Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

A term generally employed to designate a partner in some form of evildoing. An accomplice is one who cooperates in some way in the wrongful activity of another who is accounted the principal. From the viewpoint of the moral theologian not every such species of association is straightway to be adjudged unlawful. It is necessary to distinguish first of all between formal and material cooperation. To formally cooperate in the sin of another is to be associated with him in the performance of a bad deed in so far forth as it is bad, that is, to share in the perverse frame of mind of that other. On the contrary, to materially cooperate in another's crime is to participate in the action so far as its physical entity is concerned, but not in so far as it is motived by the malice of the principal in the case. For example, to persuade another to absent himself without reason from Mass on Sunday would be an instance of formal cooperation. To sell a person in an ordinary business transaction a revolver which he presently uses to kill himself is a case of material cooperation. Then it must be borne in mind that the cooperation may be described as proximate or remote in proportion to the closeness of relation between the action of the principal and that of his helper. The teaching with regard to this subject-matter is very plain, and may be stated in this wise: Formal cooperation is never lawful, since it presupposes a manifestly sinful attitude on the part of the will of the accomplice. Material complicity is held to be justified when it is brought about by an action which is in itself either morally good or at any rate indifferent, and when there is a sufficient reason for permitting on the part of another the sin which is a consequence of the action. The reason for this assertion is patent; for the action of the accomplice is assumed to be unexceptionable, his intention is already bespoken to be proper, and he cannot be burdened with the sin of the principal agent, since there is supposed to be a commensurately weighty reason for not preventing it. Practically, however, it is often difficult to apply these principles, because it is hard to determine whether the cooperation is formal or only material, and also whether the reason alleged for a case of material cooperation bears due proportion to the grievousness of the sin committed by the principal, and the intimacy of the association with him. It is especially the last-named factor which is a fruitful source of perplexity. In general, however, the following considerations will be of value in discerning whether in an instance of material cooperation the reason avowed is valid or not. The necessity for a more and more powerful reason is accentuated in proportion as there is

  • a greater likelihood that the sin would not be committed without the act of material cooperation;
  • a closer relationship between the two; and
  • a greater heinousness in the sin, especially in regard to harm done either to the common weal or some unoffending third party.
It is to be observed that, when damage has been done to a third person, the question is raised not only of the lawfulness of the cooperation, but also of restitution to be made for the violation of a strict right. Whether in that case the accomplice has shared in the perpetration of the injustice physically or morally (i.e. by giving a command, by persuasion, etc.) whether positively or negatively (i.e. by failing to prevent it) the obligation of restitution is determined in accordance with the following principle. All are bound to reparation who in any way are accounted to be the actual efficient causes of the injury wrought, or who, being obliged by contract, express or implied, to prevent it, have not done so. There are circumstances in which fellowship in the working of damage to another makes the accomplice liable to restitution in solidum ; that is, he is then responsible for the entire loss in so far as his partners have failed to make good for their share. Finally, mention must be made of the Constitution of Benedict XIV, Sacramentum Poenitentiae , governing a particular case of complicity. It provides that a priest who has been the accomplice of any person in a sin against the Sixth Commandment is rendered incapable of absolving validly that person from that sin, except in danger of death, and then only if there be no other priest obtainable.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 6:1-9
1 Children, be obedient to your parents in the Lord -- that is what ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 145:10-11, 12-13, 13-14
10 All your creatures shall thank you, Yahweh, and your faithful shall ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 13:22-30
22 Through towns and villages he went teaching, making his way to ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 26th, 2016 Image

St. Bean
October 26: On December 16, there is named in the Roman ... Read More