Morality concerns acts (also called ‘human acts), which are the knowing choices of a human person. In moral theology, an act is an exercise of intellect and free will. The mind understands, and the will freely chooses. All such knowing choices are subject to the eternal moral law of God. Each and every knowingly chosen act is either moral (permissible, not sinful) or immoral (not permissible, sinful).
What makes an act moral or immoral? The three fonts (or sources) of morality:
2. moral object
Every knowingly chosen act, without any exception, has three fonts of morality. When all three fonts are good, the act is moral; it is at least morally permissible. When any one or more fonts is bad, the act is immoral; it is a sin to knowingly choose such an act.
All three fonts spring from the human will, and all three fonts are directed toward some type of end. But we should keep in mind that a good end does not justify an evil means, so both the end and the means must be morally good.
1. The intention is the intended end of the human person. The intention is in the subject, the person who acts. The intention is the purpose for which the act is chosen by the person; it is the motivation for choosing the act. If the intended end (or the intended means) is contrary to the love of God, or the love of neighbor as self, then the first font is bad, and the act is immoral. But if the only thing making your act immoral is your intention, then change your intention. To act with a bad intention is always a sin. The human will is the source of this font.
3. The font called circumstances is good, if the reasonably anticipated bad consequences do not outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences, for all persons affected by the act. These consequences must be evaluated according to their moral weight, that is, according to an ordered love of God, neighbor, self. The consequences of our knowingly chosen acts are the end result of the act; they are a type of end. The choice of an act that is reasonably anticipated, at the time that the act is chosen, to have bad consequences that morally outweigh the good consequences, is always a sin. The human will is the source of this font, in so far as the good and bad consequences were reasonably anticipated by the intellect at the time the act was chose, and the will, in the light of that knowledge, chose the act.
2. The moral object is the most difficult font of morality to understand; it is the font most often misrepresented or misused in moral evaluations. And it is the font most often attacked by those who wish to undermine the teaching of the Church on morality.
The Church has always taught, in Tradition, Scripture, the Magisterium, that certain types of acts are immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. What makes these acts immoral is their moral species, that is, the type of act in terms of morality. These acts are immoral by the very nature of the act, in and of itself, regardless of the intention or purpose for which the act was chosen, and regardless of circumstances or consequences. These acts are called intrinsically evil; they are inherently immoral, and therefore always objectively sinful. The knowing choice of an intrinsically evil act by the human will is always a sin.
What makes an act intrinsically evil? Its moral object.
The moral object of an act is not subjective; it is not in the person who acts, but in the act itself. That is why every act with an evil moral object is described by terms such as: intrinsically evil, illicit by its very nature, immoral in and of itself, inherently morally disordered, etc. The act is objectively sinful, and so the knowing choice of such an act by human free will is never justified.
The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the act is inherently ordered. When an act is intrinsically directed toward an evil end, the act is immoral by its very nature. The moral species of any act, its essential moral nature, is identical to this inherent ordering toward good or evil.
Note that it is not the attainment of that evil end which makes the act intrinsically evil, but the inherent ordering of the act toward the end. So, for example, a failed attempted murder is still an intrinsically evil act because the chosen act is inherently ordered toward the killing of an innocent human being, even if the attempt fails and no innocent person dies. At the time the act is chosen, the person choosing this type of act (murder) does not know if he will succeed or fail. The ultimate success or failure of the attempt to kill the innocent is not what makes the act inherently wrong. Rather, it is the inherently ordering of the act toward that moral evil which makes the act intrinsically evil.
Every knowing choice of an intrinsically evil act is a sin. Intrinsically evil acts are immoral because of the objective moral nature of the act, which is determined by its ordering toward a good or evil object. The moral object is ‘in the act’ in the sense that the act is inherently directed toward that end, regardless of whether or not the end is attained. Intrinsically evil acts are objectively immoral, regardless of the subjective reason for choosing the act.
The intention for which the act is chosen is not the moral object. These are two different types of end. The intention or purpose of the act is the end intended by the subject, the person who acts. The moral object of the act is the end toward which the knowingly chosen act itself is ordered. It is as if the act has its own ‘intention’ (figuratively speaking) because the act tends toward, is inherently directed toward, is intrinsically ordered toward a particular type of end (in terms of morality).
The intention of the person who acts is entirely distinct from the moral object. A good intention can never make an intrinsically evil act into a type of act that is moral, that is no longer intrinsically evil. A good intention cannot change the moral object. A good intention cannot change an evil moral object into an unintended bad consequence. If the type of act is inherently directed toward an evil moral object, then it is always a sin to intentionally choose such an act, even for a good intended end, even in dire circumstances.
The human will is the source of this font, not in the sense that the will can choose which moral object is associated with which acts. Rather, the human will chooses one type of act or another, and in so choosing the will necessarily also chooses the moral nature of the act as determined by its moral object. The choice of an intrinsically evil act, for any purpose (intended end), in any circumstances, is necessarily also the choice of the act and its moral nature and its moral object. These three components of the act are interrelated and inseparable.
The moral nature of an act is its inherent moral meaning, its essential meaning before the eyes of God who is Good and Just and Love and Mercy and Truth. The meaning of the act, in terms of morality, is determined by its object, the end toward which it is ordered; when that end is immoral (contrary to the love of God, neighbor, self), then the act is intrinsically evil and always immoral.
The moral object is not determined or comprised, in whole or in part, by the intention. Every intrinsically evil act, in order to be a sin, must be intentionally chosen. Morality concerns knowingly chosen (intentionally chosen, deliberately chosen, voluntarily chosen) acts. But the intended end or purpose of the person who chooses the act has no effect on the moral object. The intentional choice of an intrinsically disordered type of act is a sin because the objective act is evil by its very nature, in and of itself, regardless of the purpose (intended end) for which the act was chosen.
The intention is a type of end that is of the subject. The moral object is a type of end that is of the act itself.
The moral object is not determined or comprised, in whole or in part, by the circumstances (by the good or bad consequences of the act). When an act is ordered toward an evil end, such as the killing of an innocent human being in an abortion, the consequences of the act do not effect the moral object. The voluntary (intentional, deliberate) and direct killing of an innocent human person is always gravely immoral.
Suppose that abortion is the only way to save the life of the mother. If abortion is done, the mother’s life is saved as a consequence; if abortion is not done, the mother’s life is lost as a consequence. Does the consequence that the mother’s life is saved make the act of abortion indirect, rather than direct, and therefore no longer intrinsically evil? Not at all. The intentionally chosen act is still inherently ordered toward the killing of an innocent human person. Intrinsically evil acts are said to be direct because of this inherent ordering of the act toward an evil end. As long as the act is so ordered, it remains intrinsically evil.
Suppose that the killing of the innocent prenatal is not the intended end; the intended end (the purpose for which the act is chosen) is to save the mother’s life. Does this intention make the act of abortion indirect, since abortion is not the intended end? Not at all. The act that is intentionally chosen is still inherently ordered toward the killing of the innocent human being. Can we say that the death of the prenatal is an unintended side-effect, i.e. an unintended bad consequences in the font of circumstances, rather than an evil moral object? Not at all. The type of act that is chosen is ordered toward the killing of the innocent prenatal. Intention and circumstances are not what determines the moral object. The moral object is solely and entirely determined by the inherent ordering of the act toward a good or evil end. In this case, the killing of the innocent is the evil moral object of the abortion.
Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. The moral object alone determines whether or not an act is intrinsically evil. Neither intention, nor circumstances, determine or comprise, in whole or in part, the moral object of the intentionally chosen act.
Those who say otherwise are ignorant of the teaching of the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor. Those who say otherwise utter material heresy; and some of these are guilty of formal heresy (which carries the penalty of automatic excommunication). Those who teach otherwise do grave harm to many souls by justifying acts that are inherently immoral. Those who teach otherwise are the blind leading the blind, teaching heresy on grave matters of morality. Those who teach otherwise are committing formal cooperation with the intrinsically evil acts that they claim are good and moral.
If anyone does not love our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema! (1 Cor 16:22).
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
More on the three fonts of morality in my book:
The Catechism of Catholic Ethics