iStockIt’s almost that time of year again, that time when some Catholics grit their teeth as they consider surrendering their deeply held beliefs as they are moved to cooperate with evil.

Yes, it will soon be time to vote.

Whether we are talking about the American presidential race, congressional or local elections, or local proposition ballots, we frequently make decisions that may be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of a practice, policy, or law that, in some way, embodies evil.

We think we’re good at finding evil. Some of us are even better at condemning each other’s engagement with organizations that don’t dedicate their activities to the Truth. And while today’s hot topics apply mostly to our current political process, the question of ‘cooperation with evil’ is becoming more prescient in a world in which we find ourselves increasingly connected to more organizations and cultures that may not share our values.

Whether we apply the label of ‘evil’ to the Democratic or Republican party (take your pick for any number of reasons), the Affordable Health Care Act (no need to re-visit that topic), the Boy Scouts (allowing gay scout leaders), Girl Scouts, (statements of trans-gender inclusivity), Catholic Relief Services (sharing resources with organizations providing contraceptive services), ALS Foundation (Ice Bucket Challenge / embryonic stem cell research), or any number of other offenders, we can find numerous reasons to deny support or engagement with almost anyone who isn’t us.

As Catholics, we have thorough and highly detailed explanations of what cooperating with evil means, starting from Article 4 of the Catechism’s section ‘The Morality of Human Acts’, through a painfully detailed 9,000 word tome at EWTN.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to first define ‘evil’ before we associate it with the actions of others.

That, in itself could be a topic for a lengthy discussion, but for now, I’ll stick with St. Thomas Aquinas’ abridged definition —- evil is the absence of good.

That was easy.

How Wrong is Wrong?

With evil defined, we turn our attention to Church teachings that attach a degree of ‘wrongness’ by evaluating the moral significance of the cooperation, the degree to which an ‘evil’ action is facilitated by the cooperation, and the availability of alternatives to cooperative action.

Some actions are clearly off limits – those which involve direct support or cooperation with someone to perform actions that are evil (absence of good). Giving a person a gun to commit a crime is the most obvious example; sending money to the Ku Klux Klan would be another. No good comes from either of these choices.

But for many of us, the challenge comes in understanding what to do when we find ourselves in that big grey area explored by Church teaching: the act of cooperating with organizations whose offending actions are not the linchpin of their primary missions, and cooperating with an organization on an important mission when the harm done by inaction outweighs the negative consequences of engagement. (Of course, this is somewhat of a simplification, but the 9,000 word website is referenced below for those interested in research for extra credit.)

This world of grey surrounds us – and when it comes to supporting organizations, respecting our commitments as employees, and meeting our civic responsibilities to vote, the complexities of trying to measure the evil of our involvement almost make us want to disengage with everyone, go home, close the door and turn off the internet.

Except, that is not what we are called to do.

The second theme of Catholic social teaching states that people have a right and a duty to participate in society through relationships within our family and societal institutions, seeking together the common good and well-being of all.

The Church has its share of mystics, those holy persons who found God’s connection through isolation and prayer. But most of us know the Church through those who engaged the world through evangelization, the arts, and service. I don’t think we were put here to pull away from others, but to engage, to learn of the perspectives of others, to give witness to what drives us as people of faith, and to cooperate to do good.

Where to draw the line?

While there are some organizations and projects that are clearly, unambiguously out of bounds in terms of cooperation (organizations supporting euthanasia come to mind), in many cases, we will better serve our mission (and our neighbors) by full engagement, joyfully cooperating with any and all whose primary goal is to do good.

But cooperation with others towards some greater good does not require us to stand silent and support activities that run contrary to what we believe to be morally sound.

No one will know to what degree the respect life movement played in the ALS’ current policy of shifting work away from embryonic stem cell research – but opposition to the destruction of embryos was justified – and the foundation’s practice of allowing contributors to prohibit the use of their funds for embryonic stem cell use is a sign that organizations of good will can find ways to cooperate.

On the other hand, unless the primary mission of the Boy Scouts is to turn all young men gay, and the primary goal of the Girl Scouts is to encourage all girls to change gender (which would be really bad for membership), the decisions to give scouting organizations the boot appear less as a stand against evil, and more like a banishment of those who choose to serve those we call sinners. I’m not sure that’s in any of the gospels.

And then, there are the elections.

Needless to say, there are no perfect angels on the ballot this year. Both major political parties have many of their supporters seem to be swearing allegiance to ideologies rather than following any apparent moral compass. Depending on one’s life experience, we all lean towards one party or another – acknowledging only the potential good that could come from the election of the candidate we support. For each Catholic voting for one candidate, there is another Catholic voter outraged at the failure of the other’s judgement.

It seems as though any choice is the wrong choice.


I recently attended a presentation by Jeff Kemp, former NFL quarterback who delivers his message on proper Christian manhood using his experiences in professional football as a source of metaphors and examples that relate to guys like me.

During a question and answer session, he was asked about the current political process (his dad, Jack Kemp, ran for president in the 1980’s).

This was red meat for an audience at an evangelical church in the American south. But Jeff did not take the bait, and instead, called each of us to serve, rather than hide.

Paraphrasing, he asked all of us to remember that above all, we are to keep focus on serving God’s kingdom. But part of that service is to pray for those running for office and to pray for the person who wins. He added that for those of us moved to political action, we are to join the political party of our choice, and work to be the very best Democrat or Republican that God asks us to be. (He didn’t mention the Greens or Libertarians – but I think that was an honest omission.)

Always seek to do good.

In the end, except for some obvious instances when evil needs to be exposed, I think we spend too much time worrying about cooperating with evil. That is not to say that evil is not a problem, but that we will have less time to worry about how ‘evil’ our fellow Catholics (or others are) if we ourselves follow the Church’s prime directive — always seek to do good.

If Thomas Aquinas is right, the more time we spend in caring for others, practicing good stewardship of our gifts, in giving witness to God’s power to heal every wound, the more time spent in doing good, the less room for evil in our own personal lives.

We simply cannot help the broken parts of our world by setting our lives apart from it. Our Catholic distinction comes from our values, not from any need for isolation. We may not agree with everyone in our community, our political party, our country, or our world, and we may be tempted to think of associating with others as a pact with the devil. But that is a dark view – and we don’t do dark views.

Our mission is to engage, to listen to the needs and concerns of others, to evangelize through word and deed, and to remember that evil is not something that can be avoided, but is a void to be filled with God’s presence that we carry to the world.



Catholic Social Teaching:

Summa Theologica at

Paper on cooperating with Evil at

National Catholic Bioethics Center on Cooperating with Evil:

ALS and Stem cell research:

The Girl Scouts and St. Louis Diocese:

The Boy Scouts and North Dakota Diocese:

Jeff Kemp ‘Facing the Blitz’ :