Can an intrinsically evil act be justified by a good purpose?

There are three fonts of morality (intention, moral object, circumstances). In order for any knowingly chosen act to be moral, all three fonts must be good. If an act has an evil moral object, then that act is intrinsically evil and always immoral. Nothing in the other two fonts can justify the act, because three good fonts are needed for any act to be moral.

The font called intention is described in this way by the Magisterium:
Catechism of the Catholic Church: “the end in view or the intention” (n. 1750)
Compendium of the Catechism: “the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act” (n. 367)
USCCB Catechism: “the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act)” (p. 311)

So if an act is done for a good purpose, that purpose constitutes the font called “intention”. The intention is the purpose for which the subject performs the act; it is the reason why the person chooses that particular act.

When an act is intrinsically evil, that act has an evil moral object. Intrinsically evil acts are inherently disordered acts because they are ordered, by the very nature of the act, apart from intention and circumstances, toward evil, that is, toward an evil moral object. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is intrinsically directed. The moral object determines the type of the act, called the ‘moral species’ or ‘moral nature’ of the act. So the inherent moral meaning of any act, before the eyes of God, depends on the end toward which that act is ordered, by its very nature.

It is always a sin to knowingly choose to commit an inherently disordered act, an intrinsically evil act. But to be a sin, any intrinsically evil act must be knowingly chosen, in other words, the person must have intentionally (deliberately, voluntarily, knowingly) chosen that type of act. In doing so, the person necessarily chooses the concrete act, and its inherent moral meaning (its inherent order or disorder), and its moral object.

So an intrinsically evil act is always intentionally (deliberately, voluntarily, knowingly) chosen. But the intended end or purpose for which that choice is made does not determine or change the moral object. An act with an evil moral object, chosen for a good purpose, is nevertheless intrinsically evil and always immoral.

Pope John Paul II: “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person…. Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81).

Examples:

Direct abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The medical purpose of improving the health of the mother, if she is both pregnant and has serious chronic ailments, does not justify direct abortion. The medical purpose of saving the life of the mother cannot justify direct abortion. Neither is it true that this purpose somehow transforms direct abortion into indirect abortion, for that would be a type of justification. The end does not justify the means. Therefore, the end cannot transform an evil means into a good means. The inherent moral meaning of any act is not changed by the purpose for which the act was chosen, nor by the circumstances.

The Magisterium has condemned all direct abortion, whether it is “willed as an end or as a means”. Therefore, when an intrinsically evil act is a means to a good purpose, it is nevertheless condemned as necessarily immoral. That is why the use of direct abortion as a means to improve the life of the mother, or even to save the life of the mother, is not justified. The fact that a particular abortion is intentionally chosen (willed) as a means to a good intended end does not change the evil moral object into an unintended consequence. When an act has only good intentions and the good consequences outweigh the bad, the act is nevertheless a sin, if it is an intrinsically evil type of act.

Euthanasia is murder “with the purpose of eliminating all suffering” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 65). By its very definition, euthanasia has a good intention, specifically the good medical purpose of relieving suffering. And yet the Magisterium has infallibly condemned euthanasia as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral (Evangelium Vitae, n. 65).

Euthanasia is said to cause death “by intention” because the person choosing euthanasia intentionally chooses a type of act inherently directed at the death of an innocent human person. But the good intention (good intended end or purpose) of eliminating all suffering does not make the act moral, nor does it convert the death of the innocent person into an unintended consequence.

If it were true that a good intention or a medical purpose justified an act, so that the act could not possibly be intrinsically evil, then euthanasia would always be moral. For euthanasia, by its very definition, includes a good medical purpose, to eliminate all suffering. But euthanasia is condemned by the Church as always gravely immoral.

If it were true that a good intention or medical purpose justified an intrinsically evil, then the use of a condom for the purpose of preventing disease transmission would be moral. But it is not moral.

If it were true that a good intention or medical purpose justified an intrinsically evil, then the use of abortifacient contraception, by a woman who is sexually active, for the purpose of treating a medical disorder would be moral, despite the fact that the contraception deprives sexual acts of their procreative meaning, and despite the fact that, over time, a number of deaths of prenatal children result. Neither can these deaths be properly termed “indirect”, since the person using abortifacient contraception while sexually active is choosing a type of act that is inherently contraceptive and inherently abortive.

Consider this situation: A married couple use abortifacient contraception, for the purpose of depriving sexual acts of their procreative meaning. The type of act is intrinsically evil and the intention (purpose) is also immoral. The same couple continues using abortifacient contraception, but now their purpose has changed; they now intend to use the oral contraceptive as a means to treat a medical disorder in the wife. What has changed? Only the intention or purpose for choosing the act has changed. The same type of act continues to be intentionally chosen, now as a means rather than as an end. The inherent moral meaning of the act and its moral object have not changed. The Magisterium teaches that neither intention nor circumstances can transform an intrinsically evil act into a moral act. Therefore, the use of abortifacient contraception by a woman who is sexually active is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

For the Church has condemned contraception “whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14). The Church “condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 16). And the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that: “Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” (CCC 2399). Therefore, the legitimate intention to prevent disease or to treat a medical disorder does not justify the use of contraception.

The same is true for abortion: “all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14). The Magisterium has condemned direct abortion, regardless of whether it is intentionally chosen as an end or as a means: “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62). Therefore, the legitimate intention to treat a medical disorder does not justify the use of abortifacient contraception.

It is not true that a good intention or medical purpose can make an intrinsically evil act moral. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

Pope John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62).

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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