Cell Research: Cooperating in Evil |
By Fr. Paul
Special to the HERALD
(From the issue
Courtesy: Catholic Herald
Jesus Christ taught His disciples that one must be perfect as
our heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48). This teaching involves
more than the mere avoidance of evil actions; it requires of the
Christian a serious asceticism rooted in prayer, fasting and the
cultivation of the virtues.
The practice of Christian faith
has always forbidden the direct and deliberate performance of evil
acts. These, called sins, violate the law of God, whether revealed
in Sacred Scripture or in one’s "heart" or conscience (cf. Rom
1:20-32). The Christian faith strictly prohibits the doing of evil
even if good can come from it (cf. Rom 3:8).
Given that we
are to seek out holiness and moral perfection as followers of
Christ, and given that we may not do evil even if good may result,
the question still remains, "How far (if at all) can a person
cooperate with the evil that another person has done?" Can such
cooperation ever be morally justified? That these are not mere
academic questions is evident from daily life. Most recently,
President George W. Bush’s decision to allow federal funding for
research on existing stem cell lines obtained by means of the
destruction of human embryos raises once more — as several Catholic
bishops, including our own Bishop Loverde, have noted — the issue of
cooperation in evil.
Catholic moral theology has, over the
centuries, sought to formulate and refine ethical principles
regarding a person’s cooperation with the evil actions of another.
These principles are not limited to individuals alone; they may also
be applied to corporate actions such as joint ventures between
health care institutions in which the joint venture may be morally
questionable due to the philosophy and/or actions of one of the
The name of St. Alphonsus Liguori (d.
1787) is most often associated with the theological refinement of
the principles of cooperation. St. Alphonsus introduced the crucial
distinction between formal and material cooperation. Formal
cooperation is understood as any cooperation that directly intends
the sinful act of the principal agent: the sinful act is directly
desired by the cooperator either as an end in itself or as a means
to something else. Thus, the researcher who intends that a human
embryo die in order that he may obtain embryonic stem cells for his
research formally cooperates in the immoral destruction of innocent
human life. Formal cooperation may be either explicit ("Yes, I’m
happy to drive the getaway car because I want this bank robbery to
succeed") or implicit ("I’m personally opposed, but I’ll help you
rob the bank anyway").
Material cooperation, on the other
hand, occurs when the cooperator permits the sinful act to take
place but does not intend that sinful act either for itself or as a
means to anything else. Material cooperation has several important
distinctions, the most basic being that of immediate and mediate.
Immediate material cooperation is cooperation in the sinful act
itself, and moral theologians hold that in the objective order,
immediate material cooperation is equivalent to implicit formal
cooperation. Mediate material cooperation again admits of several
distinctions: proximate or remote, depending on how closely one
cooperates with the sinful act itself; and necessary or free,
depending on whether the sinful act could be accomplished only with
one’s cooperation, or whether someone else was available to
cooperate with the sinful act.
Perhaps some examples would
help clarify these concepts. Mediate material cooperation would
occur in the case of a health care worker opposed to abortion, for
instance, who is employed in a secular hospital that performs
abortions but does not require the conscientious objector to
participate. This kind of cooperation can be justified (1) for a
sufficient reason and (2) if scandal can be avoided. Proximate
material cooperation would be the recovery room nurse who cares for
all post-surgical patients, including those who may have undergone
morally illicit procedures. Remote material cooperation would be the
janitor who cleans the recovery room. Necessary material cooperation
would occur if one were the only anesthesiologist available to
assist with a woman undergoing a combined Caesarian section and
tubal ligation. Free material cooperation would exist if there were
another anesthesiologist available.
With these definitions
in mind, the traditional teaching concerning cooperation in evil may
be summed up according to the following principles. (1) Formal
cooperation is never permissible because the intent that the sinful
act occurs is itself an objective violation of God’s law. (2)
Immediate material cooperation is never possible because by
cooperating in the sinful act itself, one is also violating God’s
law even though he cooperates for some other reason. (3) Mediate
material cooperation may be permissible, provided that the action of
the cooperator is not itself a violation of God’s law and provided
that the cooperation is done for a proportionately serious reason.
In deciding this last point, various factors must be taken into
account: (a) the more serious the harm of the sin, the more
significant must be the good sought to justify cooperation; (b) the
more proximate or necessary the cooperation, the more significant
must be the good sought. Further, the scandal involved in such
cooperation must be seriously considered.
How do these
principles apply to President Bush’s policy of funding research on
already existing lines of embryonic stem cells? While the
president’s policy does not seem to be formal cooperation, it would
fall into the realm of material cooperation. What kind of material
cooperation is it, and can it be justified? It would appear that
President Bush’s decision is a mediate, proximate and free form of
material cooperation. It is mediate because the intention of the
federal government to make funds available can (at least logically)
be distinct from the intention of the researcher who experiments
with human embryonic stem cells. It is proximate because it places
the federal government in a closer relationship to researchers and
the morally tainted source of their embryonic stem cell lines than
if the president had simply prohibited all federal funding. It is a
free type of cooperation because private funding for embryonic stem
cell research is available, and there is nothing compelling the
federal government to fund this research.
Can such free,
proximate and mediate material cooperation be justified? Here, one
has to add several other questions before providing an answer. Is
there a morally acceptable option other than providing federal funds
for stem cells obtained by means of the destruction of human life?
Are there other bad side effects that will follow from such federal
funding? What kind of loss or harm will result from the wrong act in
which the government would materially cooperate?
In light of
these questions, one can reach a moral judgment that the portion of
the president’s policy permitting federal monies to be made
available for research on embryonic stem cells involves the
government in an illicit material cooperation with evil. Given the
fact that alternative sources of stem cells exist, and given the
serious concern that even minimal public promotion and funding of
embryonic stem cell research will further devalue human life, the
kind of material cooperation in such research that the president’s
decision inevitably raises would not be justified.
deLadurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary
for diocesan religious education and in residence at the Cathedral
of St. Thomas More in Arlington.