In a fallen world evil is encountered in many ways.  Any morally careful person knows that he or she encounters evil within himself.  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart.  We may be more or less sensitive to our role as potential and, on occasion, actual perpetrators of evil, but we certainly cannot doubt that sometimes we are evil doers. 

We also encounter evil as its victims and sufferers.  The victims of malice, sin, crime, abuse, insane ideology, and unjust war all suffer from evil.  That suffering is a burden and challenge.  We may increase our own patience under our sufferings by reflecting on the co-inherence of sin, and thus our own role in the evil that afflicts us.  We may accept that our own sins – if only our failure to pray for others as we ought – contribute to the sins of others, from which sins we in turn suffer.  Nonetheless, when we are suffering from evil we often have great clarity about it. 

In addition to being sometimes the perpetrators of evil and sometimes its victims, Christians and moral agents in general also encounter evil in a more complex and obscure manner.  I refer to the problem traditionally considered by moral theologians under the rubric of ‘cooperation with evil’.  We find ourselves in various ways entangled in practical, worldly, everyday situations in which all courses seem tainted.  What are we to do when asked – even if only by ourselves – to act or to refrain from acting in cases that seem enmeshed in evil in ways that we would rather avoid entirely?  When may we act in a way that to some degree and in some fashion seems to forward evil or to taint us with evil or to flow from evil or to lead to evil?  ‘The matter is’, as R.C. Mortimer says, ‘of some importance and difficulty.’[i]

One set of such cases involves acts that use or benefit from products, techniques, discoveries, or resources that themselves arose from immoral acts.  For example, it is well known that some German companies dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries participated actively in the economy of Germany during the National Socialist era (1933-1945).  Some of those companies still exist.  Suppose that some of those companies benefitted from immorally acquired assets, such as wealth, land, or company shares stolen from Jewish victims of the regime.  Or again, suppose that some of those companies benefitted from information gained by immoral medical experimentation upon victims of the regime such as the mentally handicapped or concentration camp inmates.  Is it licit and moral to use the products or services of such companies in our own era?  Or is such use an immoral cooperation with and implication in the misdeeds of others?  May I buy a Volkswagen?  May I ride a Krupp-Thyssen elevator?

A similar kind of moral problem arose in 2020 and 2021 with the production and distribution of vaccines to prevent or to mitigate the effects of the Covid Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) that is caused by the SARS-CoV-19 virus.  Some people question the morality of these vaccines because, ‘in the course of research and production,’ researchers and pharmaceutical companies ‘employed cell lines drawn from tissue obtained from two abortions that occurred in the last century’.[ii]  And those two abortions in turn were not spontaneous but were directly willed and deliberately procured and therefore were gravely evil.

Traditional moral theology seeks to guide us through difficult moral situations by a series of distinctions that help to separate cases in such a way as to distinguish morally necessary choices, morally prohibited choices, and morally neutral choices.  It is helpful to understand these distinctions and the practical guidance they can offer in complex, perplexing situations.  In this blog post I will, first, explain the traditional distinctions used to analyze and settle cases involving cooperation with evil.  Secondly, I will apply those distinctions to the use of the main Covid-19 vaccines.

1. Cooperation with evil

Cooperation with evil can be negative or positivePositive cooperation obviously includes actual participation in an evil act, but also includes commanding someone else to do evil or assisting evil with rewards, with praise, or with help in the form of advice or planning assistance.  Negative cooperation means failing to act to prevent or to discourage or to reverse evil, by silence, passivity, or moral lassitude. 

Whatever may be the case in secular law, in moral terms the distinction between negative and positive cooperation is usually not important or morally significant.  I can kill positively by administering a lethal injection or I can kill passively by failing to administer a life-saving injection:  there is no significant moral difference.  I can kill by pushing a person who cannot swim into a pool or by refusing to throw a life-preserver to a person already flailing in a pool.  Again, there is no great difference.  The active/passive distinction, however, is helpful to us in the analysis of actions and in broadening moral sensitivity to include not only that which we have actively done but also that which we have left undone. 

A distinction which does make a great deal of difference in separating good from evil acts is that between formal and material cooperation with evil.  This distinction, once grasped, in turn leads to two other important distinctions.  Henry Davis distinguishes formal and material cooperation with evil in this way:

1. Co-operation is formal when A helps B in an external sinful act, and intends the sinfulness of it, as in deliberate adultery.

‘2. Co-operation is material when A helps B to accomplish an external act by an act that is not sinful, and without approving what B does.[iii]

Davis’s distinction involves both the knowledge and intention of the cooperating person and also whether or not his cooperating act is itself sinful or not.

R.C. Mortimer says that cooperation ‘is formal when one man actively helps another in the performance of a wrong act.’ (Mortimer, p. 150)  Mortimer spells out what seems implied by the word ‘actively’ when he notes that merely material cooperation ‘involves no approval of the sinful act, and consists in a mere assistance by the performance of some ancillary act which is not wrong in itself’ (Mortimer, p. 150). 

A doctor who knowingly supplies anesthesia for an operation such as a directly willed surgical abortion or the removal of an organ for sale on the black market formally cooperates in the abortion or the immoral organ removal.  Unless the anesthesiologist is deceived concerning the nature of the surgery, his cooperation partakes of the moral onus that attaches to the surgeon who performs the abortion or the mutilation itself.    

In contrast, a janitor who changes the lightbulbs in an operating theater where many kinds of operations are performed, is doing something that in and of itself is not evil.  Assuming the janitor does not approve of possible evil surgeries and is not subjectively intending to assist them, his cooperation in such surgeries is not formal.  If the agent’s intention is good (for example, to do an honest day’s work) and his act itself is not evil (changing lightbulbs is not itself evil), there is no formal cooperation with evil but only material cooperation. 

It is noteworthy that material cooperation can involve almost anything and can be far removed from the evil act itself.  A person who works in a factory that manufactures lightbulbs, some of which are supplied to a hospital where some sinful surgeries do occur, is ‘cooperating’ with or contributing to the evil of those surgeries in some degree.  The bus driver who drives that factory worker to his factory and the truck driver who delivers the light bulbs to the hospital also both cooperate or contribute to the surgeries in question in some degree.  A complex society involving a vast economic web means that most things in some way affect most other things.  But the intention of the agent and the nature of his or her acts in themselves (as opposed to their unintended consequences) are chiefly what is in question here. 

Once the distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil is understood two further distinctions are significant. 

Material cooperation with evil may be immediate or mediate

Material cooperation is immediate if it assists the act in question itself.  Again, the example of the anesthesiologist at an abortion illustrates the case.  A surgical nurse or the anesthesiologist cooperates with the abortionist in the abortion itself.  In contrast, a nurse who provides post-operative care to a man mutilated by an organ removal and an orderly who bathes the woman whose child was aborted are not assisting in the evil act itself.  (In the case of the surgical nurse or anesthesiologist, however, the immediate cooperation in fact seems also to imply formal cooperation.  The cooperators are intrinsically involved in the abortion itself and approve it.  Immediate material cooperation that is not also formal seems only likely in rare cases, as when someone is forced by grave threats to assist materially in a crime.) 

Material cooperation is mediate when it is ‘secondary and subservient to the main act of another, as to supply a burglar with tools for his burglary’ (Davis, p. 341) or when it involves ‘mere assistance, without approval’ and involves some ‘ancillary act which is not wrong in itself’ (Mortimer, p. 150).  Again, an orderly who helps bathe many women or a janitor who cleans many rooms in a hospital is in a sense ‘assisting’ all that goes on in the hospital and its individual surgeries.  But the orderly or janitor may neither know nor approve of the surgeries in question and certainly is not immediately or essentially involved in them.  The cooperation in such cases is mediate.

Finally, mediate material cooperation with evil may be proximate or remote

Mediate moral cooperation is proximate if it is closely or intimately connected with the moral act and is ‘more or less indispensable to its success’ (Mortimer, p. 150).  Davis’s example of proximate cooperation is to hold the ladder for a burglar (Davis, p. 341). 

Mediate moral cooperation is remote when it provides ‘an indirect and by no means essential aid to the doing of the sinful act’ (Mortimer, p. 151).   If I sell fuel for a burglar’s car, I indirectly assist his crime if he uses the car for his get-away.  But if I do not approve his intended crime, and if he had alternative sources for fuel or for escape, then my cooperation is material, not formal, and is inessential and remote.  The situation would change if I were the only source of fuel, if the car were his only plausible means of escape, and if I knew his intention to rob a store and to use the car for his escape.  Again, the bus driver who drives the factory worker to the factory that makes lightbulbs, some of which are used in an operating theater where abortions are performed, is very, very remote from the evil in question.

Once these distinctions are drawn, the question arises concerning permissible and impermissible kinds of cooperation with evil. 

Formal cooperation with sin is always evil.  Formal cooperation with sin approves of the evil and aids it. 

Material cooperation with evil is often sinful and as a rule should be avoided.  If, however, easy avoidance is not possible, if the act of cooperation is not itself sinful (and so has good effects as well as the bad effect of cooperation with evil), and if there is sufficient cause to balance the evil in question, then material cooperation may be licit or even obligatory.  The more remote the material cooperation is from the evil the easier it is to justify.  Material, mediate, remote cooperation with evil is tolerable, for example, to avoid grave danger or to avert a great harm.  Greater detail on considerations that render material cooperation licit can be found in R.C. Mortimer (pp. 151-5).

2. Cooperation with evil and the Covid-19 vaccine

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church (CDF) on 21 December 2020 promulgated with papal approval a ‘Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines’.  This ‘Note’ closely adheres to the traditional moral distinctions outlined above for determining the morality or immorality of acts that involve cooperation with evil.  The CDF treats the moral evaluation correctly, I believe, and applies traditional moral norms to the case appropriately.  The conclusions of the ‘Note’ are valid, I believe, for Anglicans, not because they issue from the Roman Catholic magisterium, but because the premises and reasoning of the ‘Note’ are valid.

The ‘Note’ prescinds from the question of whether the vaccines in question are safe and effective.  The CDF has no relevant expertise to settle such practical, factual questions and wisely refrains from opining upon them.  [O sic omnes!]

The ‘Note’ refers to places where, for various reasons, ‘ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available’.  This reference clearly suggests that the vaccines that are available, or many of them, are not ‘ethically irreproachable’.  Use of vaccines developed from two directly willed abortion is ethically problematic.  Researchers, politicians, and others who have ignored warnings about the evil nature of fetal stem cell research involving directly willed abortions themselves bear responsibility for hesitancy about the use of vaccines developed from that research.  Let us name specifically Barack Obama, who opened wide the doors to federal support for such immoral research in the United States: see anglicancatholicliturgyandtheology.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/the-profits-of-death/

Use of those vaccines now involves a kind of cooperation with evil, which could have been avoided.  The ‘Note’ agrees that ‘pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies [should be] encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated’.  So long, however, as we understand and agree with the desirability and preferability of irreproachable vaccines, we are free of any formal cooperation with the evil of the two 20th century abortions in question when we are now vaccinated in 2021.

The key paragraph of the CDF ‘Note’ makes use of the casuistic distinctions outlined above concerning cooperation with evil:

The fundamental reason for considering the use of these vaccines morally licit is that the kind of cooperation in evil (passive material cooperation) in the procured abortion from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines, remote. The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent–in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. It must therefore be considered that, in such a case, all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.

This conclusion, I believe, is correct.  The use of the principal vaccines authorized in the United States is moral.  It would be better if these vaccines were ethically irreproachable.  They are not irreproachable, and morally sensitive people should deplore the abortions that taint the origin of these vaccines.  The cooperation in that evil, however, is material, not formal, and remote, not proximate.  Moreover, Covid-19 is a serious disease and a grave evil.  The use of these vaccines, therefore, is licit.  Since suppressing a serious, epidemic illness is a good and very important thing, Christians should conclude that vaccination is not only morally licit, but also that it is an act of charity towards others, if the vaccination is safe and effective. 


[i] Robert C. Mortimer.  The Elements of Moral Theology.  London:  Adam & Charles Black, 1947.  Page 150.  Henceforth cited as ‘Mortimer’ with page number.

[ii] From ‘Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines’.  Rome:  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 21 December 2020.  Hereforth cited as ‘CDF Note’.

[iii] Volume One:  Human Acts, Law, Sin, Virtue.  In Moral and Pastoral Theology in Four Volumes.  New York:  Sheed and Ward, 1935.  Page 341.  Henceforth cited as ‘Davis’ with page number. 

6 thoughts on “Vaccination, viruses, cooperation with evil, and abortion

  1. The hypothetical examples are somewhat difficult to accept morally, but they come across as logical and well thought out. By contrast here is a real world currently ongoing event that relates to these questions. Recently the German Federal government arrested and charged an elderly man and charged him with crimes against humanity and accessory to murder. He was literally a janitor at Auschwitz.

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  2. The archbishop’s reasoning seems sound, even though that might not mean much coming from a layman mechanic. But it seems like a twentieth century ghost haunts this line of thought:

    1. Materialists (not Christians) make the decision to use the body of a murdered baby for experiment.
    2. Materialists (not Christians) make the determination of “safe and effective” for the product of those experiments and “serious” for the disease it is meant to prevent or treat.
    3. Then this line of reasoning leaves the Christian with an unavoidable conclusion as to morality of enjoying the use of the product: “not only licit, but charitable.”
    4. We have arrived at the past’s future. The church is longer relevant. Please send your tithe to the university, where morality is manufactured. Prepare to enjoy the next moral product.

    I do not claim to have the answer, but this cannot be it.

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    1. A clearly written comment that reflects clear thought means as much coming from a layman mechanic as from anyone else.
      You present the uncomfortable fact that in this fallen world the leaven of malice and evil clings to almost everything. ‘Unavoidable’ is probably the key word. Another comment in another forum noted that almost all medical breakthroughs and products for the last several centuries rest in part on acts that were immoral. The categorical distinctions in the piece are important, or really we will be entirely paralyzed by some danger of some kind of cooperation with some grave evil. And THAT cannot be right. But it is undeniable that ambiguity clings to the matter.

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  3. Very good article, obviously steeped in good traditional moral theology. I haven’t read that word in a while — ‘casuistic’ — the last time I think was in Joseph Pieper’s book ‘The Four Cardinal Virtues’. (I think he argued somewhat against using casuistic methods of reasoning about practical moral questions, and emphasized instead using ‘wisdom’ gained by a cultivation of moral virtues.)

    What do you think of mandated vaccinations? It has spread like wildfire. I for one have not been impacted by it yet, but I am concerned that it might come my way, soon, and threaten my job of 26 years. Yes, I am not taking the vaccine. But I have no problem with others taking it.

    I appreciate the ‘Note’ about vaccines, “that do not create problems of conscience”, as they do for my wife and me. But I think I heard that Pope Francis, for example, said something to the effect that not taking the vaccine is ‘suicidal’. I understand where he’s coming from, but it makes me almost as mad at him as I get at Joe Biden, who thinks he can rule by decree. I have been re-reading the lessons of the 20th century, specifically in Germany in the 30’s and 40’s, with regard to medical tyranny. I fear we are sliding down that slippery slope yet again, with our characteristically modern amnesia.

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    1. On casuistry, there was an understandable reaction post-World War II against the implied idea that if one just understood the casuistical tools and the relevant laws, moral problems would fall into place. Prudence and wisdom were not needed so much as correct deductions. That said, there’s much to be said for clear understanding of those traditional tools. As for mandated vaccines, in some situations a mandate makes sense, again on the assumption that the vaccine in question is safe and effective. As for Pope Francis, where the Catholic moral tradition is careful and nuanced, he tends to be careless and apodictic.

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