Roman Catholic Teaching on Intrinsically Evil Acts

1: The Three Fonts of Morality

A human act is a knowing choice made by a human person. Every human act is an exercise of free will, making a choice based on knowledge in the intellect. Each choice is an act. All acts are subject to the eternal moral law of God. Some acts are interior; they are confined to the heart and mind. Other acts are exterior; they include some type of physical action. A human act is sometimes called a concrete act, because the act knowingly chosen by free will is an objective reality; it is not a mere abstraction. And it takes a particular form in each case. But every act is subject to the eternal moral law of God.

The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the basis for the morality of each and every act is three-fold: the three fonts of morality. A font is a source or basis or cause for the morality of an act. An act is immoral if any one or more of these fonts is bad. An act is moral only if all three of the fonts are good.

The three fonts of morality are:
(1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances.

1. Intention — Every act of a human person has an intended end chosen by that person. The intention is the purpose or reason for choosing the act. It is the goal that motivates the person to act. The intention resides in the person (the agent of the action).

It is always wrong to act with a bad intention. But if the only thing making your act sinful is your intention, change your intention.

2. Moral Object — Every concrete act has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. This meaning is the nature of the act in terms of morality; it is the moral type (genus, species) of the act. The moral object determines the morality of each type of act. Every particular act is intrinsically ordered toward an end called its moral object. This ordering constitutes the moral nature of the chosen act; it determines the moral type of the chosen act. Any act intrinsically ordered toward an evil end is intrinsically evil. Any act intrinsically ordered toward only good in its moral object is intrinsically good.

This font includes the choice of the act itself, with its essential moral nature, as determined by the moral object. By choosing any act, the human person necessarily also chooses the moral nature of that act and its object. The act, its nature, and its object are inseparable. For every human act has a moral meaning before the eyes of God, and that meaning is determined by the ordering of the act toward good or evil.

God never approves of any act inherently ordered toward evil, nor does He ever condemn, in and of itself, any act inherently ordered toward only good. It is always wrong to choose an act that is intrinsically evil because such an act is immoral by its very nature, independent of intention and circumstances. If an act is intrinsically evil, the act is wrong in and of itself. In such a case, to avoid sin you must choose a different type of act, an act with only good in its object.

3. Circumstances — Every act of the human person takes place within a set of circumstances: past, present, and future. But since your act cannot change the past, nor affect the present situation (except in the next moment), the morality of the circumstances is determined by the reasonably anticipated consequences of the act.

It is always wrong to act if you reasonably anticipate that your chosen act will do more harm than good. If so, you must either refrain from acting, or choose an act with good circumstances. Sometimes, circumstances will change, allowing the act to be done without sin. Other times, you can choose an act that will change the circumstances, removing or substantially diminishing the bad consequences. But if the circumstances remain bad, you cannot choose such an act.

Intrinsic Evil

Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. When the moral object is evil, the second font is bad and the act itself is intrinsically evil and always immoral. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, even if the intended end, in the first font, is good, and even if the consequences, in the third font, are good. The overall act is always immoral whenever any font is bad. And so every intrinsically evil act is always immoral, regardless of the intention (first font) or the circumstances (third font).

In Veritatis Splendor, Pope Saint John Paul II teaches that the bodily dimensions or physical aspects of an act are inseparable from their morality [Veritatis Splendor 49]. A concrete act can be immoral, in and of itself, apart from the intention or purpose of the human person. Every human act has a moral nature, and the nature is determined by the object of the concrete act, not by the purpose or intention of the person who chooses the act. By choosing any concrete act, the human person also chooses (at least implicitly) its inherent moral meaning, and that meaning is determined by the moral object, not by the purpose, intention, or will of the human person.

The teaching of Veritatis Splendor contradicts any attempt to deprive concrete acts of their inherent moral meaning. In that encyclical, Pope Saint John Paul II speaks of “deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behavior”. [Veritatis Splendor 65] The behavior is the act itself, knowingly chosen by the human person. And the ordering of the act toward its object is what gives the act its moral nature. When instead the concrete act is claimed to be devoid of inherent moral meaning, and the purpose for the act chosen by the person replaces (or is claimed to be) the object, then morality becomes detached from the real choices and behaviors of human persons. Pope Saint John Paul II: “This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behavior, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process, and not according to the criteria proper to a human act.” [Veritatis Splendor 65]

The teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts is undermined and contradicted by the frequent claim today that certain acts are merely a physical process. A married Catholic woman who decides both to take an abortifacient contraception pill and to continue having marital relations certainly sins by choosing an act ordered toward abortive and contraceptive ends. But the claim is made that she is merely “taking a pill”, that her action is morally neutral, and that the morality of this act is found only in her intention, not in the act itself. Pope Saint John Paul II: “Judgments about morality cannot be made without taking into consideration whether or not the deliberate choice of a specific kind of behavior is in conformity with the dignity and integral vocation of the human person.” [Veritatis Splendor 67]

We cannot separate the chosen behavior from the moral law. When acts are claimed to be morally neutral, the result is that no behavior can be condemned unequivocally. The proposal whereby an act has no inherent moral meaning, but takes its meaning only from the purpose the human person wills for the act, essentially deprives all human acts of a moral nature determined by the moral object. Instead, the intended end is claimed to be the object of the act. The result is that an intrinsically evil act is said to be transformed into a new kind of act, one that is now moral, when done with a good intention or purpose.

But the clear teaching of the Church is that intrinsically evil acts are immoral by their nature, by the moral species of the act. As a result, it is never moral to deliberately and knowingly choose an intrinsically evil act. Pope Saint John Paul II: “Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.” [Veritatis Splendor 67]

The moral species of the act is determined by its moral object. A concrete act is never morally neutral, and then imbued with some moral meaning by the intention of the person. Rather, each particular act has a moral species (the moral type of the act), determined by its object. An evil object makes the act intrinsically evil, by its very nature. A good object makes the act intrinsically good, by its nature.

An evil moral object implies an evil type of act, and the deliberate choice of such an act is always objectively a sin. Every intrinsically evil act is prohibited by the moral law, regardless of intention or circumstance. The only “intention” that applies to the object of an act is the intentional choice of a concrete act with its nature and object. In no way can any intention change the moral object, or determine its morality. Thus, the person cannot choose which object to associate with which act. Every act possess its own object by being inherently ordered toward that end.

Any evil in the moral object makes the act inherently immoral, and the deliberate choice of that act a sin. Every intrinsically evil act is wrong by the very nature of the act; it is a bad type of act. The chosen act is immoral, in and of itself, no matter how good the intention and no matter how dire the circumstances.

Pope Saint 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 81]

Intrinsically evil acts are inherently disordered. As a result, neither a good intention, nor a dire circumstance, can transform the nature of the act into one that is ordered toward God and the good of the human person. Intrinsically evil acts are irremediably evil because both intention and circumstances are extrinsic to the act itself. No intention, however good, and no circumstance, however dire, can change the nature of the act.

The above text is quoted and adapted from my booklet:
Roman Catholic Teaching on Intrinsic Evil

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.

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3 Responses to Roman Catholic Teaching on Intrinsically Evil Acts

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    Every human act is an exercise of free will, making a choice based on knowledge in the intellect.

    Where do actions such as hiccups come into this?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Actions that are not free will decisions are not subject to morality. They are not “acts” as that term is defined in moral theology.

  2. matt z. says:

    Thanks, I enjoy Reading this and will use it in every day life.

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