Cooperation with Evil: Our Cultural Epidemic
by Mary Ann Kreitzer
Many otherwise moral people in our culture who would never think of directly committing a gravely evil sin, like abortion or sodomy, nevertheless consider it a positive virtue to approve of and cooperate in these and other depravities when committed by others. Under the mask of tolerance and compassion they take what I call the “Norfolk approach” to morality. The Duke of Norfolk, remember, in the play A Man for All Seasons, is a friend of England’s chancellor, Thomas More, who resigns after Henry VIII declares himself head of the Church in England. When the king demands More take the Oath of Supremacy which includes public affirmation that the king’s valid marriage to Catherine of Aragon was unlawful, he refuses. Norfolk, who along with most of the nobility and clergy capitulates to the king’s demand, urges Thomas to join them “for fellowship.” The saint’s reply? “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me for fellowship?”1 Many, like Norfolk, are willing to cooperate with evil if it means protecting themselves or avoiding conflict with family or friends.
Before looking at some examples where cooperation with evil is almost epidemic, it’s necessary to know exactly what constitutes cooperation with evil. Is it ever acceptable? When is it sinful?2 The subject is complicated, but St. Alphonsus Liguori made it easier to grasp when he devised the distinction between formal and material cooperation in the 18th century. Formal cooperation, whether explicit (the nurse at the abortion mill) or implicit (the boyfriend who claims to oppose the abortion, but drives his girlfriend to the mill and pays for it), is always immoral.
Material cooperation, on the other hand, is not in itself evil because, although it may help the agent commit the evil act, the cooperating act is NOT evil in itself and the agent doesn’t intend the evil that occurs. E.g., A man goes to a gunshop to buy a gun to kill someone. The gunsmith unknowingly cooperates in the evil act by providing the means, but does not intend it. His cooperation is material and remote. If, however, he suspects the man intends to use the gun to commit a crime, his cooperation becomes more proximate and culpable. Other factors that affect the level of cooperation are:
St. Alphonsus uses the example of the hostage, the taxpayer, and the accomplice. It’s obvious that the accomplice in the crime is engaged in formal cooperation. He wills the evil act and participates in it. A hostage who is under duress does not will the evil act, but how culpable his actions are depends on the degree to which he participates in the evil act itself. Certainly, he would be guilty if he killed someone to accommodate his captors. The example of the taxpayer affects most Americans. Our taxes go to pay for all kinds of evil things including abortion, contraception, etc. However, the act of paying taxes is not immoral in itself and citizens have an obligation to support the common good. An individual refusing to pay his taxes would have little impact on the evil of abortion and would likely suffer serious consequences for his refusal. His material cooperation through taxation is remote.
Let’s turn now to some specific issues in our own society. Abortion is an obvious one that taints everyone involved. For about twenty years I spent several hours every week sidewalk counseling at abortion mills. Many who came were directly involved in the evil act and willed it. Certainly the abortionist and the woman having the abortion are formal cooperators. Some who came with the women, however, claimed they opposed abortion, but were there to provide “support.”. Occasionally their support directly enabled the woman to have the abortion. They were her transportation or paid for it, making themselves indispensible agents in the evil act which increased their level of cooperation. I often talked to these enablers and pointed out that if they really did oppose the abortion, they had implicated themselves by helping the woman kill her baby. On more than one occasion, I convinced someone to go back into the abortion mill and ask the woman not to do it and tell her they were leaving and she’d have to make her own arrangements to get home if she didn’t leave with them at once. I spoke to taxi drivers who didn’t realize they were bringing women for abortions and urged them to refuse such fares in future.
Boyfriends typically claimed to be opposed to the abortions. “It’s her decision!” they often said despite the fact they were doing everything to make it possible (implicit formal cooperation). I often knew I was getting a “con job” and told the guys so. “You want the abortion, but want her to take all the blame,” I often said. And it was true. They pressured the women to abort by emphasizing all the difficulties and then claimed, “It’s her decision.” Many of the women were duped by the charade and told me the guy opposed the abortion. I would ask, “Is he paying for it? Did he bring you here? Is he telling you he loves you and wants you to have the baby?” The answer to the first two questions was an obvious yes the answer to the third was usually no. The woman almost always followed the non-verbalized desire of the guy while accepting the pretence that it was “her” decision.
And many were broken-hearted. They are the women of Silent No More holding signs saying, “I regret my abortion.”A few men, very few honestly encouraged the women not to abort. We sidewalk counselors urged them to act like men and protect their children by refusing to pay and doing everything they could to convince their girlfriends not to go through with it. We saw a few babies saved that way.
While the abortion-minded father is an obvious formal cooperator in the evil decision, what about others in the woman’s life? Most tell of friends encouraging them to choose abortion. Those “friends” are directly involved in the evil act. Even if they never actually participate in the abortion, their encouragement may very well be the tipping point in pushing a woman into killing her baby. Consider the role of Iago in Shakespeare’s play Othello. He is a demon tempter who, passed over for advancement, conceives an evil revenge. Iago instigates and feeds Othello’s jealousy until, in a rage, he murders his innocent wife Desdemona. Iago desired the evil act and urged it even though he did not directly commit the murder. Such is the situation of the formally complicit “friend.”
What about those who call themselves “pro-choice,” claiming to oppose abortion while supporting pro-abortion politicians and acting as cheerleaders for the right to choose to kill. They may never directly participate in an abortion, but are they guilty of cooperating with evil? Yes. Sin is first conceived in the mind. If the pro-choicers are parents and foster that attitude in their children, they may very well create a moral climate that later kills a grandchild. No one chooses in a vacuum. The act of choosing requires an object chosen. To claim to favor the right to choose an abortion while claiming to oppose the abortion itself is double-speak. So to be pro-choice is to put oneself squarely in the position that Jesus condemned when he said, “Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts.” In our day, He as easily could say, “Anyone willing to accept the murder of the unborn has already killed the little one in his heart.”
Two issues that have implicated millions of people in evil acts are homosexuality (I include the entire LGBT spectrum in that term) and violations against marriage. Many of those who cooperate in these evils do so out of “fellowship” fearing to alienate family members or friends. It is an act of human respect that puts the thoughts and opinions of man ahead of God’s laws.
While a same-sex orientation is not in itself sinful, acting on it always is. And yet many today take what they consider the “tolerant” and “compassionate” approach of blessing the sin. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is one such group. Its members are committed to advancing the homosexual lifestyle.4 They promote redefining the family, same-sex marriage, homosexual adoption, and other moral evils. To be a member of PFLAG, by the nature of the group, makes one a formal cooperator in homosexual sin. Other types of groups that formally cooperate with evil are Call to Action which, despite claiming to be Catholic, advocates abortion, homosexuality, women’s ordination, remarriage after divorce, etc. Many individuals who don’t associate with such groups, nevertheless formally cooperate with these evils on an individual basis. Such is the case when one attends a same sex marriage or bridal shower, a woman’s “ordination” to the priesthood, etc.
The same kind of cheerleading for sin exists on an individual basis with many Catholic families whose children either marry outside the Church or remarry after divorce without annulment. One set of parents I know who attend daily Mass hosted the invalid marriage of their divorced child at their home with the reception following. When I expressed shock to the mother who openly volunteered the information (a scandal), she replied, “What am I supposed to do, alienate my child?” Today many fear the wrath of their children and friends more than they fear God. In fact, it is rare to find Catholic parents refusing to attend the invalid marriages of their children outside the Church.
When our children were young, my husband and I noticed that many Catholic parents we knew were attending their children’s invalid marriages. Thinking that we might one day face the same dilemma, we began preparing our children for the reality that if they made that choice, we could not attend their weddings. We will always love you unconditionally,” we said, “But we can’t condone or celebrate what is objectively a mortal sin.” By the grace of God our children all had Catholic weddings and are raising our grandchildren in the faith. But our family does not appear to be the norm. Many parents grieve the loss of faith in their children while having contributed to it by their actions. Why should a child return to the faith, if his parents accommodated his rejection? It is a tragedy compounded by another example of cooperating with evil – that of our shepherds. It is hard for Catholics in the pew to remain faithful when their spiritual leaders are not.
Examples among the bishops are legion, from the sex abuse scandals which saw many bishops either formally cooperating with evil (even engaging in it themselves) or materially cooperating by creating an environment where the abuse could continue unabated. Few of the complicit bishops faced any consequences for their evil actions. Instead, at their Dallas meeting in 2002, they developed a policy to divert attention from their own culpability to a “guilty until proven innocent” policy targeting the laity.
And then there is the issue of cooperating with evil through silence. Once again I’ll quote Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. During the saint’s trial, Cromwell accuses him of committing treason through his silence. Thomas responds to Cromwell’s biased and convoluted argument saying, “The maxim of the law is ‘Silence gives consent.’ If, therefore, you wish to construe what my silence ‘betokened,’ you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.” Silence when one should speak is a sin of omission. If one has a duty to act, for example to speak against an evil, and does not, it is cooperation with the evil, particularly if his silence enables the evil act.
In 2007 the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy addressed the issue of Catholic politicians cooperating with the evil of abortion and clergy who are silent about their scandal. “Giving consent to an evil act is de facto formal cooperation in evil,” they wrote. “Equally culpable are persons who are 'personally opposed to abortion' yet provide necessary assistance for the evil to occur. This is clearly understood as material cooperation in evil….If [Catholic politicians] openly support abortion and/or euthanasia, even if 'personally opposed', they are in fact publicly unworthy to receive Holy Communion due to their cooperation in evil. Greater scandal is given when bishops, priests, and deacons do not protect the sanctity and dignity of the Most Blessed Sacrament by allowing public persons notoriously known for their positions which directly violate the Divine and Moral Laws” (my emphasis). The silence of the bishops in this area has contributed to the epidemic of people in the pew cooperating in any number of evils in imitation of their scandalous shepherds culminating in sacrilegious reception of Communion.
So in a culture where cooperation with evil is epidemic, what should the faithful Catholic do? Stand firm for the truth. Archbishop Fulton Sheen gave us the roadmap in his reflection, Love is not Tolerance:
Standing up for the truth and refusing to either actively or passively cooperate with evil is not easy. I blush with shame to recall my own act of cowardice on one occasion. When my husband worked for the Marine Corps I attended functions occasionally. At one event an officer took the podium. His talk was peppered with the Lord’s name used as an expletive. I was surprised because I’d never heard him speak that way. A little voice told me to make the sign of the cross every time he took the Lord’s name in vain. I was directly in his line of vision and, knowing what a kind gentleman he truly was, I’m sure that seeing me do it once would have been enough to stop it. But I was embarrassed. I sat and quietly prayed, but I could not muster the courage, even though it would have cost me almost nothing to make that small act of public atonement. I regret it to this day.
Saints like Thomas More and the English martyrs who were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn were willing to die for the “crime” of loving the Mass and dispensing or receiving the sacraments. Their refusal to cooperate with the evil monarchy cost them dearly. We face no such persecution, only the loss of human respect. Will we give our silent consent to evil or will we stand under the banner of Christ and witness to and defend the faith?
1 Robert Bolt, A Man for all Seasons, Vintage Books, 1962, p.77.
2 Discussion on cooperation with evil is based on Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason (3rd edition) St. Louis, Mo., C.V. Mosby Company, 1963, pp 282-285.