illustrated in the sections immediately below.  Through them one can analyze and morally discern nearly any ethical situation of this nature, not only ones involving material cooperation with evil, but also in discerning what good works one ought to be doing to glorify our Father in Heaven.


Examples Illustrating

It has been posed before by persons on the far political-Left (and taught in ethics classes in universities) that Americans, being more wealthy than most persons in the world, ought to sell their possessions and donate all of their salary every year, except for what they need for bare necessities, to persons starving in India.  This is of the greatest necessity, and in fact should be coerced by the government, it is said, due to our great moral culpability in allowing humans to starve in an age of worldwide interconnectivity, which is basically the moral equivelent of murder.  However, besides many other significant factors:

(1) Americans’ involvement in the allowance of persons starving in India, to the extent they are even aware of it, is at best material and not formal, indirect and not direct, is remote and is a negative cooperation with such a physical suffering.

(2) Murder on the other hand is a formal and material, immediate, proximate and active evil action.

(3) The moral obligation upon Americans in light of such knowledge is indirect and very remote; whereas Americans’ formal, direct, proximate and active obligations to significant needs upon their time, energy and resources in America may likely outweigh such considerations in India most of the time.

Now you know why (amongst other significant reasons) Jesus was right when He rebuked his woke disciples who thought that the precious ointment the woman was spending on the Messiah ought to have been sold and given to the poor (Mt. 26:7-13):

The disciples had an indirect, remote and passive connection to the poor in comparison to Jesus, and they would always be with them, unlike the Messiah (a difference of temporal necessity, and hence importance, Mt. 26:11).  Whereas the moral relations of the disciples to the Messiah in these circumstances was stronger formally and materially, and was direct proximate and active.

The most important reasons, however, for the woman using the precious ointment on the Messiah and not indiscriminately on persons she did not know, were spiritual and of the greatest strength in the circumstances, namely her overwhelming love and desperateness for her Savior, and his impending death and burial (Mt. 26:7,12).  So far from the poor being helped very temporarily, this “good work” (Mt. 26:10) of the unnamed, loving woman would be memorilized for ages as an example to us, wherever the gospel is preached (Mt. 26:13).

Now you may understand the natural basis of Gal. 6:10 (contra woke Christianity):  “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”



The two immediate sections below further helpfully delineate, expound and illustrate the main distinctions mentioned here through the question of whether it is ever morally lawful to use a vaccine that has been in part produced through the use of fetal cells of murdered children (the answer is Yes).

These principles will be relevant to Church-officers in many ways.  When your session, presbytery or general assembly makes decisions or takes actions and implements programs that you consider to be immoral in varied degrees, what level of responsibility and ethical obligation do you have in the matter?  Examining the issues through these lenses will be helpful in weighing out what is your right course of action before the Lord.

Examining this subject will also be very helpful for persons at work, whether in making group decisions with unbelievers, or being affected thereby.  How far can you cooperate, or not, with things at work that are not wholly pure before God?


Further Distinctions & Factors

The articles below are worth looking over.  They often make ethically legitimate and helpful points on the subject not made elsewhere.  They also include some further helpful distinctions on the matter.  Not all of the following distinctions and factors justify an action in-and-of themselves, but they are relevant to the situation and change the way one may plausibly act (or not act) in it:

5.  Explicit vs. Implicit.  Explicit formal cooperation occurs where the cooperator clearly approves of the principal agent’s evil action.  Implicit formal cooperation, on the other hand, is inherent in the situation when. though the cooperator denies intending the principal agent’s object, no other explanation suffices to distinguish the cooperator’s object from that of the principal agent’s.  The cooperator’s action by its very nature, or by the form it takes in the concrete situation, can have no other meaning.

6.  Necessary vs. Contingent: whether the cooperating action is indispensable or incidental (and to what degree) to the accomplishment of the immoral action.

7.  The Degree of Material Effectiveness in Furthering Evil or Good: a cooperative action necessary to accomplish an immoral effect may further that action along either in a significant way or minimally.  Likewise, a contingent or incidental action not necessary to the accomplishment of the evil effect may either promote, multiply and enlarge that effect minimally or dramatically.

Likewise the intended good purpose of a cooperator, and his actual material action(s), may or may not actually be effective in accomplishing his intended good in the situation.  Risks are involved.  The more knowledge and skill the cooperator has entails a greater likelihood that the intended good effects of his actions will prevail; the less knowledge and skill, the more risky it is, perhaps to a prohibitive degree.

And don’t forget the (legitimate) category of persons that simply stand by (perhaps in astonishment), not knowing what to do, nor being responsibly capable in the moment of acting one way or the other.  It is true that some persons have (sometimes unexpectedly) instantaneous, strong, capable, natural instincts to act well and decisively in a situation, but not all are obliged unto this, not being so capable or so urged of nature.  The internal, extraordinary call of God through nature and in providence alone here obliges; it is remarkable, because the gifts and calling are from God.

8.  One Time Involvment vs. Continual Involvement: a one time, few-time or occassional involvement may be warranted when continual involvement is not warranted.  On the other hand, continual involvement (such as in seeking to closely help a hijacker land the plan full of people safely, every single time this situation may occur) may be necessitated when a one time or only occassional involvement may be morally prohibited.

9.  Constrained vs. Not-Constrained, and to what degree: how much physical, psychological, or other pressures in the circumstances (possibly tending to to uphold certain, weighty goods in the situation) bear upon the cooperator from the circumstances, or those persons he may be acting for.

10.  Possible Injury of 3rd Parties vs. Not:  This is relevant, though one’s first consideration must be that all things are done before the presence of God.

11.  Opportunity Cost: “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.” (2 Tim. 2:4)  “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17)

12.  The Intensity of the Severity & Extensive Magnitude of the Evil Effected (or the association involved) & the Intensity of Degree & Extent of the Good Omitted: the weight of degree of something often overrides other factors in the situation of a less degree.  Cooperation may be prohibted when the severity of the evil is great, and yet its extensive magnitude is not; likewise cooperation may be prohibited when the severity is little, and yet the extensive magnitude is great.  Similarly, to forfeit a small good that will be multiplied to many may be wrong in preference for a greater good that will affect few.  Also, it may be right to fulfill a great, necessary good to only (possibly) oneself, when a lighter good to many is foregone.

13.  Whether the Harm Done or Good Ommitted is Reparable: destroying other people’s propery at the behest of another is generally wrong.  Destroying other people’s property at the behest of another in order to save your life or those of others when the property can be repaired, may be morally necessary.

14.  The Purpose(s) of the Perpetrator vs. the Purpose(s) of the Cooperator: the two may be the same or different.  Both may be wrong (and that unto different ends), or that of one or the other may be good, or both may be good.  If the purpose of the perpetrator is good, the objective action he is doing may yet still be wrong, and the actual material harm effected through it may entail that his action is wrong.  The cooperator may have good intentions, and yet his material action may also be objectively wrong.

15.  A Single Effect vs. Multiple Effects: while some actions will only produce one obvious effect, whether right, wrong or indifferent, many or most actions will have multiple effects (or unintended consequences), one of which (or more) may make the action to be fundamentally wrong.

On the otherhand, some relative ill effects to other people are warranted (and they are obliged to suffer it) for the greater good (whether they know it at the time or not).  An example of this is pushing and constraining a resisting person out of the street against his will when he does not see the cement-truck about to hit him.  His ex post facto consent and thankfulness will justify the action; though if his consent is never afterward forthcoming, the action is still warranted by the intrinsic, natural, necessary good accomplished in the situation.


A Sure Foundation

As there is no end to the complexities of this topic (for instance, try combining the many factors above, and others, in whatsoever combination you will), yet for a sure footing to stand upon and a help to those being first initiated into these waters:

(1) Start with the principle:  Never sin.  Especially do not sin that some good may come of it.  Scripture is clear: “…as some affirm that we say, ‘Let us do evil, that good may come’? whose damnation is just.” (Rom. 3:8)  It’s amazing how much this single principle simplifies ethics.

If there is liberty of different actions (which there almost always is), it is better not to act and to not sin, than to act and positively sin.  Westminster Larger Catechism, #99.5:

“That what God forbids, is at no time to be done (Job 13:7,8Rom. 3:8Job 36:21Heb. 11:25); what He commands, is always our duty (Deut. 4:8,9); and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times. (Matt. 12:7)”

Individuals have only been given their natural power and authority of God for good, and none for harm.  If one is in fact morally necessitated to act by the call of nature, Scripture and God in the situation, whether to avoid sin or to fulfill all righteousness, then have one’s grounds and reasons before one’s eyes, and be open to further information and light if it comes along.

(2) It is better to do positive good, though with suffering, with a clear conscience, than to tolerate evil with a timid and unsure conscience:  “…whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23)  “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 12:13)

(3) If one believes it is right to indirectly, remotely, passively and materially cooperate with evil for a sufficient, greater good, it is almost always better to explicitly testify to the truth and condemn the evil in it in the midst of the situation (Eze. 3:18-22), in season or out of season (2 Tim. 4:2), so that, amongst other things, onlookers are not scandalized by your actions in plausibly thinking that you are implicitly, formally, cooperating in evil, to any degree whatsoever (which is sinful).

(4) If you are willing to do (1), (2) and (3), then when you do have some degree of material cooperation with an immorality, it will be limited, done with knowledge, sufficient warrant, for a greater good, and it will be done with a clear conscience in faith unto the Lord, you being able to communicate your reasons to those who look on in order to edify them in the truth and in their faith and walk before the Lord in keeping his commandments.

This was the path of Jesus in materially, indirectly, passively and technically remotely (though in immediate and direct physical proximity), cooperating† with his oppressors in their heinous sin of putting Him, the Messiah, to death, with sufficient warrant, for a greater good, while respectfully testifying to the truth, condemning their sin, and edifying and confirming all those who hear about it in the commandments of God.  Christ’s willing (Ps. 40:6-8), material and effective cooperation was necessary to their evil act (Mt. 25:52-54), and to his saving his people forever (Heb. 2:17; 9:22-23).

† For instance in carrying his cross, and not seeking flight or otherwise resisting.


A Presumption to Cooperate unto Good or to Abstain from Evil?


On the Resources Below

Do be aware that most of the solid contemporary resources on the issue of material cooperation with evil come from Romanists, who are not infrequently (though not always) nearly spot-on on the subject.  The issue of material cooperation with evil used to be a common-place in handbooks of ethics, which Romanism continued using through the centuries longer than most other Churches.

Do read with discernment: in the 1600’s, for example, Romanist ethicists tended to be latitudinarian for what they allowed on the topic.  Their ethicists sometimes make distinctions that, so far from being legitimate or rightly applied, simply allow for what is sinful.  Thats an easy, though erroneous way to solve a difficult and intricate issue.  As latitudinarianism always breeds legalism (the converse being true as well: legalism always breeding latitudinarianism), so Romanists sometimes prosecute the best and most accurate and legitimate ethical analysis of a subject wherein they start with a fundamental false premise: they considering something to be always inherently sinful which is not so (thereby unduly and perversely restricting the right, natural liberty of the Christian, 1 Tim. 4:1-5).

Where the topic of material cooperation with evil has been delved into by modern evangelicals, the authors often have a strong-leaning to the political-left (which tends to sweep away right, natural distinctions and essential ethical principles).  Such articles have generally not been included below.  Most reformed handbooks of ethics that treat the common-place are in Latin, which we will add as the Lord gives time.  Pray that the Lord would send laborers into his field.


Growing in Knowledge & Understanding,
& Synthesizing Ethical Principles

A very helpful and recommended, popular, introductory article, focusing on medical ethics, is by the Romanist, Anthony Fisher, ‘Cooperation in Evil’ (1994).  Towards the end Fisher lists 42 ethical situations for you to try your moral discernment on.  Some are easily adjudged, but many will stop you in your tracks.

In order to grow in your understanding of these things unto a much deeper and more comprehensive and profound level, in order to mature in the Christian faith and life, and further adore the wisdom of God:

When you discern in a given situation that a certain action would be wrong, and yet with another factor in place, it would be right, ask yourself “Why?” in each instance.  Those are the two opposite ends of the seesaw.  Then seek to find the underlying and unifying principle(s) that undergird both; that is the one plank of the seesaw.

Next, take instances closer to the middle, to see where and when the seesaw tips in one direction or the other, due to the degree of weight in each factor.  Once you discern how the parts relate to each and the ratio of the inverse relation (or other relation) of the seeming disparate principles, you will be able to clearly articulate the exact middle point of the seesaw: the hinge upon which the whole continuum turns.  That will allow you to quickly, comprehensibly view, evaluate and precisely adjudge the situation and all similar situations along that continuum.

To give an example of such a mid-point in this topic, the hinge upon which the factors turn, one way or the other:

Any degree of material cooperation with an immorality requires proportionately sufficient and necessary reasons.

Likewise, the relation between proximity, or distance, in material cooperation with an immorality, and the amount of necessary moral weight needed to justify it, is an inverse relation:

The closer one approaches an immorality in material cooperation with it (that is, as the distance shortens), the greater moral warrant and necessity is needed to justify that action.  Likewise, the futher the distance there is in materially cooperating in some degree with an immorality, the less degree of moral weight and necessity is needed.

As the ancients said, to understand the parts of a thing, and how they relate, and how the thing relates to others things, is to understand that thing.  For many more resources on things that factor into these themes, see the Related Pages section at the bottom of this webpage.


Theology Proper

A main ground for the lawfulness of man materially, indirectly and permissively cooperating with the evil of others for a greater good is the fact that we are made in the image of God, and God materially, indirectly and permissively cooperates with the evil of creatures for a higher good.  “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)

God does not in any way formally, or immediately and directly, effect sin as the efficient cause.  The only efficient cause of evil, that is the formal origin, means and immediate and direct effector of it, is the will of the rational creature.  Man’s will, being finite, is able to formally terminate upon evil; God’s infinite will cannot terminate upon anything other than that which is good, and ultimately, upon Himself as the highest infinite good (the Summa Bona).

As most of historic, reformed theology has taught with Scripture, God effectively and materially permits sin in men through a negative, passive, withdrawing of good from his creatures; that is He does not will their full good, and in such the creature certainly and freely falls short of the glory of God.  That is the permissive side of the coin.

The effective and certain side is that God positively, actively and proximately (being God and the First Cause of all material causes) brings about the good in the material conditions (as all existence has some good in it) by which men certainly and freely sin, though all the moral, relational, sinfulness of the action derives wholly from their finite, falling-short will alone.

In this there is a concursus, or a flowing together of both the will of God and the will of man (both being necessary to the combined action): man’s will terminating on evil, and God’s will, through the same material action, passively and indirectly cooperating with it, and bringing it by active and positive actions unto a higher good.  Joseph could say to his near-dozen brothers: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

But what cause could possibly justify allowing billions of people, including some of our loved ones, to justly suffer under their sins in Hell for an unending eternity, for as long as God lives?  It must be a greater good.  That far greater, incomprehensible, weight of good is the revelation of the manifold attributes of God: his in-root, infinite: patience, power, righteousness, holiness, sovereignty, goodness, mercy and love, the riches of his glory (Rom. 9:21-22).  That is a more-than sufficient justification for his just permitting of many of his finite creatures to perish in Hell forever under his in-root, infinite, revealed glory.  Further, the intensity and amount of the richest, redemptive blessings being poured out upon his mercifully chosen vessels of honor, especially in their closest, direct, spiritual vision of God Himself in Heaven, in the closest mystical union unto Him, against the backdrop of the Hell that they deserve, all of this being necessarily preconditioned on the creatures’ specific sins, further warrants God’s permitting many of his creatures to justly suffer in Hell for the wickedness that they freely and willingly did, and desired to do, while Heaven over-abounds in the greatest glory of God’s revealed Being.

Search your life and society around us: Find how God has turned evil in it, whether others’ or yours, unto your good and the good of his fore-loved people.  See how we can materially and indirectly cooperate with immoral actions under degrees of necessity† unto higher goods, and bring glory to God and health and life unto others.  Be wise, and perfect, as your Father in Heaven is wise and perfect.

† Degrees of necessity should not only be thought of in terms of a constraining privation, but also in terms of seeing and working towards the realization of a great potential good, or even small goods that may bless others.



In real life situations, the reality is that there are often more principles and factors than one can wholly take into account, and they are regularly more complex than we understand, but the Lord understands them all.  We must do as the Lord’s law and light leads, and trust Him and his Spirit with us in it.

May the teachings you learn here become real to your life and may the Lord give you understanding, help and light in them.  Search these things out and apply them as much as possible, and may you be “even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Heb. 5:14)



Major Distinctions Regarding Liberty, Associations of & Connections with Evil, &  Degrees & Kinds of Material Cooperation with it


The following is a very helpful excerpt from a contemporary Romanist document summarizing numerous of the classic, Christian, ethical distinctions regarding associations and cooperation with evil.  These distinctions are not unique to Romanism, but apply to all ethical actions and were used by reformed writers such as Gillespie and Rutherford.

The particular context of the Romanist letter is on the ethical issues related to using, or not using, a vaccine which had been previously developed with fetal cells from aborted babies.  The letter on the whole is excellent and is highly commended for the topic.

Notes in [brackets] are by ReformedBooksOnline.


Pontifical Academy for Life, ‘Letter to Mrs Debra L.Vinnedge’  (Rome, 2005)

“…we need to recall briefly the principles assumed in classical moral doctrine with regard to the problem of cooperation in evil, a problem which arises every time that a moral agent perceives the existence of a link between his own acts and a morally evil action carried out by others.

The Principle of Licit [Lawful] Cooperation in Evil

The first fundamental distinction to be made is that between formal and material cooperationFormal cooperation is carried out when the moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing in the latter’s evil intention.  On the other hand, when a moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, without sharing his/her evil intention, it is a case of material cooperation.

Material cooperation can be further divided into categories of immediate (direct) and mediate (indirect), depending on whether the cooperation is in the execution of the sinful action per se, or whether the agent acts by fulfilling the conditions – either by providing instruments or products – which make it possible to commit the immoral act.

Furthermore, forms of proximate cooperation and remote cooperation can be distinguished, in relation to the “distance” (be it in terms of temporal space or material connection) between the act of cooperation and the sinful act committed by someone else.  Immediate material cooperation is always proximate, while mediate material cooperation can be either proximate or remote.

Formal cooperation is always morally illicit because it represents a form of direct and intentional participation in the sinful action of another person.  Material cooperation can sometimes be illicit (depending on the conditions of the “double effect” or “indirect voluntary” action), but when immediate material cooperation concerns grave attacks on human life, it is always to be considered illicit, given the precious nature of the value in question.

A further distinction made in classical morality is that between active (or positive) cooperation in evil and passive (or negative) cooperation in evil, the former referring to the performance of an act of cooperation in a sinful action that is carried out by another person, while the latter refers to the omission of an act of denunciation or impediment of a sinful action carried out by another person, insomuch as there was a moral duty to do that which was omitted.

Passive cooperation can also be formal or material, immediate or mediate, proximate or remote.  Obviously, every type of formal passive cooperation is to be considered illicit, but even passive material cooperation should generally be avoided, although it is admitted (by many authors) that there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so.†”

† [The reason for this is that materially using something that has been involved with an evil act, or has been procured by means of an evil act (if the sinful act is done and over), does not make the thing itself evil, as all things of themselves are good as created by God when used for a good purpose (Gen. 1; 1 Tim. 4:1-5), and the sinful will and acts of a creature cannot change that.  That is, material things that are indifferent in the abstract, which we have Christian liberty over, cannot be made evil by the creature, lest the creature play God.

To the mature in Christ, Paul, says, all things are lawful.  It is true though that not all things are expedient or edifying to others, which limits our Christian liberty.  The main limitations to our Christian liberty involve not unnecessarily, passively scandalizing others by inducing them to sin, even by confirming them in their own sinful beliefs and practices (which is contrary to the law of God, and therefore something to be avoided).

So the fundamental issue that may make passive, material, mediate cooperation at a remote distance sinful is the passive scandalizing of others, in inducing them unto and confirming them in their sinful beliefs and practices.  However, passive scandal may be given when there is a morally necessary reason to do so, insofar as we must obey God even when persons sinfully and ignorantly take passive scandal at our obedience due to their own fault.

Hence, it is true that “there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so”, precisely because in such a situation there are other greater, more immediate, morally obliging and necessary factors that override not giving passive scandal to the ignorant by an act that is otherwise indifferent (in the abstract) and can be used for a good purpose and outcome, when it is a case of passive, material, mediate cooperation at a remote distance.]



The Distinctions Illustrated


The below is taken from the same Romanist document as above.  The main purpose of the Romanist letter was to give counsel on the issue of children being required to receive vaccines developed from aborted (murdered) human babies as a condition imposed by the civil government for the children to attend public school.  The letter is a summary of a study put together on this topic by Romanist ethical experts.  The letter as a wholly is highly commended and the excerpts below very helpfully illustrate the main principles given above about associations of, and cooperation with, evil. 

Needless to say, the fleshing out of these principles is very helpful in seeking to rightly apply them to the many and varied, similar circumstances and situations that are all about us in the degenerate soceity in which we live.


Pontifical Academy for Life, ‘Letter to Mrs Debra L.Vinnedge’  (Rome, 2005)

“The matter in question regards the lawfulness of production, distribution and use of certain vaccines whose production is connected with acts of procured abortion…

If someone rejects every form of voluntary abortion of human foetuses, would such a person not contradict himself/herself by allowing the use of these vaccines of live attenuated viruses on their children?  Would it not be a matter of true (and illicit) cooperation in evil, even though this evil was carried out forty years ago?

In the specific case under examination, there are three categories of people who are involved in the cooperation in evil, evil which is obviously represented by the action of a voluntary abortion performed by others:

a) those who prepare the vaccines using human cell lines coming from voluntary abortions;
b) those who participate in the mass marketing of such vaccines;
c) those who need to use them for health reasons.

Firstly, one must consider morally illicit every form of formal cooperation (sharing the evil intention) in the action of those who have performed a voluntary abortion, which in turn has allowed the retrieval of foetal tissues, required for the preparation of vaccines.  Therefore, whoever – regardless of the category to which he belongs — cooperates in some way, sharing its intention, to the performance of a voluntary abortion with the aim of producing the above-mentioned vaccines, participates, in actuality, in the same moral evil as the person who has performed that abortion.  Such participation would also take place in the case where someone, sharing the intention of the abortion, refrains from denouncing or criticizing this illicit action, although having the moral duty to do so (passive formal cooperation).

In a case where there is no such formal sharing of the immoral intention of the person who has performed the abortion, any form of cooperation would be material, with the following specifications.

As regards the preparation, distribution and marketing of vaccines produced as a result of the use of biological material whose origin is connected with cells coming from foetuses voluntarily aborted, such a process is stated, as a matter of principle, morally illicit, because it could contribute in encouraging the performance of other voluntary abortions, with the purpose of the production of such vaccines.  Nevertheless, it should be recognized that, within the chain of production-distribution-marketing, the various cooperating agents can have different moral responsibilities.

However, there is another aspect to be considered, and that is the form of passive material cooperation which would be carried out by the producers of these vaccines, if they do not denounce and reject publicly the original immoral act (the voluntary abortion), and if they do not dedicate themselves together to research and promote alternative ways, exempt from moral evil, for the production of vaccines for the same infections.  Such passive material cooperation, if it should occur, is equally illicit.

As regards those who need to use such vaccines for reasons of health, it must be emphasized that, apart from every form of formal cooperation, in general, doctors or parents who resort to the use of these vaccines for their children, in spite of knowing their origin (voluntary abortion), carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation, and thus very mild, in the performance of the original act of abortion, and a mediate material cooperation, with regard to the marketing of cells coming from abortions, and immediate, with regard to the marketing of vaccines produced with such cells. The cooperation is therefore more intense on the part of the authorities and national health systems that accept the use of the vaccines.

However, in this situation, the aspect of passive cooperation is that which stands out most.  It is up to the faithful and citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors, etc.) to oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the “culture of death” which underlies them.  From this point of view, the use of vaccines whose production is connected with procured abortion constitutes at least a mediate remote passive material cooperation to the abortion, and an immediate passive material cooperation with regard to their marketing. Furthermore, on a cultural level, the use of such vaccines contributes in the creation of a generalized social consensus to the operation of the pharmaceutical industries which produce them in an immoral way.

Therefore, doctors and fathers of families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available.  They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human foetal origin.  Equally, they should oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human foetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.

As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis [that is, as long as such circumstances exist]. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children.  This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles.

In any case, there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically.  However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population – especially with regard to pregnant women.

To summarize, it must be confirmed that:

– there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems;

– as regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest so that others may be prepared must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole – especially for pregnant women;

– the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extrema ratio [by a last reason] due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women);

– such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents [by the civil authorities and public school system], who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.”



Reformed Material

This section will be added to in time.



Rutherford, Samuel – ‘In a Remote Posture of Self-Defence, we are not to take us to re-offending, as David was not to kill Saul when he was sleeping, or in the Cave, for the same cause’  in Lex Rex  (Edinburgh: Robert Ogle & Oliver & Boyd, 1843), ch. 31, p. 161

Rutherford here uses some of the ethical distinctions and principles as given above on this webpage.

Gillespie, George – An Useful Case of Conscience Discussed & Resolved Concerning Associations & Confederacies with Idolaters, Infidels, Heretics, or any other known Enemies of Truth & Godliness…  (Edinburgh, 1649)  31 pp.  This is also in his Miscellany Questions, ch. 14.

This article was born out of a very specific context, namely the Scottish Protester vs. Resolutioner Controversy.  Scotland was an established Christian nation.  The “wicked men” here treated of were not simply unbelievers, or immoral persons, but were seen as enemies of religion and subverters of the State due to their past political involvement.  The question is not of an indirect or remote cooperation with them, but rather that of a direct and immediate cooperation and a dependent relation upon them in a necessary and God-fearing design.

Binning, Hugh – ‘A Useful Case of Conscience, Learnedly & Accurately Discussed & Resolved, Concerning Associations & Confederacies with Idolaters, Infidels, Heretics, Malignants or any other Known Enemies of Truth and Godliness’  in The Works of the Rev. Hugh Binning  EBook  (1651; Project Gutenberg, 2008), pp. 1181-1297  The work is also in Binning’s one vol. Works  3rd. ed. (1851), pp. 471-521.  On the question of the authorship of this article, see Howie’s Faithful Contendings, p. 486.

This article was born out of the same general context as that of Gillespie’s above.


Westminster Standards

Notes on the Below

It should be noted that LC #99.6 should not be interpreted as enjoining separatism from any and every material evil action or thing around us.  Rather, the principle taught includes not only avoiding “all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances” of sins, but it also obliges us unto “all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances” of duties, and that even in the material wicked actions of others around us.

In an evil age we must be as harmless as doves and as wise as serpents in taking “…all careful studies, and lawful endeavours, to preserve the life of ourselves and others…” (LC 135), even amidst the remote evil associations linked by some upon otherwise moral and necessary, proximate duties.


Larger Catechism

#99, ‘What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments?’

“5.That what God forbids, is at no time to be done;[w] what he commands, is always our duty;[x] and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.[y]

[w] Job 13:7,8Rom. 3:8Job 36:21Heb. 11:25.
[x] Deut. 4:8,9.
[y] Matt. 12:7.

6. That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.[z]

[z] Matt. 5:21,22,27,28Matt. 15:4-6Heb. 10:24,251 Thess. 5:22Jude 23Gal. 5:26Col. 3:21.

7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavour that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.[a]

[a] Exod. 20:10Lev. 19:17Gen. 18:19Josh. 24:15Deut. 6:6,7.

8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them;[b] and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.[c]

[b] 2 Cor. 1:24.
[c] 1 Tim. 5:22Eph. 5:11.”


#135, ‘What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?’

“…all careful studies, and lawful endeavours, to preserve the life of ourselves[b] and others[c]…  avoiding all occasions,[f] temptations,[g] and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any;[h]…

[b] Eph. 5:28,29.
[c] 1 Kings 18:4.
[d] Jer. 26:15,16Acts 23:12,16,17,21,27.
[e] Eph. 4:26,27.
[f] 2 Sam. 2:22Deut. 22:8.
[g] Matt. 4:6,7Prov. 1:10,11,15,16.
[h] 1 Sam. 24:121 Sam. 26:9-11Gen. 37:21,22.”



London Ministers

The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), Appendix, p. 85-6

“But for no cause the most weighty can we choose either to shed innocent blood or to co-operate with the shedding of it, nor to co-operate with the works of darkness, for it is shameful that a servant may lawfully cooperate with and thrust his master in at a window to go to a whore; the jus or dominion of masters to command, and the right of servants to obey is only in the Lord.

…the one kind of action in itself is as indifferent and susceptible of moral lawfulness and unlawfulness as the other.   And if the master do cooperate to commit harlotry in climbing in at a window to a whore, and to robbing, in digging through an innocent man’s house in the night, to kill the master of the house, and to steal his goods, then the servant that cooperates in these same physical actions, and also digs through the innocent man’s house and kills himself, is the harlot and the robber by cooperation and participation, no less than the master.

The naked relation of a captive and of a servant cannot make the captive and servant innocent and guiltless cooperators, for then to sin at the command of any conqueror and master, because I am in the condition of a captive and servant, were lawful, though God forbid and inhibit me to do what I do, by the command of my master and conqueror, for in so doing, Utor meo jure, I use my right as a servant.  For God forbids me in what relation I be in, servant or captive, to sin at the command of any, or for declining any ill of punishment, though as weighty as the torment of hell, separated from sinful despairing and blaspheming of God.

Now to cooperate with that which I know to be a sin is to partake in other men’s sins, which is forbidden, as a sin, 1 Tim. 5:22; Eph. 5:11.  But to run with the thief and to help an arch-robber, Prov. 1:13-14, is a consenting to his robbery and bloodshed.”



General Material


Ostas, Daniel – ‘Cooperate, Comply, or Evade?  A Corporate Executive’s Social Responsibilities with Regard to Law’  American Business Law Journal 41(4) (June, 2004), pp. 559-94

Los Angelos County – ‘COVID-19 Vaccine & Fetal Cell Lines’  (2021)  3 pp.

This informational flyer gives the details for how fetal cells have been used in the production of various vaccines.  It then also references and quotes numerous Romanist authorities on the moral lawfulness of receiving such a vaccine due to the remoteness of the original evil, the presumed beneficial tendency of the vaccine for good and the fact that using the vaccine does not entail the murder of more children.



Romanist Materials

In the Tradition of Thomas Aquinas



Disputed Questions on Evil, question 2, article 6




“Do the Good, Avoid the Evil”  “bonum faciendum, malum vitandum”

For Aquinas this represented the foundation of natural law.




Long, Steven A. – ‘Formal & Material Cooperation: Once More into the Breach’  (2012)

This is a helpful, in-depth analysis (though concise and brief) by the means of traditional scholastic categories regarding the ethics of a hospital (specifically Romanist) providing baskets of goods, including material means of contraception (which is considered an evil), to the public due to it being a requirement of the civil government and insurance companies to keep providing health insurance for its employees.  Long concludes, contrary to the hospital’s position, that in this case “cooperation is absolutely impossible”.

While one may not agree with every last detail Long affirms, his argumentation is very helpful in seeing traditional ethical categories in exercise.  Specifically, his assumption that all essential cooperation is formal cooperation is mistaken.



Flannery, Jr., S.J., Kevin – Cooperation with Evil: Thomistic Tools of Analysis  Pre  (Catholic University of American Press, 2019)  Includes translated sections from Alphonsus Liguori’s Moral Theology.

Cummings, Andrew McLean – The Servant & the Ladder: Cooperation with Evil in the Twenty-First Century  Ref  Buy  (Gracwing, 2014)  468 pp.

Blurb: “…what has been called the most difficult problem in moral theology…  The author presents the history of the issue from the 17th to the 20th century by following the debate about the Servant and the Ladder, a proposition condemned as laxist by Bl. Pope Innocent XI.  Cummings shows that no thinker has managed to address the question satisfactorily, not even St. Alphonsus Liguori, who expended “great effort” and is often credited with having settled the matter. With the help of British analytic philosophy, especially the work of G. E. M. Anscombe, and recent contributions to action theory, which complement the clarifications of Pope St John Paul II, the author proposes a new solution to the centuries-old conundrum.  While indeed a novel approach, it is, at the same time, a call to recapture the wisdom of the pre-Reformation Catholic moral tradition.”




McHugh, John A. & Charles J. Callan – pt. 2, question 1, article 9, sections 1506-1546, pp. 615-41 in Moral Theology: a Complete Course, based on St. Thomas Aquinas & the Best Modern Authorities  rev. Edward P. Farrell  (NY: Joseph F. Wagner, 1958), vol. 1  another copy

K.H. Peschke – ‘Cooperation in the Sins of Others’  in Christian Ethics. Moral Theology in the Light of Vatican II, vol.1, General Moral Theology  Pre  (C. Goodliffe Neale Ltd., rev. ed., 1986), pp. 320-324

Fisher, Anthony

‘Cooperation in Evil’  in Catholic Medical Quarterly  44(3)  (Feb. 1994), pp. 15-22

This popular article centers around medical ethics, especially with nurses and doctors not doing directly immoral actions, but being in the context where such is done.  The article is generally very good.

Includes towards the end a list of 42 difficult ethical situations for you to try your moral discernment on.

‘Cooperation in Evil: Understanding the Issues’  in ed. Helen Watt, Cooperation, Complicity & Conscience: Moral Problems in Healthcare, Science, Law & Public Policy  (London: Linacre Centre, 2005), pp. 27-64

This paper on the whole is very good as for exploring the topic.  It covers a lot of societal issues at various levels and provides some further distinctions and factors (with various levels of legitimacy given particular situations) than what is above on this webpage, such as (p. 3):

Effective vs. Occasional, depending upon how much the cooperator’s act actually contributed to the principal agent’s act.

Necessitated vs. Free, depending upon how pressured or free the cooperator was.

Necessary vs. Contingent, depending upon how indispensable it was to the principal agent’s wrongful action.

Explicit vs. Implicit.  Explicit formal cooperation occurs where the cooperator clearly approves of the principal agent’s evil action. Implicit formal cooperation, on the other hand, is said to occur when, though the cooperator denies intending the principal agent’s object, no other explanation will suffice to distinguish the cooperator’s object from that of the principal agent’s, the cooperator’s action by its very nature or by the form it takes in the concrete situation can have no other meaning.

Some used this same terminology to separate the cooperator who shares in the evil ends of the principal agent from the cooperator whose ends are different but who intentionally assists the principal agent’s act as a means to the cooperator’s own ends.

See pp. 20-21 for 7 bullet points elucidating the relevance of the factors of strength, time length and reversability (or not) in the evil being materially supported, as far as justifications go for justifying cooperation therein.

“…against cooperating even materially, unless there is a sufficiently strong reason to warrant proceeding.” (p. 22)

Keenan, James F. & Thomas R. Kopfensteiner – ‘The Principle of Cooperation: Theologians Explain Material & Formal Cooperation’  in Health Progress: Journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States  (April, 1995)

While not everything in this article is approved of (be careful not to be deceived), yet on the whole it is helpful and includes some points and distinctions not above on this webpage which may be legitimate and useful when used rightly, such as:

“…any act of material cooperation requires a proportionately grave reason.”

“In making a judgment about cooperation, it is essential that the possibility of scandal should be eliminated.”

“…cooperation ‘may be refused because of the scandal that would be caused in the circumstances.'”

“A legitimate application of the principle of cooperation requires that all realistic and feasible options to distance the Catholic organization from the wrongdoing of another be explored and written into the contract before the organization forms new partnerships.  One might say, then, that the closer one comes to the wrongdoing, the more the duress must be in evidence.”

“…double effect concerns those rare actions that, although they have but a single (either morally right or neutral) object of activity, cause two effects, one of which is wrong.”



Rubio, Julie Hanlon – ‘Moral Cooperation with Evil & Social Ethics’  in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics  vol. 31, no. 1 (Spring / Summer 2011), pp. 103-122



Parkinson, Joseph C. – Material Cooperation & Catholic Institutions: An Inquiry into Traditional Moral Principle & its Meaning for Catholic Institutions Today, with Reference to Catholic Hospitals in Australia  PhD thesis  (Univ. of Notre Dame Australia, 2001)

The historical theology of the issue of material cooperation with evil in Romanism surveyed on pp. 10-46 is particularly helpful, as well as the bibliographies and the mass of other information in the book.

Di Camillo, John A. – Organizational Cooperation with Evil. Conceptual Analysis & Renewed Understanding of the Principles Governing Cooperation with Implications for Catholic…  Ref  (Regina Apostolorum, 2016)  380 pp.




D.M. Prummer – ‘De Cooperatione ad Malum’  in Manuale Theologiae Moralis secundum Principia S. Thomae Aquinatis, tomus I  (Friburgi Brisgoviae, Herder & Co., 1923), pars I, trat. IX, caput III, no. 2, pp. 429-434




“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”

2 Cor. 6:14

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Mt. 22:21

“…as some affirm that we say, ‘Let us do evil, that good may come’? whose damnation is just.”

Rom. 3:8




Related Pages

Passive Obedience


Christian Liberty

Indifferent Things

Monuments & Badges of Idolatry

Against Separatism

Against Separation from Impure Civil Governments


On Evil




Social Issues

How Far the Laws & Commands of Human Authorities Bind the Conscience

Resistance to Tyranny

Religious Holidays

On the Roman Church being a Church, She being Apostate, her Baptism being Valid, that the Reformers’ Ministerial Calling was Valid, the Necessity of Separation from Her & Whether Romanists may be Saved

The Scottish Resolutioner-Protester Controversy, 1650’s

Of Fundamental, Secondary & Tertiary Matters of Christianity, of Errors Therein & of Communion, Discipline & Separation Thereabout