Intention and Moral Species in Rhonheimer

There are three fonts of morality, which I number and name in this way:
1. intended end
2. moral object
3. circumstances

Fr. Martin Rhonheimer has taken some controversial positions on particular moral questions. But this article concerns his ideas on the basic structure of human acts, especially intention, the moral object, and intrinsic evil. Agreement is easily found on the teaching that an evil object makes the chosen act intrinsically evil. The point of controversy is the role of intention with regard to the object, and whether a concrete act is immoral due to that intention, or apart from it.

Rhonheimer: First, the “nature of an act” necessarily includes an intention, because there is no human act without an intention formed by reason. And that is precisely why Aquinas calls the species of an act, which is determined by its object, a forma a ratione concepta, a “form conceived by reason”; likewise, he defines the good that is by nature specific to each virtue as a good formed ex quadam commensuratione actus ad circumstantias et fin em, quam ratio facit, “from a certain commensuration of the act to circumstances and to the end, a commensuration produced by reason.” [1]

Rhonheimer’s position here is substantially different from that of St. Aquinas.

Aquinas: “every action takes its species from its object; while human action, which is called moral, takes its species from the object, in relation to the principle of human actions, which is the reason. Wherefore if the object of an action includes something in accord with the order of reason, it will be a good action according to its species; for instance, to give alms to a person in want. On the other hand, if it includes something repugnant to the order of reason, it will be an evil act according to its species; for instance, to steal, which is to appropriate what belongs to another.” [2]

In the Summa, acts have an inherent moral meaning, called the species of the act, which is determined by the object. The species is the nature of the act in terms of morality. The phrasing used by Aquinas is quite stark “every action takes its species from its object”. There is no mention of intention. Then he explains how an action can have moral meaning: a human act has morality in relation to reason.

So reason recognizes moral meaning in physical actions or concrete behaviors. This basis for the morality of human acts is apart from intention. A person realizes, by reason, that a human behavior has moral meaning by use of reason. The whole moral law is accessible to reason.

Subsequently, the human person might knowingly and intentionally choose to commit such an act, understood in its species (the type of act in terms of morality) by reason. Intention has the role of choosing the concrete act, which necessarily entails a choice of its moral species and its object. In Aquinas, the knowing intentional choice is exterior to the act. What the person intentionally chooses is three things: act, species, object, as a set.

When a human person, with reason and free will, acts deliberately, his actions are no mere physical process. Human behavior has a moral meaning before the eyes of God, understood by reason. But this moral meaning is found in the ordering of the concrete act toward its object. Human intention chooses the act, but the object has its morality from its conformity or lack thereof to right reason.

By contrast, Rhonheimer folds the intention into the nature of the act. So his position is not that of Aquinas, nor is it the traditional position of moral theology; it is an innovation.

Rhonheimer errs because reason is not the same as intention. Right reason understands the moral law, which includes an understanding of the inherent moral meaning of particular actions or behaviors based on the object toward which the act is ordered. But intention does not apply until the person chooses an act, with its nature and object. The act is knowingly and intentionally chosen — therein lies the possibility for the choice to be sinful. But the morality of the act is inherent to the act, due to its ordering toward an end, recognized by right reason as good or evil before the eyes of God.

Rhonheimer reduces the concrete act, which in Aquinas has an inherent morality (its moral species) due to its object, to a mere physical action. Then he attributes the morality of that action ultimately not to the object, but to the intention of the person. The object determines the morality of the act. But what determines the morality of the object? His answer seems to be the will, the intention of the person. Aquinas gives concrete actions a moral meaning, recognized by reason, due to the object. Rhonheimer gives concrete actions no meaning apart from intention.

He asserts that Veritatis Splendor is consistent with this view, but I think it is not.

Rhonheimer: What is called “intrinsically evil,” [in Veritatis Splendor 79-80] therefore, is concrete choice, describable in behavioral terms, that cannot be reduced to simple “behavior,” however, because every choice includes an intention of the will and a corresponding judgment of reason. That is also the reason why the encyclical speaks here about ulterior intentions, and not about intention as such: because “object” and intention are not mutually exclusive terms. There is some intentionality required so that an object of a human act can be constituted [1]

By redefining the moral species and object, to depend on intention, Rhonheimer moves the inherent moral meaning of the concrete act from the object to the person. The classical view of morality has both an end of the person (finis agentis) and an end inherent to the act (finis actus). Rhonheimer inadvertently ends up with two different versions of finis agentis. For in his view, the object takes its moral meaning from the intention of the person, not from its accord (or lack thereof) with the order of reason.

Which moral theologian should I quote in order to support my understanding on this point, that acts have an inherent moral meaning, recognized by reason, but independent of intention? I think I should cite the moral theologian who is most often ignored in these discussions: Jesus.

{19:16} And behold, someone approached and said to him, “Good Teacher, what good should I do, so that I may have eternal life?”
{19:17} And he said to him: “Why do you question me about what is good? One is good: God. But if you wish to enter into life, observe the commandments.”
{19:18} He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony.
{19:19} Honor your father and your mother. And, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The ten commandments and the two great commandments (love God and neighbor) are incompatible with any system of ethics which — no matter what the explanation may be — removes the inherent moral meaning from the chosen behavior. “You shall not” perform this type of behavior. You shall not, period. The behavior itself is prohibited because it is morally wrong. Any philosophical or theological system whatsoever, which nullifies or contradicts this fundamental principle of morality that some types of acts are inherently wrong, is contrary to the ten commandments and the two great commandments, as taught by Jesus Christ.

You might object by saying: “But my intention determines whether or not my actions are defined as one or another of these prohibited behaviors.” The reply is the same: “You shall not.” Some behaviors are incompatible with the love of God and neighbor, regardless of intention. They are immoral “in and of themselves” and “by their very nature”. These acts are “inherently wrong” and “intrinsically evil” and similar phrasings.

I agree with Rhonheimer that an act has no sinfulness without an act of the human will (intention). An act that is not knowingly and intentionally chosen is not an intrinsically evil human act, not even on a merely objective basis. For an act to be subject to morality, which is what we mean by “human act”, there must be knowledge and choice. The act is in itself morally wrong, meaning that if you knowingly choose such an act, you necessarily sin.

However, the moral tradition of the Church has always spoken of certain acts as being immoral by their very nature, in and of themselves — what St. Augustine terms “acts which are themselves sins” (Veritatis Splendor 81). Aquinas agrees, which is why he predicates the good or evil of the species and its object on the order of reason, with no reference to intention. Certainly, intention has an important role in the moral theology of Aquinas and in Catholic moral teaching. But when we are narrowly discussing a concrete act, its species and its object, intention does not yet come into play.

Aquinas: Now in human actions, good and evil are predicated in reference to the reason; because as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv), “the good of man is to be in accordance with reason,” and evil is “to be against reason.” For that is good for a thing which suits it in regard to its form; and evil, that which is against the order of its form. It is therefore evident that the difference of good and evil considered in reference to the object is an essential difference in relation to reason; that is to say, according as the object is suitable or unsuitable to reason. Now certain actions are called human or moral, inasmuch as they proceed from the reason. Consequently it is evident that good and evil diversify the species in human actions; since essential differences cause a difference of species. [3]

In the second font, the human person intentionally (deliberately) chooses an act, and by doing so also intentionally chooses its moral nature and object, at least implicitly. The human will cannot, as Rhonheimer seems to suggest, imbue an act or its object with moral meaning or even deprive an act or object of its sinfulness. And there simply is no support in Aquinas for the claim that “the nature of an act necessarily includes an intention”.

In Sacred Scripture, certain acts are condemned by their type (species, nature), including murder, adultery, theft, lying, etc. There is no indication that what makes an act of killing murder is the intention of the person. Rather, the person intentionally chooses a concrete act (shooting an arrow at a neighbor), which reason understands to be immoral because it is ordered toward an evil proximate end (a morally-immediate or morally-direct end). Without a knowing intentional choice, there is no sin, even objectively. But the morality (or immorality) being chosen by the will is inherent to the act, due to its ordering toward an end. This end is not a mere physical result, such as death or the attainment of stolen goods. It is an end in terms of morality, ultimately in terms of the love of God and neighbor. But in no way can we attribute the moral meaning of the concrete act to intention, other than the role that intention has in choosing the ordered or disordered act.

The species of an action is its moral nature, its type in terms of morality. The object is the end toward which the action is ordered. Right reason is needed to perceive, in what would otherwise seem to be a mere physical process, an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. As a result, some acts are intrinsically immoral, in and of themselves, by their very nature. The knowing intentional choice of an inherently disordered act is at least objectively a sin. But intention does not imbue the object or the act with its inherent moral meaning.

{9:39} And Jesus said, “I came into this world in judgment, so that those who do not see, may see; and so that those who see, may become blind.”
{9:40} And certain Pharisees, who were with him, heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?”
{9:41} Jesus said to them: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. Yet now you say, ‘We see.’ So your sin persists.”

The knowing intentional choice of a disordered act is certainly a sin, but some acts are wrong regardless of intention or circumstances. Rejecting the Savior Jesus Christ is an intrinsically evil act. If it is committed without knowledge, because the person was blind to the fact that He is the Messiah, then “you would not have sin”. The choice of the act must be knowing and intentional, in order to be a sin. But is it not inherently wrong to reject God-made-man? Or does that act depend for its morality on intention?

Moving the fundamental basis for morality from the object, ordered by reason, to the intention allows the very definition of the act by its moral type (species, nature) to depend on intention. The result is that the very same behavior, with the very same morally-immediate end, is reclassified from intrinsically evil to moral. Contraception without a contraceptive intent becomes “not contraception.” Abortifacients become “just a pill”. Sexual sins become justifiable, because the very definition of the act, in terms of morality, no longer depends on the object, but on the human will imbuing that object and its act with moral meaning.

This approach is rather attractive to us poor fallen sinners. We would like the number of acts considered sinful to be reduced, and the number of acts considered permissible to increase. It would make life easier if we could knowingly and intentionally assert a falsehood, without having to call that act a sin or an intrinsically evil act. But I have to admit that Rhonheimer’s approach is not in accord with Sacred Scripture, nor with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor. Some acts are always wrong to knowingly and intentionally choose, because the chosen act is wrong by its very nature, in and of itself, independent of intention or circumstances. The person intentionally chooses the act, but the act has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.


[1] Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, “Intentional Actions and the Meaning of Object: A Reply to Richard Mccormick”, The Thomist Vol. 59, No. 2 (April 1995), 279-311.
[2] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, 18, 8.
[3] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, 18, 5.

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