The Three Fonts of Morality (continued)

Free Will and Ends

Human free will is the source of each of the three fonts. The human person chooses, by an exercise of free will, an intended end. The person is not compelled to choose any particular end; he makes the choice freely — therein lies the potential for sin.

The human free will also chooses a concrete act, and included in that choice, like it or not, is the choice of the inherent moral meaning of the act. And that moral meaning (or moral nature) is itself determined by the moral object of the act. The one choice by the free will of any concrete act includes, necessarily and at least implicitly, the choice of the act, its nature, and its object. And this choice is intentional (deliberate, voluntary, knowing).

The person makes these choices, the intended end and the act, with the knowledge that actions have consequences, and that any particular act can be reasonably anticipated to include particular good and/or bad consequences. If the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences, the act would be immoral to choose in those circumstances. The circumstances may change, though, allowing the act to be done without sin.

All three fonts spring from the free will. Therefore, we can truly say that the intention of the will, in some sense, applies to each font. However, the intended end (finis agentis) — the purpose or reason for choosing the act — does not determine the moral object of the intentionally chosen act (finis actus). These are two different types of ends: the end chosen by the agent, and the end inherent to the chosen act.

In the second font, the concrete act is deliberately chosen, but the moral nature, as determined by the moral object, is inherent to that choice. One cannot choose a concrete act, intrinsically ordered toward an evil object, with the claim that that object is excluded from choice and therefore does not determine the moral nature of the chosen act. Neither can one take the intended end from the first font and claim that it is the true object of the chosen concrete act. For each font has its own end.

The first font springs from the will, but it is directed toward a particular end, the intended end, which resides in the subject. The second font springs also from the will, but it is directed toward a different type of end, the end which resides in the chosen act itself. The third font springs from the will, but it is directed toward the reasonably anticipated consequences of the chosen act, its end results.

Each font has its morality determined by a different type of end. But it is a common misunderstanding to confuse the intended end with the moral object. The intended end is the end of the person who acts, whereas the moral object is the end inherent to the act itself. The morality of each respective font is determined by its own end. But a good intended end (finis agentis) does not justify the intentional choice of an act with a bad moral object (finis actus) as the means to that end. These are two distinct ends, each in its own font of morality. Each font must be morally good.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused.” [Veritatis Splendor, n. 78.]

When robbing the rich to feed the poor, the intended end is good: to provide for those in need. But the “uprightness of the will” is lacking because the will intentionally chose not only a good intended end, but also an act that is wrong by its very nature, an immoral type of act. The will is not upright if it knowingly chooses a bad type of act, even when the will also chooses a good intended end.

The fact that the will intentionally chooses a type of act does not imply that the will can choose one act and a different moral object. The person who robs the rich to feed the poor cannot claim that his act has the object of feeding the poor. Robbery is not inherently ordered toward helping those in need. If the intended end (first font) and one reasonably anticipated good consequence (in the third font) is that the hungry are fed, the moral object (second font) can still make the act a sin. All three fonts must be good for an act to be moral.

Attainment of These Ends

An act with a bad intention is always a sin; one bad font makes any act immoral. However, it is not the attainment of the intended end (finis agentis) that makes the act immoral by intention. The choice by the free will of that disordered intention is sinful, even if by chance the intended end is not achieved. If you intend to lead your neighbor into grave sin by donating to his favorite charity, and you fail, your act was nevertheless a grave sin due to a gravely disordered intention. It is not the attainment of the intended end that makes the act a sin, but the choice of the disordered intention.

Similarly, it is not the attainment of the object (finis actus) that makes the act moral or immoral, but rather the choice of the disordered act. The act is intentionally chosen, but its morality is determined by its intrinsic ordering toward its object, even if the object is not attained. Some acts are morally good, by their nature, such as prayer and almsgiving. Other acts are morally bad by their nature, such as murder, theft, and lying. But in every case, the inherent moral meaning of the act (its moral nature) is determined by its ordering toward the moral object, not by its attainment of that object.

The moral object is the end toward which the intentionally chosen act is inherently ordered. But even if the act never attains that end, the act remains intrinsically ordered toward that end. It is precisely this ordering toward a good or evil end (the moral object) that determines whether the act is good or evil, in and of itself, by the very nature of the act. An act possesses its moral object merely by being inherently ordered toward that object. The essential moral nature (or species) of the act is absolutely identical to this inherent ordering toward a good or evil moral object (finis actus).

Therefore, an act is intrinsically evil merely because it is ordered toward an evil end, regardless of whether or not the act achieves that end. An intrinsically disordered act is evil solely because it is ordered toward an evil moral object. This moral disorder of intrinsically evil acts is independent of intention, independent of circumstances, independent of other knowingly chosen acts, and independent of whether or not the act attains its object. Each human act, by its very nature, is ordered toward either a good moral object or an evil moral object. The moral object is distinct, but not entirely separate, from the act that is ordered toward that end. By the very fact that the human person chooses any act, he necessarily also chooses the moral nature of the act, which is determined by its moral object. This one intentional choice includes act, nature, object.

When the moral object is evil, the act is called intrinsically evil (or intrinsically disordered) because the act, by its very nature, is ordered toward an end that is incompatible with love of God, who is Goodness itself, who is our final end. Whenever the object of an act is bad, then the second font is bad and the act is intrinsically evil. The moral object of an act is bad whenever it is incapable of being ordered to God, our ultimate end. The moral object is bad whenever it is incompatible with the goodness that God intends for human life, because this goodness and life should always be directed toward God as our final end. The moral object is bad whenever it is contrary to the moral law, which orders all our knowingly chosen acts in accord with the will of God and toward God as our final end.

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).

Are intrinsically evil acts always gravely immoral? No, certainly not. The assertion that an act is intrinsically evil implies that the moral object is bad, but it does not imply anything about the gravity of the disordered act or its object. If the intention and circumstances are good, so that the gravity of a sin depends only on the object, the act could be, objectively, a mortal sin or a venial sin. Direct abortion is objectively a mortal sin. Most lies are objectively venial sins. A theft might be mortal or venial, depending on the value of the items taken and the harm done to the owner by their deprivation.

How can we place intrinsically evil mortal sins in the same category as intrinsically evil venial sins? The answer is that this type of categorization is not based on the severity of the sin. Instead, it is based on the type of disorder that makes the act sinful: its inherent ordering toward the moral object.

The same consideration applies to the other fonts. An act that is immoral due to a bad intention might be a mortal sin or a venial sin. An act that is immoral due to the reasonably anticipated consequences will be objectively a mortal sin if the bad consequences gravely outweigh the good consequences, or a venial sin if the disproportionate harm is substantially limited. The fact that an act is deemed sinful due to a disorder in one or more fonts does not reveal the gravity of the sin, at least not until we consider the moral weight of that particular disorder.

But an intrinsically evil act can never be knowingly chosen without sin. By comparison, an act that is immoral solely due to intention may be done if the person changes his intention. And an act that is immoral solely due to circumstances may be done if the circumstances change. Intrinsically evil acts are immoral by the very nature of the act, so it is always wrong to intentionally choose to commit such an act.

But how can we assert that it is always wrong to commit an intrinsically evil act, if that act happens to be venial? Would not a dire circumstance with great possible harm morally outweigh the limited gravity of the disordered act?

The technical answer, in terms of moral theology, is that the good and bad consequences in the font of circumstances are evaluated by proportion. If the good outweighs the bad, the font is good. Proportionality is used in evaluating circumstances because the good and bad here are benefits and detriments, not morally good or morally bad choices. We should never knowingly choose moral evil. But we can tolerate some harm in the consequences if the intention and the act are good, and if the benefits of the good consequences equal or outweigh the detriments of the bad consequences.

By comparison, the other two fonts are not proportionate. Any bad moral object makes the act wrong by its nature. An act may have more than one moral object. But if one of those objects is incompatible with the love of God or the love of neighbor as self, then the object is evil and so is the act. Two good moral objects can’t change the fact that another moral object in the act is evil. The choice of such an act is the choice of moral evil. Your acts are chosen with free will. You need not choose any evil act, so if you do so, you are morally culpable.

Then, in the font of intention, a person may have more than one intention in committing any single act. If one intention is bad, and one or more additional intentions are good, the font is still bad. Your intentions are chosen with free will. You need not choose any bad intention, so you are culpable if you do so, regardless of any good also found in your intention.

Any bad consequences in the font of circumstances are termed “physical evil”, not moral evil. Physical evil is harm or disorder, which should never be knowingly chosen as an end, but may be tolerated as an unintended consequence — if the totality of the foreseeable consequences does not do more harm than good. But any evil in the fonts of intention and object is moral evil. And the knowing free choice of moral evil is by definition a sin.

It might seem, from a practical or worldly point of view, that one ought to commit a venial sin if many innocent lives would be saved. But from a heavenly point of view, this is not the truth. For no innocent human life is truly lost to God. All who die in a state of grace live forever in eternal happiness in Heaven. And so, not a single resident of Heaven considers even a slight venial sin to be justified, not even by the saving of many innocent lives.

Nor should we on earth, who have the hope of eternal life in Heaven, claim to justify even small sins for any reason. We should always imitate Christ in all our moral decisions. Christ would not commit the slightest venial sin for any reason, not to save His own life, not to save many lives, not to save the whole world from Hell.

Saint Catherine of Siena: “The light of discretion (which proceeds from love, as I have told thee) gives to the neighbor a conditioned love, one that, being ordered aright, does not cause the injury of sin to self in order to be useful to others, for, if one single sin were committed to save the whole world from Hell, or to obtain one great virtue, the motive would not be a rightly ordered or discreet love, but rather indiscreet, for it is not lawful to perform even one act of great virtue and profit to others, by means of the guilt of sin.” [The Dialogue, n. 42.]

Nothing whatsoever can cause an intrinsically evil act to become morally licit. Intention and circumstances have no effect on the moral object of the chosen act. Other chosen acts have no effect on the moral object of the particular act. Each knowingly chosen act is good only if all three fonts are good. If any font is bad, the act is immoral, despite any goodness in the other two fonts, and despite any goodness in other knowingly chosen acts.

Even if an intrinsically evil act were done with a good intended end, in circumstances where only good consequences resulted, the act itself would still be immoral because the moral meaning of the act is inherent to, and inseparable from, the act itself. Intrinsically evil acts are, by their very nature, ordered toward an evil moral object (an evil end). Whenever the moral object is evil (bad, immoral), the intentional choice of such an act is always a sin, even with the best intended end, and even in the most dire of circumstances. The moral object is always independent of intention, always independent of circumstances, and always independent of other knowingly chosen acts.

One can never justify any intrinsically evil act by claiming that the meaning inherent to the act has been changed by any intention, or by any circumstance, or by any other acts, or by any factor or context whatsoever. Nothing can change the inherent moral meaning of the second font concerning any particular act (i.e. the concrete act, the chosen behavior), because that moral meaning is inherent to, and inseparable from, the act itself. Nothing can change the moral object of a particular act, because that act is inherently ordered toward its object.

Pope John Paul II: “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, n. 81.]

Pope John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” [Evangelium Vitae, n. 62.]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.” [n. 1756.]

Whenever the second font is bad, the act itself is necessarily intrinsically evil because the second font considers only the essential moral nature of the act as determined by its object. An intrinsically evil act remains immoral regardless of intention (first font) and regardless of circumstance (third font).

The morality of each font is determined by the ends pertaining to that font. All good ends are capable of being directed toward God as our final end. Whenever any end in any font is not capable of being ordered toward God, that font is bad and the chosen act is immoral. And the evaluation of each font, as to whether or not its end can also be a means to God as the final end, is based on the love of God, which implies both the love of neighbor and an ordered love of self. Therefore, an ordered love of God, neighbor, and self is the ultimate basis for the three fonts of morality.

There is no other basis for the morality of an act apart from these three fonts. For any act to be moral, all three fonts must be good. If any font is bad, the act is immoral, even if the other fonts are good. Each and every knowingly chosen act is judged solely by the three fonts of morality. The three fonts of morality are the sole determinant of the morality of every knowingly chosen act, without any exception. Whoever contradicts this teaching has overturned the very foundation of every moral teaching in the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

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

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