Critics of the president’s plan, however, didn’t see it that way.
“Dangerous and insulting,” a group of leading Catholic bishops wrote to their fellow churchmen. “A cheap accounting trick,” Robert P. George, Mary Ann Glendon and several other leading culture warriors complained in an open letter that has generated more than 100 signers.
The “compromise,” said New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “asks the parties involved to compromise their reasoning faculties and play a game of ‘let’s pretend’ instead.”
Yet that “game,” as Douthat put it, is actually a venerable tradition in Catholic moral theology that for centuries has provided a way for Christians to think about acting virtuously in a fallen world.
‘Cooperation with evil’
The category of moral reasoning is called “cooperation with evil.” The term “evil” isn’t as ominous as it sounds, but rather is shorthand used by moral theologians to describe anything sinful.
A classic example of cooperating with evil: A servant who ferries love letters to his master’s mistress is not personally culpable because he himself is not committing adultery and does not intend to promote adultery, but must keep his job to feed and raise his family.
A more contemporary example involves whether a Catholic can vote for a politician — like, say, Barack Obama — who supports abortion rights.
In 2004, a year before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told U.S. bishops that a Catholic voter would be unfit to receive Communion if he or she voted for a candidate “precisely because” of that candidate’s support of abortion or euthanasia.
But, he added: “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”
“Remote material cooperation” is also the issue in the contraception coverage debate.
‘Formal’ vs. ‘material’ cooperation
The distinctions start with two basic types of cooperation:
— “Formal” cooperation means that you agree with the sinful action being performed by someone else. Put another way, your “intention” is the same as the person doing the evil deed. In the church’s eyes, that is always and everywhere morally wrong.
— The contraception battle, like most ethical dilemmas, is more focused on “material” cooperation. This means you neither approve of an action nor want it to occur, so you take steps to separate yourself as much as possible from the action.