Cooperation in Evil

Fr. Francis Michael Walsh

Professor of Moral Theology

Redemptoris Mater Seminary

Yona, Guam



We are living in an age that is abandoning faster and faster the values that stem from the gospel.  A new set of values is shaping the environment in which we live.  Pick up the daily paper and you will see the evidence mounting that we are headed for a crisis in Western culture.  Sometimes the attack on Christian values is blatant.  Other times, it the attack is subtler.  Let me give you an example.  On May 21st there appeared on the editorial page of the Pacific Daily News a curious cartoon.  Let me describe it for you.  The sign above the counter in the pharmacy read: “We reserve the right to refuse service.”  One underling at the counter, looking at the sign, says to his coworker: “I can’t think what it is, but something about it bothers me.”  At first glance, this cartoon is a bit mystifying, and the reader can easily be left wondering what is the point?  If you did not get its point, allow me to explain what the point appears to me to be.


The cartoonist evidently wants to think that the reservation of the right to refuse service in a pharmacy is wrong.  One of the current battles in the cultural wars in the United States involves a group of courageous pharmacists have taken the position that they cannot in conscience sell contraceptives that are in reality abortifacients.  The remote issue that their action raises is abortion, but the more immediate issue is the refusal of these pharmacists to allow themselves to be the mindless tools in the hands of those intent on having an abortion.


Our cartoonist seems to think that there is something odd or wrong with pharmacists being concerned about what others do with the things sold in their stores.  Moral theology calls this issue the question of “cooperation in evil.”  When a person supplies the means for another’s evil action, to what extent is the supplier responsible for the possible evil done by that person?  Cooperation becomes formal when the supplier intends the ends of the agent for whom the means are supplied.  If you willingly supply a drug that another uses to kill someone else, even though you did not physically put the drug in the drink that killed him, you are a formal cooperator in the killing.  If you supply the drug unwillingly, you are a material cooperator in the killing, and you are responsible to the extent that you did not do what you could have done to prevent the evil.  In either case, the one supplying the cooperation has the moral responsibility not to allow himself to be used as a mindless tool for evil ends of others.  There comes a time when we all have to stand up and say NO! Find out more catholic news today.

In the case of the pharmacists, the remote issue underlying issue of cooperation is the issue of abortion.  The attitude one takes to the pharmacists’ refusal to cooperate with the abortion industry will depend on whether you see abortion as an “evil,” the deliberate destruction of a human life.  Are the unborn persons?  Do they have rights?  If so where do they come from?  To answer these questions, we have to turn to metaphysics.  What kind of world do we live in?  Is there a moral order already built into the order to creation?  If so, then morality is intrinsic to the nature of things.  Or did God first create the world and then made up a set of rules according to which things should run?  Can he change the rules from time to time?  If so, then morality is extrinsic to the nature of things.  This metaphysical distinction regarding the moral order is crucial for understanding the cultural wars.  The existence of human rights, rooted simply in the act of being, not being viable, is the metaphysical issue.  If there is no God, then clearly, human rights do not exist.  All morality then is based on human ingenuity at figuring out what are the best rules for governing our relations with one another.  We are the source of our own morality.  We are by that very fact the source of rights.  All rights are reduced to the status of civil rights.  In the United States today, thanks to Roe v. Wade, you are not a person in virtue of being, but rather in virtue of being viable. Personhood is no longer the result of the act of existing; it is the result of a determination by the state that you are capable of doing what it takes to be viable.  Civil law determines if and when you are a person with the right to live.  The powerful of this world seem to be capable of understanding rights only in terms of power.  In their view, one has to qualify for being a person by being able to do the things that make you viable.  This is the cultural orthodoxy of our era.


The problem with this view is that some of us are too little to do anything.  We do not qualify as persons according to the ruling orthodoxy.  The pharmacists who reserve the right to refuse service are dissenting from this orthodoxy.  They are saying that human life and the absolute claim to life begin when a human being begins to exist, not when he begins to be viable.  They are claiming, moreover, that the state has the obligation to protect the right of those who are too weak to defend themselves, including the unborn.  These rights include the fundamental human right to life, the foundation of all other rights.


Those who consider themselves “pro-choice” want the world to think that the issue in the abortion debate is one of individual freedom.  I am sure that they are sincere when they say this.  However, as the cartoon so aptly shows, they want everybody to be free to do whatever they choose to do, except the pharmacists who only want to choose to have nothing at all to do with abortion.


The pharmacists who are putting their livelihoods on the line by reserving the right to refuse service to the abortion industry are doing a profound service to the rest of us.  In so doing, they deserve to be supported and encouraged, not attacked.  The bullies of the abortion industry and their allies in the media are attacking them for refusing to cooperate with what John Paul the Great accurately called “the culture of death.”  We should keep in mind that any law that attempts to restrict the right to dissent from the orthodoxy of the culture of death will also restrict our right to dissent one day in the future when we see the need to do so.


When I see a cartoon like the one described above, something about it bothers me too, and makes me deeply sad.  What do you think?  You can contact me at to share your thoughts.  As concerned Catholics, this is an issue that we should be thinking and talking about.