My Reply to the ‘mere physical act’ Argument

The teaching of the Magisterium, especially in Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that the morality of each and every human act depends entirely and solely on the three fonts of morality:
1. intention
2. object
3. circumstances.

Each font proceeds from the human will to a different type of end. If any one, two, or three of these fonts is bad, the overall act (the act including all three fonts) is objectively a sin; it is morally illicit. Only if all three fonts are good is the act moral; it is at least morally permissible, even if it is not virtuous. But one bad font makes any act a sin.

Some acts are interior; they are confined to the heart and mind. Other acts are exterior; they include some physical or bodily action. However, an exterior act, subject to morality, is also of the heart and mind. It is an exercise of free will and intellect: a knowing deliberate choice.

1. The intention is the intended end; it is the purpose or reason for which the act itself is chosen. This end motivates the choice of the act. The intention resides in the person who acts, because it is an end chosen by the person: finis agentis (the end of the person who acts). It is always wrong to act with a bad intention.

2. The object (or moral object) is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. However, this font is not the moral object by itself, but rather the deliberate knowing choice of a concrete act (the act in a particular case), which necessarily always includes a choice, at least implicitly, of the moral nature and moral object of that act.

The object is a different type of end than the intention. The object resides in the act itself, not in the person who acts. It is called finis actus (the end of the act), as opposed to finis agentis (the end of the actor).

Every concrete act of a human person, whether interior or exterior, has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. This meaning is the nature of the act, in terms of morality, that is to say, its moral nature or moral species (the type of act in regard to its morality). And the moral nature of the concrete act is nothing other than its ordering toward an end: its moral object. So, when a human person chooses any concrete act, he chooses the act, its nature, and its object — whether he realizes it or not, whether he likes it or not, whether he intends it or not.

When the object of an act is evil, then the act is intrinsically evil, and is always wrong to knowingly choose. For an evil moral object means that the act itself is ordered, by its very nature, toward evil. And the font called object is not merely the moral object, but the deliberate knowing choice of that act, its moral nature, and its object. To knowingly choose something which is inherently evil is certainly always a sin.

3. The morality of the circumstances is determined by the totality of the moral weight for the reasonably anticipated good consequences (or benefits) and bad consequences (or harm) of the act. It is always wrong to choose to act when you reasonably anticipate that your act will do more harm than good.

Why should the morality of an act be determined by three ends? Each font proceeds from the human will. Is it not sufficient for the will to be good? The reason that morality is determined by ends is that God created all that exists, but most especially human persons made in His image, to be ordered toward God as the final end and greatest good of all things. We poor fallen sinners are not gods; therefore, our will, by itself, cannot be the definition of good or evil. Instead, all that we do must be capable of being ordered toward God, and toward fulfilling (or at least not contradicting) the greatest commandments: love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Therefore, to be moral, the knowingly chosen acts of human persons must be ordered toward only good: only good in the intended end, only good in the moral object, and only good in the consequences of the act. And the goodness of each font is judged by the commandments to love God, neighbor, self.

Intention and Object

A common error is to confuse the intended end, which is the purpose for which the act is chosen (first font), with the moral object, which is the end inherent to the act itself (second font). The concrete act is always intentionally chosen. And by intentionally (deliberately) choosing the act, one also chooses, at least implicitly, the nature and object which are both inherent to that act. But one cannot choose an act, and imbue that act with any end one may choose. For the intended end (the only end that is directly chosen by the will) does not justify the moral nature and moral object of the act, the act used as a means to that intended end.

“Nor is it possible for man to endow whatever behavior he chooses with whatever meaning he wishes to communicate.” [John C. Ford, S.J. from the so-called “minority report” given to Pope Paul VI in preparation for Humanae Vitae]

“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.” [Pope Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 78.]

Therefore, we cannot justify an act ordered by its very nature toward killing an innocent prenatal by means of a good intention, such as to save the life of the mother, or to relieve her suffering. We cannot justify a gravely disordered sexual act by reference to some good intention. Every knowingly chosen act has an essential moral nature, which is independent of intention and circumstances.

Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

1756 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.

1759 “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means.

Thus, some acts of human persons are evil, by their very nature, regardless of the purpose for which the act is chosen (the first font of intention), and regardless of the circumstances or consequences (third font). And human persons may not choose such acts, without committing a sin before the eyes of God.

The Physical Act

Why should a mere physical act be considered to have an essential moral nature? Why would God consider an exterior action to have an inherent moral meaning? The reason is that these physical or bodily actions are not the actions of an inanimate object or an unthinking animal. They are the actions of a human person, made in the image of God, given the gifts from God of free will and reason, by which gifts the person is capable of understanding transcendent truths, such as good and evil, love and sin. The human person is body and soul, and so we are called to be imitators of God not only inside our hearts and minds, but also in all our exterior bodily or physical actions. And each of these actions involves a knowing deliberate choice, subject to conscience and to the eternal moral law of God.

So we cannot consider the killing of a prenatal during birth, a so-called partial birth abortion, performed by crushing the skull of the child, to be merely a physical restructuring of the skull. The physician realizes that this physical action has a moral meaning — it is the killing of a human person, made in the image of God, in violation of the duty “first of all, do no harm” and in violation of the eternal moral law. And no reference to a good intended end, such as saving the life of the mother, can justify such a wicked act. Some acts are always wrong to knowingly choose because the act itself has an inherent moral meaning that is incompatible with the love of God and neighbor.

We cannot justify the intrinsically evil act of abortion, for the medical purpose of saving the life of the mother. We cannot justify the intrinsically evil act of euthanasia for the medical purpose of relieving the suffering of a terminally ill person. And so we certainly cannot justify the intrinsically evil acts of abortion and contraception — via abortifacient contraception — for the medical purpose of treating some medical disorder.

In all such cases, the choice itself has a moral meaning, which cannot be separated from the concrete knowingly chosen act. We cannot say that the physical action has no inherent meaning, because that action is knowingly chosen by a person made in the image of God, a person capable of understanding that acts have a transcendent value, apart from the intention and the circumstances which surround the act itself.

“A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a “spiritual” and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behavior involving it (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). Saint Paul declares that “the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation — repeated by the Council of Trent” — lists as “mortal sins” or “immoral practices” certain specific kinds of behavior the willful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.” [Pope Saint John Paul II Veritatis Splendor 49]

A partial-birth abortion, which crushes the skull of the prenatal, killing an innocent, does not have the same meaning as the physical act of surgery to the skull of an infant. The former act is murder, by its very nature, and the latter act is healing, also by its nature. The end of the former is the death of an innocent; the end of the latter is the saving of life.

An unnatural sexual act cannot be justified by being done by a Catholic married couple, for the purpose of foreplay, or for some other intended end. These acts are wrong by the very nature of the act, and they have always been condemned by the Church as intrinsically disordered and contrary to natural law, as acts of grave depravity. Like contracepted sex, unnatural sexual acts are inherently non-procreative sexual acts, and therefore also intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. They are not mere physical actions whose meaning and morality is determined entirely by the purpose for which they are chosen, or by the circumstances. They are inherently anti-procreative sexual acts, contrary to natural law.

Humanae Vitae

When the decision concerning the use of contraceptive pills in marriage was being debated among theologians, just prior to Humanae Vitae, they considered whether the approval (suggested by some) of contraception within marriage would imply that non-procreative sexual acts were also approved. The reason for this consideration is that both types of acts — contraception, which deprives natural relations of its procreative end, and unnatural sexual acts, which are inherently non-procreative — are deprived of a good required by the eternal moral law. And the answer is that, if contraception were moral, despite the deprivation of the procreative meaning, then this error would imply that unnatural sexual acts were also moral. If the one act need not be procreative, at least in the inherent ordering of the act, if not in the results, then the other act would also be subject to the same (erroneous) approval.

John Finnis considers this question in his article, “Natural Law and Unnatural Acts”. Finnis refers to those persons “contemplating not marriage but some years of contracepted (or in some other way non-procreative) sexual play.” After condemning fornication (sex outside of marriage) and adultery, Finnis states the following.

“And if a question is raised about solitary sexual acts or sexual intercourse extra vas (whether homo- or hetero-sexual), the Christian response … turns on the fact that all sexual activity involves an inchoate [incipient] version, or perhaps a kind of reminder, of the procreative causal potency of ‘full’ sexual intercourse….”

The term extra vas refers to sexual acts apart from natural intercourse (which alone makes use of the proper vessels).
[1 Thessalonians]
{4:3} For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from fornication,
{4:4} that each one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor,
{4:5} not in passions of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God….

An Unintended Side Effect

Sometimes an act is said to be moral, and not intrinsically evil, because some harm is only an “unintended side effect”, and not an evil moral object. An example would be the death of a prenatal, in an abortion for the purpose of saving the life of the mother. Let’s examine that claim.

When something is unintended, it is not in the first font, the intended end. The fact that an evil end is not in the first font does not prove that font to be good. We must determine if there is any other evil in the intended end.

Every effect of a knowingly chosen act, every reasonably anticipated good and bad consequence, is weighed in the third font, called the circumstances of the act. If a bad effect is a side effect, it is in the consequences. But to determine the morality of this font, we must weigh all the effects, good and bad, of the act. If the unintended effect outweighs any good effects of the act, then that unintended effect would still make the act immoral, due to a bad third font (circumstances).

Right away, it is clear that when some harm is an unintended side effect of an act, the first and third fonts each might still be bad, making the act a sin. And the assertion that some harm is unintended and is a type of effect, says nothing about the moral object. For the object of the act is the end toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered.

Now sometimes an end is found in all three fonts: the intention, object, and circumstances. A physician intends to heal a patient; he chooses a procedure ordered toward healing the patient; he obtains the reasonably anticipated good consequence of healing. Thus, when a bad effect is in the consequences, and not in the intention — as is asserted by the expression “unintended side effect” — it may still be an evil in the object, making the act intrinsically evil.

So often, the term “unintended side effect” is used to justify an intrinsically evil act, by reference to intention and consequences, without regard to object. Thus, in a direct abortion to save the life of the mother, the death of the prenatal might be unintended, and it is an effect in the consequences, but that in no way justifies the act itself, which also has the death of the prenatal as its evil moral object.

In other cases, the same term is used as a mere rationalization, as a disingenuous label which justifies an intrinsically evil act, without regard to the three fonts of morality, the teachings of the Church, and the eternal moral law of God. But even if a type of harm is an unintended side effect, that harm will still make the act intrinsically evil, if it is also in the object.

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

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8 Responses to My Reply to the ‘mere physical act’ Argument

  1. “A partial-birth abortion, which crushes the skull of the prenatal, killing an innocent, does not have the same meaning as the physical act of surgery to the skull of an infant.”

    What if the physical acts are completely the same except for what comes LATER?

    • Ron Conte says:

      What matters is the ordering of the act toward its proximate end. The length of time before the end does not matter. If a terrorist sets up a time bomb, to go off at a much later time, it is still intrinsically evil. If a bomb squad finds the bomb and sets it off, in a remote location, in order to disarm it, that act differs from setting off a bomb to kill people. To know if an act is intrinsically evil, we have to understand the inherent ordering of the act towards one or more ends.

  2. The problem is that the crushing of the skull does not necessarily cause death. If the person walks away, it will cause death. If the person performs surgery, it will cause health. The problem is that you assume that crushing a skull always causes death. That may be false.

  3. “The Magisterium has condemned this type of abortion.”

    The problem is that Grisez’s argument is that it is not abortion at all, so it is not the type of abortion that was condemned.

    And it is your arguments that are ridiculous. You say there is a proximate end that is determined by the act itself, and not anything later, and not by the current mental intention of the people doing it. In your example of the bomb, there is nothing in the act itself, except the intention of the people doing it, that makes the proximate end “in order to disarm it” instead of “in order to kill people.” A bomb going off is the same no matter which consequence happens. So you can only tell based on what actually happens, or on what they actually intend. Your proximate end that does not depend on these things is therefore a fiction.

    • Ron Conte says:

      You are arguing about issues that have already been decided by the Magisterium. These are not my ideas. I am explaining Church teaching. Using “proximate end” as a way to describe the moral object is from Veritatis Splendor. The idea that the act itself has an inherent morality, determined by its proximate end, is from VS. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.”

      Your claim that “there is nothing in the act itself” which determines its morality, except the intention, is contrary to Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, and the CCC. Some acts are “intrinsically evil” because they are wrong regardless of intention and circumstances.

      The Magisterium has specifically condemned these abortions, as Grisez admits in the body of his discussion, with citations from magisterial documents provided by Grisez. He is saying that he is contradicting the Magisterium.

  4. I said “there is nothing in the act itself” in the case of the bomb, where it is perfectly obvious that it is physically the same to throw a bomb to kill someone and to throw a bomb to disarm it. If you think there is a physical difference, what is it?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The physical difference is that the bomb in the first case explodes killing an innocent. The fact that the throwing is the same is irrelevant. You are arguing on this topic as if you were not Catholic, or as if the Catholic Church had no teachings on the basic principles of ethics. I’m not going to continue this discussion with you, unless you base the discussion on our mutual acceptance of the teaching of Veritatis Splendor. If you are not well-versed in VS and in agreement with its teaching, then you really have no way to propose a sound argument in Catholic ethics on any question.

      As I think I said before, I’m teaching what the Church teaches in VS and the CCC. It is definitive Catholic teaching that certain types of behavior are intrinsically immoral, that human acts have a kind of nature, that the goodness or evil of that act (or behavior) and its nature is determined by the “proximate end” also called the “moral object”. What you are arguing, I’m sorry to keep saying this, but it is just a result of being uninformed about the teaching of the Church on this topic. Why don’t you learn what the Church teaches about the basic principles of ethics from me (or give VS a close reading), and then we can argue about specific applications.

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