Formal and Material Cooperation in Evil

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The basic idea of cooperation

Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:
  • by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
  • by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
  • by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
  • by protecting evil-doers.
Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. "Structures of sin" are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a "social sin."[1]

Formal cooperation

Formal cooperation: intending the evil action that another is doing. "This is when you deliberately, consciously, and willingly intend the evil to happen. Civil law calls it being an accessory to a crime. ... There is knowledge of the evil beforehand or while it is happening, and consent to it being done. This is always sinful and immoral."[2]

  • Hiring someone to commit murder.
  • Agreeing that a child should be aborted.
  • Advocating an unjust war of aggression or retaliation.
  • Supporting the use of weapons of mass destruction in warfare.
  • Running a prostitution service.
CCC #2272:
Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,"[3] "by the very commission of the offense,"[4] and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.[5] The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.

Material cooperation

Material cooperation: providing the means to do evil without necessarily intending the evil itself.

"Proximate material cooperation would be giving or selling nuclear weapons or biological toxins to terrorist groups. You are directly giving material cooperation without which the evil could not be done. ... Remote material cooperation ... often can indicate no culpability, or at least a reduced level. ... The more remote the material cooperation, the less the culpability."[6]
"Proximate" means "close." "Proximate cooperation" means that the support provided is very close to the evil action, so that it makes the action possible. The more the evil depends on the material provided to the evildoer, the more the person providing the material is responsible for the evil that was done.
Examples of proximate cooperation
  • Equipping an assassin with a murder weapon.
  • Paying for an abortion or providing other support that makes the abortion possible.
  • Knowingly helping a criminal to escape capture or prosecution after the crime has been committed.
  • Investing in corporations dedicated to doing what is objectively evil: pornography, abortion, cloning, fetal tissue research.
Examples of remote cooperation
  • Paying taxes to a government that will use them to sponsor abortions directly and indirectly.
  • Building automobiles and highways, even though we know with certainty that people will be killed in auto accidents on the highways.
  • Delivering pornography through the mail.
  • Providing internet and cable connections in rental units.
  • Working in a pharmacy that provides contraceptives.
  • Taking someone to an abortion clinic as a taxi driver.

Examples of cooperation in abortion

The more essential the person's cooperation is in the evil action, the more responsibility the person bears for wrongdoing.

The doctor commits the sin directly.

The mother permits the sin directly.

Those who pay for the abortion make it possible.

A person who works at an abortion clinic is cooperating in the murder of innocent children.

If they approve of the murder, they cooperate both formally and materially.

If they do not approve of the murder, they cooperate materially by the work they do for the clinic.

A person whose employer cooperates in murdering children but whose work has nothing to do with the abortion industry only has an accidental, not an essential relationship to the evil done by their employer. If they cannot find adequate employment elsewhere, they may continue to work for their employer because their own work is morally neutral. All of the burden of evildoing rests on the shoulders of the evildoer, not theirs.


  1. John Paul II, RP 16.
  2. John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti, The Catholicism Answer Book, p. 178.
  3. CIC, can. 1398.
  4. CIC, can. 1314.
  5. Cf. CIC, cann. 1323-1324.
  6. John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti, The Catholicism Answer Book, p. 178-179.