To “cooperate with evil” sounds like a horrible thing to do—and it can be. But some cooperation with evil is inevitable and unavoidable for almost everyone. The reason for this is that human beings are inherently social creatures. We live with, interact with, and depend on one another, and so are always involving ourselves in one another’s activities. Whether directly or indirectly, we are always cooperating with the actions of others. Another fact about human beings is that we have inherited a fallen nature as a result of the sin of our first parents. Sin entered the world through Adam and the children of Adam have been saddled with a disordered inclination to sin ever since. So we are social and we are sinful and that means that we will almost always be cooperating in some way with the sins that our fellow human beings commit.

Consider this example: You pay taxes to the federal government. The government uses your money to do all sorts of good and necessary things like provide food stamps for the poor, supplies for the military, and health care for the elderly. But the government also uses your money to fund Planned Parenthood and distribute contraceptives as part of its foreign aid. You are therefore cooperating in activities that the Catholic Church considers intrinsically evil. Is this wrong? Should you stop paying taxes to the federal government?

Clearly the answer to these questions is No. It is not wrong to pay taxes. Jesus paid taxes. Paying taxes is a civic duty and is necessary for the common good of society. But why is the answer No? How do we know when cooperating with evil is okay and when it is not okay?

Answering this question requires us to make a few distinctions about the different ways one might cooperate with evil.

The first distinction is between “formal” cooperation with evil and “material” cooperation with evil.  Formal cooperation with evil means assisting an evildoer while sharing his evil intention.  Husbands or parents pressuring women to have abortions would be examples of formal cooperation with evil. They intend that the evil of direct abortion should take place and so their cooperation in that evil is clearly immoral. Since formal cooperation in evil involves the choice that evil be done, it is never morally good. Material cooperation with evil means assisting an evildoer without sharing his intention. Material cooperation with evil may or may not be morally permissible.

To determine whether materially cooperating with evil is moral or immoral, we must distinguish between “immediate” material cooperation with evil and “mediate” material cooperation with evil. Immediate material cooperation with evil means assisting an evildoer in a way that is essential for carrying out her evil action. For example, giving an abortion doctor the instruments with which to carry out an abortion would be a case of immediate cooperation with evil. When the action with which one is cooperating is intrinsically evil (as is the case with direct abortion), immediate material cooperation is always morally wrong. Mediate material cooperation in evil means assisting an evildoer in a way that is not essential to carrying out her evil action. This kind of cooperation in evil may or may not be morally permissible.

Mediate material cooperation in evil may or may not be morally upright depending on how “proximate” or “remote” the cooperation is. More proximate cooperation with an evildoer means assisting him in a way that is more closely related to his evil action. Remote cooperation means assisting in a way that is less closely related. For example, mopping floors at an abortion clinic is a more proximate form of cooperating with the evil of direct abortion than buying a product from a company that contributes money to abortion clinics. Of course, the more proximate the cooperation with evil, the more likely it is to be morally objectionable, and the more one should seek to avoid it.

Distinguishing between different kinds of cooperation in evil helps us to evaluate our own actions and the ways in in which we must and must not involve ourselves in the evil actions of others. These considerations are especially important in the area of health care. Sadly, there are many immoral practices that systematically take place in contemporary medical institutions. Those who have the noble vocation of working in health care cannot help being somehow involved. Now more than ever, those who work in health care, provide health insurance, or manage health care institutions, must think seriously about the ways in which they can and cannot not be involved in the evil actions that falsely pass for health care in our secular culture. Understanding the distinctions between different kinds of cooperation with evil, which we inherit from the tradition of Catholic moral theology, can help us to do just that.