Catholic Confusion on Intention and Moral Object

Over at Catholic Lane, Rebecca Taylor writes a post on ethics and genetic enhancements: Catholic Confusion on Enhancements; the post is also here. That post is a follow-up to her earlier post at NC Register: Human or Superhuman. In the latter post, Taylor quotes the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance, correctly, as condemning genetic engineering to enhance the human person, but approving of genetic interventions that are therapeutic.

“In moral evaluation, a distinction must be made between strictly ‘therapeutic’ manipulation, which aims to cure illnesses caused by genetic or chromosome anomalies (genetic therapy), and manipulation, ‘altering’ the human genetic patrimony. A curative intervention, which is also called ‘genetic surgery,’ will be considered desirable in principle, provided its purpose is the real promotion of the personal well-being of the individual, without damaging his integrity or worsening his condition of life.

“On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is ‘the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,’ which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, ‘are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore, they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future.’ ‘No social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic; that is, its finality must be the natural development of the human being.’ ”

Unfortunately, Taylor misinterprets this teaching due to a grave misunderstanding on her part concerning the basic principles of ethics taught by the Magisterium. Here is her erroneous explanation from her more recent post:

“The intent of genetic manipulation needs to be therapeutic in nature.”

“Here is an analogy I think illustrates the Church teaching on many medical interventions, not just genetic engineering. Take ‘birth control.’ A chemical concoction if taken by a healthy woman to thwart her natural fertility (making it no longer function properly) it is unethical. If taken as medicine to treat a significant pathology (a side effect being temporary sterility) then it is morally acceptable. It is all in the intent not the effect.”

To the contrary, the ordinary and universal Magisterium infallibly teaches that there are three fonts of morality: intention, moral object, circumstances. This teachings is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Compendium of the Catechism, the USCCB Catechism, Veritatis Splendor, and it is applied in very many magisterial document on specific questions of morality.

FIRST FONT: The intended end, the reason or purpose for which the act is chosen. This font is in the subject, the person who acts.

SECOND FONT: The inherent ordering of the act itself toward its moral object. This ordering constitutes the moral species, i.e. the essential moral nature, of the chosen act. Any act inherently ordered toward an evil moral object (the proximate end of the act) is an intrinsically evil act. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. This font is in the chosen act itself, not in the subject.

THIRD FONT: The circumstances pertaining to the morality of the act, especially the consequences. The good and bad effects, in so far as they can be reasonably anticipated at the time the act is chosen, determine the morality of this font.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The morality of human acts depends on: — the object chosen; — the end in view or the intention; — the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the ‘sources,’ or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.”

Compendium of the Catechism: “The morality of human acts depends on three sources: the object chosen, either a true or apparent good; the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act; and the circumstances of the act, which include its consequences.”

USCCB Catechism: “Every moral act consists of three elements: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act…. All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.”

Taylor’s moral analysis completely disregards moral object. She considers only intent (the purpose for which the act was chosen) and effects (the consequences). And she incorrectly states that, if the intention is good, the act is moral. To the contrary, the Magisterium teaches that all three fonts of morality must be good for an act to be moral.

Now let’s look again at the magisterial teachings and Taylor’s interpretation:

“strictly ‘therapeutic’ manipulation, which aims to cure illnesses”

” ‘No social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic; that is, its finality must be the natural development of the human being.’ “

The intention for which the act is chosen is its purpose, the first font of morality. No purpose can justify the choice of an act that is intrinsically evil, due to an evil moral object. The terminology used by the Magisterium to describe intrinsically evil acts is diverse. One term is the “finality” of the act. In other words, the end toward which the chosen act is inherently ordered. The finality of an act must be good, for the second font of morality to be good. Another phrasing is the “aim” of the act, i.e. the inherent ordering or direction of the act, in and of itself, toward its proximate end (the moral object). Any act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil. A good intent or purpose never justifies an intrinsically evil act:

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.)

Pope John Paul II: “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.)

But Taylor says otherwise. She does not consider the moral object of the act at all, only intent (intention) and effect (consequences).

“The intent of genetic manipulation needs to be therapeutic in nature.”

Taylor’s assertion that the intent must be therapeutic in nature confuses the intention with the moral object. It is not enough for an act to be chosen with a good intention, in circumstances whereby the act is reasonably anticipated to do more good than harm. A correct choice of actions is also needed.

The nature of the act is its moral object. An intrinsically evil act is immoral, in and of itself, by its moral nature (the moral species of the act, i.e. the type of act in terms of morality). But the intent of the act is not in the act itself, but in the subject. A good intention cannot justify the choice of an intrinsically evil action.

If the act is truly therapeutic, so that it has the good of the human person as its proximate end (the moral object), then the act is inherently good, and not inherently evil. But the intention and the circumstances must also be good. To be good, each act must have three good fonts of morality: only good in the intention, only good in the moral object, and the reasonably anticipated good consequences must equal or outweigh the reasonably anticipated bad consequences (effects).

Pope John Paul II: “The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who ‘alone is good’, and thus brings about the perfection of the person. An act is therefore good if its object is in conformity with the good of the person with respect for the goods morally relevant for him.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 78.)

Good intention is necessary, but not sufficient.

Despite this error on the three fonts of morality, Rebecca Taylor correctly concludes that therapeutic genetic interventions (those acts ordered toward only good in the moral object) are moral, and genetic enhancements (those acts ordered toward a violation of the integrity of the human body) are immoral. But the reason is badly misunderstood. The magisterial source that she quotes actually has the reason correct: “no ideological purpose” (first font) can justify a medical intervention unless the intervention’s “finality” or inherent “aim” (second font) is good.

But then Taylor takes her error and extends it to other questions in ethics:

“Here is an analogy I think illustrates the Church teaching on many medical interventions, not just genetic engineering. Take ‘birth control.’ A chemical concoction if taken by a healthy woman to thwart her natural fertility (making it no longer function properly) it is unethical. If taken as medicine to treat a significant pathology (a side effect being temporary sterility) then it is morally acceptable. It is all in the intent not the effect.”

The intent is the first font of morality. Certainly, to be moral, an act must have only good in the intention. To act with a bad intention is always a sin (bad first font). But the reasonably anticipated good and bad effects of the act must also be weighed. To act in the knowledge that your act will do more harm than good is always a sin (bad third font). Taylor considers only the first and third font, ignoring moral object. And she also errs by claiming that a good intention would justify an act, regardless of the effects. The Magisterium says otherwise:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC, n. 1756.)

In order to be good, an act must have three good fonts: intention, moral object, circumstances. To knowingly choose an act with an evil object (an intrinsically evil act) for a good purpose (intention) is a sin. It is always wrong to choose to do evil (an evil act) for the sake of a good intention.

On the point about birth control, Taylor errs gravely. She asserts that if the woman takes the ‘chemical concoction’ (oral contraceptive) for the purpose (intention) of thwarting fertility (a contraceptive intention), then she sins. This is true, but not solely due to the bad purpose. The choice to use abortifacient contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of intention.

And this is why the Magisterium teaches that intrinsically evil acts such as contraception and abortion are gravely immoral, regardless of whether they are chosen as an end, or as a means to another end. An abortion chosen for the purpose of terminating the pregnancy is a grave sin. A direct abortion (evil moral object) chosen for the good purpose of saving the life of the mother is also a grave sin. The good intended end of saving a life does not justify the choice of an evil act.

The same is true for contraception:

Pope Paul VI: “Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14)

Even if the intended end is not the thwarting of fertility (rendering procreation impossible), the choice of an act that is inherently ordered toward that end is always immoral. This next passage from Humanae Vitae is often misunderstood:

“The Church, on the contrary, does not at all consider illicit the use of those therapeutic means truly necessary to cure diseases of the organism, even if an impediment to procreation, which may be foreseen, should result therefore, provided such impediment is not, for whatever motive, directly willed.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 15)

The thwarting of procreation cannot be willed as an end (the intended end, first font), nor can it be willed in the sense of the deliberate choice of an act that is inherently ordered toward the thwarting of procreation (moral object, second font). A therapeutic purpose is a good intention. But the directly willed act must not be ordered toward the thwarting of procreation, otherwise the act would be intrinsically evil and always immoral.

This distinction becomes clear when we consider whether a married couple may use a barrier contraceptive to prevent the transmission of disease. The Magisterium has always opposed this type of action. The intent is to thwart disease transmission, not to thwart procreation: good first font. But the intentionally-chosen (directly willed) act is intrinsically evil, because the finality of the act is contraceptive. The act is intrinsically ordered (inherently aimed, by the very nature of the act) toward the thwarting of procreation, regardless of the good intention and the dire circumstances.

So if a medication (oral contraceptives) is taken for a good purpose, for a medical or therapeutic intended end, the first font is good. But we must still consider the moral object (second font):

“Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” (CCC 2399)

Pope John Paul II: “In qualifying the contraceptive act as intrinsically illicit, Paul VI intended to teach that this moral norm is such that it admits of no exceptions: no circumstances whether personal or social have ever been able, are able, or will ever be able to make such an act an intrinsically ordered act. The existence of particular norms in the area of man’s activity in this world which have such an obligatory force as to exclude always and every possibility of exceptions, is a constant teaching of the Tradition and of the Magisterium of the Church that cannot be questioned by a Catholic theologian.” (Address to Participants of the Second International Congress of Moral Theology, n. 5).

Pope John Paul II: “Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly illicit that it can never, for any reason, be justified. To think, or to say, anything to the contrary is tantamount to saying that in human life there can be situations where it is legitimate not to recognize God as God. Users of contraception attribute to themselves a power that belongs only to God, the power to decide in the final instance the coming into existence of a human being.” (Address on Responsible Procreation)

The reason or intention cannot justify the choice of an intrinsically evil act of contraception. There are no exceptions to the teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. Even legitimate intentions on the part of a husband and wife do not justify the deliberate choice of an intrinsically evil act, such as direct sterilization or contraception. This source has a good explanation of the same point: abortifacient contraception cannot be justified by a medical intention because the act remains inherently contraceptive and inherently abortive.

In order to be moral, any act must have only good in the intention, only good in the moral object (which determines the moral nature of the act), and the reasonably anticipated good consequences must equal or outweigh the reasonably anticipated bad consequences. To be moral, all three fonts of morality must be good. If one or more fonts is bad, the act is a sin.

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

Gallery | This entry was posted in ethics, intention and moral object. Bookmark the permalink.