Solution to the Problem of Intrinsic Evil and Physical Acts

How can a physical act have an inherent morality, good or evil? How can we condemn as always objectively immoral “the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned”? [Veritatis Splendor 79]

The answer on one extreme is that the physical acts themselves have a moral nature; they have an inherent moral meaning. The opposing answer is that physical acts are imbued with moral meaning by the person who chooses the act, by means of the purpose for which the act is chosen. Both of these answers are incorrect.

Human persons cannot choose any type of behavior they wish, such as the behaviors condemned in the Ten Commandments and in the New Testament, and claim that these act are moral due to a good purpose or intention. Such a position is unequivocally condemned by the CCC and Veritatis Splendor.

“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.”

On the other hand, if we consider a physical act to have a moral meaning by itself, we find numerous examples which appear to be in contradiction to one another. Killing in self-defense is physically like the act of killing as a murder, yet the former is moral and the latter gravely immoral under magisterial teaching.

So what is it that distinguishes one physically similar act from another? The answer that it is the intended end or purpose for which the act is chosen is rejected as an error by the Magisterium.

My answer is that the concrete acts of human persons (in the second font of morality) have a certain structure which is comparable to the union of body and soul as one person. The concrete act is analogous to the body, even when that act is an interior-only type of act, such as an interior choice of heart and mind that is not expressed in a bodily act. And the knowing and deliberate choice of that concrete act by a human person is analogous to the soul of the act. The moral nature of the act is found not solely in the human person, as is the intention (first font), but it is also not found solely in the physical act, apart from its knowing deliberate choice by a human person.

The moral nature of any act subject to morality and conscience is found in the inextricable union of the knowing deliberate choice and the chosen concrete act. This chosen act (to use a term that includes both parts) has an inherent ordering which it would not have if it was not a knowing and deliberate choice by a person gifted with reason and free will, who is made in God’s image and stands in judgment before the all-knowing gaze of God. The inherent ordering of the chosen act is toward an end, the moral object. This end in terms of morality imbues the chosen act with its inherent moral meaning or moral nature; the moral nature of the chosen act is then nothing other than this ordering. And when the object is evil, the act is inherently morally disordered and is rightly called intrinsically evil.

What is the difference between the mere physical act versus the knowing and deliberate act, in this regard? Consider these examples.

A Catholic couple are married by a Catholic priest. After some time passes in their marriage, they seek an annulment. The annulment is granted because the couple are related as second cousins and they did not obtain a dispensation in order to marry. Were the sexual acts of their marriage fornication, since they were never validly married? No, they were not. For every intrinsically evil act must be knowingly and deliberately chosen. They reasonably believed that they were married to each other validly, so these physical acts — sexual intercourse between two persons not validly married to one another — are not the intrinsically evil acts of fornication. They did not knowingly choose fornication. They chose an act they reasonably believed to be ordered toward the marital meaning (and the unitive and procreative meanings), but their acts failed to attain that good object.

A person asserts a falsehood, thinking that it is true. Is the assertion, even merely objectively, a lie? No, for every intrinsically evil act is knowingly and deliberately chosen. But this person chose an act believed to assert a truth, and so the morality is not judged merely by the concrete act (he asserted a falsehood), but by the knowing deliberate choice of the act (he chose to assert a truth, but failed to attain that good object, i.e. truth).

Even so, the knowing and deliberate choices of human persons have an essential moral nature; they have an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. And when such acts are intrinsically evil, they are never justified by a good intention, nor by a dire circumstance. The moral nature of such acts depends on both the body and soul of the act. But this moral nature is inextricable from the physical act (the exterior or bodily behavior), just as it is inextricable from the knowing and deliberate choice of that act. One cannot choose an act of fornication, or an act of lying, and make the act moral by using that evil as the means to a good end.

Veritatis Splendor:

“48. Faced with this theory, one has to consider carefully the correct relationship existing between freedom and human nature, and in particular the place of the human body in questions of natural law.

A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear as presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act. Their functions would not be able to constitute reference points for moral decisions, because the finalities of these inclinations would be merely “physical” goods, called by some “pre-moral”. To refer to them, in order to find in them rational indications with regard to the order of morality, would be to expose oneself to the accusation of physicalism or biologism. In this way of thinking, the tension between freedom and a nature conceived of in a reductive way is resolved by a division within man himself.

This moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom. It contradicts the Church’s teachings on the unity of the human person, whose rational soul is per se et essentialiter the form of his body. The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole — corpore et anima unus — as a person. These definitions not only point out that the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory. They also remind us that reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties. The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts. The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator. It is in the light of the dignity of the human person — a dignity which must be affirmed for its own sake — that reason grasps the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined. And since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness.

49. 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 wilful 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.”

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

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7 Responses to Solution to the Problem of Intrinsic Evil and Physical Acts

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    Killing in self-defense is physically like the act of killing as a murder, yet the former is moral and the latter gravely immoral under magisterial teaching.

    I do not know if this hypothetical example has ever been a feature of any historic culture, but I would like an answer.
    Assume a society which allows dueling and does not allow the refusal of a challenge. If I am challenged to a duel, refuse to defend myself and the challenger hunts me down and kills me, is that suicide? If I defend myself against him when he comes after me, have I participated in a dual?

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is not suicide, because your choice was to refrain from committing a grave sin. The martyrs who died because they refused to deny Christ did not commit suicide. If you are hunted down and defend yourself, that is self-defense. You did not show up for the duel or participate in any of its rites or requirements.

  2. Marco says:

    I don’t know, Ron, i tought that intrinsically evil acts were evil per se, without needing to choose them knowingly.

    For example, are the divorced and remarried ortodox christians adulterers from the objective point of view?

    Yes, they are most likely not culpable because their Church bless those second unions, but they are adulterers nontheless.

    That’s why here it was cleared that they can access to Catholic Sacraments.

    Also, my argument pointing at the fact that Al has a precedent regarded the fact that the ortodox in general (not the divorced and remarried) are admitted to catholic Sacraments if they do not want to join the Catholic Church.

    You agreed with me, saying that they were committing the objective mortal sin of omission of not joining the Catholic Church.

    Let me quote your words


    “ Canon 844 does prove that mere objective mortal sin, apart from being conscious of actual mortal sin, does not absolutely require refusal of Communion, as if Canon 915 were an expression of divine law.”

    But this article of yours seems to contradict that view.

    Could you please clarify in case i have misunderstood? Thank you very much.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I’m tired of arguing that point over and over. If a person commits suicide, thinking that it is moral, he is still guilty of an intrinsically evil act, objectively, even if the subjective culpability is lessened. If a person accidentally kills himself, he is not guilty of suicide, since it was not a knowing deliberate choice. The divorced and remarried non-Catholic Christians commit an intrinsically evil act, even if they are not subjectively culpable. On the other hand, a Catholic with an annulment might divorce and remarry, but if the annulment was incorrectly given, the remarriage is not adultery, because intrinsically evil acts must be knowingly chosen.

    • Marco says:

      Perfect Ron.

      Thanks for having clarified, i agree.

    • Marco says:

      I didn’t want to bother you, i just wanted to make sure things in my mind. Thank you again.

    • Marco says:


      “That’s why here it was cleared that they can access to Catholic Sacraments.”

      They can’t. Not “they can”.

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