Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Cooperating in Evil
By Fr. Paul de Ladurantaye

Special to the HERALD
(From the issue of 8/23/01)
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 partner institutions.

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.

Fr. 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.


(Courtesy: www.catholicherald.com)