Do the bishops really need to close hospitals?
In their dispute with the Obama Administration over the HHS contraception mandate, a number of U.S.bishops have suggested that they will have to close hospitals, schools and Catholic universities if the mandate is not modified or withdrawn.
But would the bishops really be required to do this? While I’m sympathetic to the bishops’ concerns and support their efforts to broaden the exemption for religious employers, I do not think it is true that a failure in this regard would require the closing of Catholic institutions. For the moment, I am going to set aside the question of whether closing is the most likely outcome or whether the institutions in question would merely be asked to sever their formal ties with the Church. Clearly, neither is a desirable outcome.
The concept in moral theology that is in play here is known as “cooperation.” When we facilitate the acts of another person in some way, we are said to be cooperating with them. If those acts are evil, then we may share some moral culpability for those actions.
In general, Catholics are called to “do good and avoid evil.” If we share the evil intent of the other person (e.g. driving the getaway car to facilitate a bank robbery), it is said to be formal cooperation with evil and morally blameworthy. However, if the actor is cooperating but does not share the intent of the other person (e.g. driving the getaway car because you have a gun to your head), their cooperation is said to be material. Material cooperation may be permissible if the act of cooperation is not itself intrinsically evil (driving a car is, in itself, a neutral act) and there are proportionate reasons for the material cooperation (e.g. fear of death).
A related concept is the degree of proximity between the person cooperating and the original actor. My moral culpability in the actions of another person may be greater if my actions directly facilitate his act. If my actions assist the original actor only indirectly and I do not share his evil intent, this is said to be “remote material cooperation” and my moral culpability is reduced still further.
We can assume that some employees of Catholic institutions use contraception, which Catholic teaching holds to be an intrinsically evil act. To what extent is the Church, as their employer, morally complicit in those acts?
Does the Church share the intent of the actors? One might be inclined to say “no,” at least at the level of moral principle. However, if Church institutions are providing insurance that covers contraception, one could use this as evidence that, whatever their stated views, they either share the evil intent or are neutral about it. On the other hand, if the Church is only providing the coverage because they are mandated to do so by law, that case is considerably weakened. Ironically, the mandate itself mitigates the problem of formal cooperation. [More]