A Simple Explanation of the Three Fonts of Morality

The Roman Catholic Church has a definitive teaching on what makes any act moral or immoral: the three fonts (meaning “sources”) of morality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Compendium of the Catechism, the USCCB Catechism, and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor all teach this same doctrine. There are three and only considerations that make any act morally licit (i.e. permissible without sin) or morally illicit (immoral, sinful).

Morality concerns knowingly chosen acts. Sin is nothing other than the knowing choice of an immoral act. And the morality of any act is judged by the three fonts.

1) INTENTION

The intention of your act is also called the intended end or the end in view. It is the purpose or reason for choosing the act. It is always a sin to act with a bad intention.

Examples:

A man prays on the street corner in order to attract attention to himself and make people think he is holy. Prayer is a good act, is it not? But praying with a bad intention (e.g. self-exaltation) is a sin. The same can be said about fasting and almsgiving.

[Matthew 6]
{6:1} “Pay attention, lest you perform your justice before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise you shall not have a reward with your Father, who is in heaven.
{6:2} Therefore, when you give alms, do not choose to sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the towns, so that they may be honored by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
{6:3} But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
{6:4} so that your almsgiving may be in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.
{6:5} And when you pray, you should not be like the hypocrites, who love standing in the synagogues and at the corners of the streets to pray, so that they may be seen by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
{6:6} But you, when you pray, enter into your room, and having shut the door, pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.

{6:16} And when you fast, do not choose to become gloomy, like the hypocrites. For they alter their faces, so that their fasting may be apparent to men. Amen I say to you, that they have received their reward.
{6:17} But as for you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
{6:18} so that your fasting will not be apparent to men, but to your Father, who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.

In order for the font called intention to be good, you must seek only good in choosing to act. In other words, your purpose or reason for acting must be entirely good.

2) MORAL OBJECT

This font of morality is the most widely misunderstood. This font is based on the nature of the act being chosen. Every knowing choice of the human person, that is to say, every exercise of free will and intellect, is subject to the eternal moral law of God. And every act that is chosen by the will and intellect has an essential moral nature before the eyes of God. The nature of an act, in terms of morality, is its inherent moral meaning. It is the type of act in view of the moral law. The technical theological term used for the moral ‘type’ of an act is its ‘species’ (per Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor) or its ‘genus’ (per Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica).

Consider the sin of theft. There are a thousand different ways to commit theft with a myriad of different intentions and circumstances. And yet each of these acts is properly called theft. What determines the moral nature of an act; what determines its type in terms of morality? It is the inherent ordering of the act toward its moral object.

The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. An act that is ordered toward an evil end is intrinsically morally disordered, and so it is always immoral. And this end, toward which the act, by its very nature, is intrinsically directed, is not necessarily the same end as the intended end, nor is it necessarily the same as one of the consequences in the circumstances of the act. The moral object is the proximate end; it is the end toward which the act, by its intrinsic ordering, is necessarily directed. The moral object is the morally-immediate, or we could say morally-direct, end that is inherent to the nature of the act.

The choice of any act is necessarily the choice, not merely of a concrete exterior action, but also of its essential moral nature, which is determined by its moral object. The choice of any act is the choice of the action, and, at least implicitly, also a choice of its moral nature and its moral object. The moral object is, in a sense, within the nature of the act, since the act is ordered toward that end by its nature.

When the moral object is evil, the knowing choice of any act ordered toward that evil moral object is always objectively a sin. By choosing a morally-disordered type of act, you are, at least implicitly, also choosing its evil end. Every act with an evil moral object is called intrinsically evil. Some intrinsically evil acts are venial sins, and others are mortal sins. But every intrinsically evil act is necessarily always immoral.

It is always a sin to choose an act that is immoral by its very nature, an immoral type of act.

Examples of intrinsically evil acts:

contraception – always objectively a mortal sin
abortion – always objectively a mortal sin
adultery – always objectively a mortal sin
theft (some thefts are venial sins and others are mortal sins)
lying (some lies are venial sins and others are mortal sins)
and many other sins.

Sometimes the moral object of the act is attained, and other times the act fails to attain to that end. But the choice of an intrinsically evil is always immoral, regardless of whether or not the moral object is attained. For it is the inherent ordering of the act toward a good or evil end that makes the act good or evil by its very nature — not the attainment of that end.

For example, when a married couple has natural marital relations open to life, they knowingly choose a good type of act. The act is moral, even if it fails to attain the good moral object of procreation. For the type of act they are choosing is ordered toward that good end.

Now suppose that a married couple has contracepted marital relations, but the contraception fails and they procreate a child. The act of using contraception was still immoral, even though it failed to attain its evil moral object of depriving sexual acts of their natural procreative meaning. So the couple sinned by choosing a morally disordered act.

The ordering of an act toward a good or evil end (the moral object) determines if the act has a good or evil moral nature, regardless of whether that good or evil end was actually attained.

3) CIRCUMSTANCES

The word circumstances is used in moral theology as a specialized term. It is everything that affects the morality of an act, other than intention and the moral nature of the act. Anything essential to the moral nature is not a circumstance.

The morality of the circumstances is determined by the moral weight of the good and bad consequences that can be reasonably anticipated at the time that the act is chosen. If the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences, then the act is always a sin (unless circumstances change). It is always wrong to act, if you reasonably anticipated that your action will do more harm than good. If the good and bad consequences are equal, or if the good outweighs the bad, then the third font is good.

THREE GOOD FONTS

If all three fonts are good, the act is moral; it is not a sin. It might not be your best option among many possible moral acts, but it is morally permissible. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is immoral; it is a sin. It is always a sin to choose an act with one or more bad fonts.

This teaching of the Roman Catholic Magisterium is comprehensive; it encompasses all human acts. There are no exceptions. If all three fonts of morality are good, the act is not a sin. If one or more fonts are bad, the act is always a sin.

If the only thing making your act a sin is a bad intention, then change your intention. We should always intend only good in all that we do. If you are having difficulty ridding yourself of a bad intention, pray and practice self-denial. God’s grace is always available.

If the only thing making your act a sin is the type of act (its moral nature), then choose a different type of act, one with only good in the moral object. We should always choose only good types of acts, never evil types of acts.

If the only thing making your act a sin is the reasonable anticipation that the act will do more harm than good, you can refrain from acting. Or you can choose a different act, one with three good fonts. Or you might act in such a way as to change the circumstances so that the bad consequences are reduced and the good consequences are increased.

But in any case, it is always a sin to choose an act with a bad intention, or to choose a bad type of act, or to choose to do more harm than good. And nothing can justify sin.

LOVE

How do we evaluate each font of morality, to determine if it is good or bad? The Church has many teachings on particular types of acts. However, in all cases the moral evaluation of an act is based on the love of God above all else and the love of your neighbor as yourself. Any font that is contrary to an ordered love of God, neighbor, self is morally bad. Any act that is contrary to an ordered love of God, neighbor, self is a sin. We distinguish moral good from moral evil based on the true selfless love of God and the love of neighbor as self.

[Matthew]
{22:36} “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
{22:37} Jesus said to him: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God from all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
{22:38} This is the greatest and first commandment.
{22:39} But the second is similar to it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
{22:40} On these two commandments the entire law depends, and also the prophets.”

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

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