On Liberty & Associations of Evil, or Cooperation with it


Order of Contents

Major Distinctions
The Distinctions Illustrated



Major Distinctions Regarding Liberty & Associations of Evil, or Cooperation with it


The following is a very helpful excerpt from a contemporary Romanist document summarizing numerous of the classic 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, a vaccine which had been previously developed with procured 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 necessary 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 Articles





Romanist Articles & a Book


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 very good.

‘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 makes some further distinctions (with various levels of legitimacy given particular situations) than what is above on this webpage.

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 distinctions not above on this webpage which may be legitimate and useful when used rightly.



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


Latin Article

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



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.




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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