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The HHS Controversy and the Principle of Cooperation at the US Bishops Meeting in San Diego

Last week the US Bishops met in San Diego for their annual spring assembly. On Monday June 10th, just prior to their formal meeting, the Committee on Doctrine organized an academic workshop on the principle of cooperation. In light of the imminently forthcoming final version of the HHS guidelines (which is likely to continue to mandate that Catholic institutions must pay for health care plans that include funding for contraceptive and abortifacient devices and drugs, and for direct sterilization of women), and in light of the many other complex situations the Bishops are confronted with whose moral analysis requires the application of principles governing cooperation, the Committee on Doctrine organized a workshop on the Church’s tradition of teaching on legitimate and illegitimate cooperation with others wrongdoing.
There were three talks as part of the workshop. I was asked to give the keynote, providing a historical overview of the origins and development of the Catholic moral tradition about cooperation with wrongdoing and also provide an overview of contemporary schools of thought on the principle. Frs. Dan Mindling and Dan Sulmasy gave responses. Dan Mindling spoke on cooperation between Catholic institutions and government and other charitable institutions.  An important example in Mindling’s presentation was an examination of the ethicalguidelines used by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD)’s for determining which organizations should (or should not) receive funding from the USCCB.   Dan Sulmasy spoke on cooperation and Catholic health care services. After the presentations there was a panel available for a question and answer session with the Bishops. Joining Dan Mindling and Dan Sulmasy and I on the panel were John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Ron Hamel of the Catholic Health Association.  The panel was chaired by the Archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis John Nienstedt, himself a trained moral theologian, having received his doctorate in the 1980s in medical ethics at the Alphonsianum in Rome.
My talk was to focus on the tradition of cooperation with wrongdoing as it has historically applied to individuals. Since the principle of cooperation arises historically out of concern for the sin of scandal, I began with a discussion of scandal in the New Testament. I then discussed the developments Aquinas brings to an understanding of scandal, and as well went over the basics of his action theory necessary for understanding various types of scandal as well as the distinction between what one intends and what one foresees but does not intend. I then turned to St Alphonsus, who was the first to make the key distinction between formal and material cooperation, and who put the principle in the basic form that is almost universally accepted by moral theologians to the present day.
After the presentations and a break, there was over an hour for questions and answers, and extensive discussion and engagement ensued. There is no way to summarize the discussion, but certainly the reality of the necessity of prudence for applying the principle was central, as well as concern about what role ‘duress’ should or should not play in accepting certain types of cooperation. One Archbishop asked a question that I did not expect and really appreciated. He noted that Bishops are called upon by their office to act as teachers. However, he noted that some of the panelists are ‘natural’ teachers as parent, called to teach their children. He asked for insight from the ‘natural teachers’ on the panel to give insight to them as to how they might function well as teachers by office. It felt rather odd to speak about my ‘teaching’ relationship with my three year old daughter Emily and my five year old son Will and provide examples of teaching – mostly advocating the Montessori method that sometimes they can only learn by experiencing and learning from the natural consequences of their actions – but I was deeply appreciative of the question.

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One Comment

  1. John, thanks for this post. It would actually be helpful to know how some of the discussion went in more detail, in order to better understand how the bishops themselves are thinking about the issue of cooperation.

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