Jimmy Akin’s heresy on intrinsic evil

In his post of November 29, 2006 titled ‘Intrinsic Evil’, Jimmy Akin teaches yet another grave heresy to his readers. This particular heresy rejects the teaching of the Universal Magisterium on the nature of intrinsically evil acts, as determined by the moral object. Akin does not understand what a moral object is. He does not understand the relationship between any knowingly chosen act and its moral object. As a result, he redefines intrinsic evil in a way that is fundamentally contrary to, and essentially incompatible with, the definitive teaching of the Catholic Faith on morality. And he teaches this heresy to his readers.

The Three Fonts of Morality

First, let’s begin by reviewing the definitive teaching of the Universal Magisterium on the basis for morality: the three fonts of morality.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the ‘sources,’ or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.”

Compendium of the Catechism: “The morality of human acts depends on three sources: the object chosen, either a true or apparent good; the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act; and the circumstances of the act, which include its consequences.”

USCCB Catechism: “Every moral act consists of three elements: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act…. All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.”

Although these three sources use different language, they are teaching the same doctrine. There are three fonts of morality:

1. intention
2. moral object
3. circumstances

1. The intention is the intended end, or the end in view, or the goal or purpose for which the subject performs the act. The intention is a type of end chosen by the subject, the person who acts.

2. The font simply called ‘moral object’ is actually more complex: it consists of the objective act (what you have chosen to do) and its intrinsic ordering toward a proximate end, in terms of morality, called the moral object. In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II called the objective act the ‘concrete act’ (what you have chosen to do). All knowingly chosen acts have an inherent moral meaning (an essential moral nature or moral ‘species’) that is determined by whether the chosen act is inherently ordered toward a good or evil proximate end (the moral object). And that is why intrinsically evil acts are called disordered acts; they are inherently ordered toward an evil end.

3. the circumstances of an act is evaluated based on the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences according to their moral weight — evaluated in terms of the love of God and neighbor. The past and present circumstances inform us as to what future consequences we can reasonably anticipated to result from the intentionally chosen act. In other words, acts with a particular moral nature (determined by the moral object) are chosen for a particular intended end, with the reasonably anticipated that certain consequences will result. The moral evaluation of the circumstances is based on the moral weight of the good and bad consequences, but only in so far as these can be reasonably anticipated at the time that the act is intentionally chosen.

So all three fonts proceed from the human will, based on knowledge in the intellect, and all three fonts are directed toward types of ends: the intended end, the moral object, and the end result or consequences.

Anything that seems like a circumstance, but which pertains to the inherent ordering of the chosen act toward its moral object, is not a circumstance, and is in the second font, not the third. Suppose that a man has sexual relations with his wife, in the ‘circumstance’ that she does not consent; the lack of consent is not a circumstance (not as moral theology uses the term). The lack of consent makes the act, by its very nature, rape. So this pertains to the second font, not the third.

Now, let’s compare the first font of the intended end versus the second font of the moral object.

The subjective goal or purpose for which you chose the act is the font called intention; it is the reason why you chose the act. This intended end is of the subject; it is of the person who acts, because it is the end sought by the person who acts.

By comparison, the moral object is of the objective act; it is the end ‘sought’, in a sense, by the act itself. It is as if the act itself has its own ‘intention’, in a manner of speaking. For every act has an inherent ordering toward some end, its moral object. When what you have chosen to do (second font: moral object) is inherently immoral, it does not matter why you have chosen to do it (first font: intention). The chosen act is evil due to its moral object, regardless of your intended end.

Now intrinsically evil acts are always intentionally chosen, and this is why the Magisterium often mentions the intentional (deliberate or voluntary) choice of the act when describing any intrinsically evil act. For example, a lie is only a lie when the person intentionally chooses to assert a falsehood or deny a truth. If a person mistakenly asserts that a falsehood is true, because he believes it to be true, he is not lying and his act is not intrinsically evil. But this absolutely does not imply that in order to be intrinsically evil, the act of lying must have a certain intention (intended end). An intentional lie remains intrinsically evil and always immoral, regardless of the intended end. The good intended end does not change the moral object.

References to Intention and Circumstances

What is Akin’s heretical error? He claims that intrinsically evil acts “include references to intent or circumstances in the nature of their object.” In reaction to a previous post of his, some commentators “appear to have argued that considerations of intent and circumstances are irrelevant to the object of an intrinsically immoral act. In other words, the object of an intrinsically immoral act should be definable without reference to intention or circumstances. This does not appear to be the case if the items on this list are all intrinsic evils.”

Akin asserts that the moral object of intrinsically evil acts includes ‘references’ or ‘considerations’ of intent and circumstances. This assertion by itself is a heresy because it denies the teaching of the Magisterium that certain types of acts, called intrinsically evil acts, are immoral in and of themselves, by the very nature of the act:

Pope John Paul II: “These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’.”

Akin’s claim directly contradicts this teaching by Pope John Paul II, which the Pontiff explicitly states is the teaching of the Church. Why does Akin reject this teaching? I don’t think he intends (first font) to commit the intrinsically evil act of heresy (second font). His intention (I charitably conclude) is to understand and teach what the Church teaches. But the act that he has chosen is inherently disordered, because it is directed, by its very nature, toward that end which determines the immorality of every heresy, the rejection of a definitive teaching of the Church. His good intention, and the circumstance that he has misunderstood what the Church teaches, cannot change the nature of his assertions from heresy to sound doctrine.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.”

Akin also contradicts the above teaching of the Catechism by claiming that moral object is not independent of intention and circumstances. The Church teaches that the object of an act can make an act immoral, even gravely immoral, “independently of circumstances and intentions.” And since the intention is a type of end (the intended end), the Catechism next makes the point that an intrinsically evil act cannot be justified by a good intended end. In other words, a good first font cannot justify a bad second font.

Why does Jimmy Akin contradict the clear and definitive teaching of Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? It is apparently because he has misunderstood certain basic distinctions in moral theology, especially concerning what constitutes an intention, a moral object, and the circumstances of an act. He presents a list of intrinsically evil acts, and then he describes how, as it seems to him, intention or circumstances is part of the moral object.

It appears to me that every one of these definitions include elements referring to intention or circumstance.

1) Fornication includes a reference to the circumstance that neither of the parties is married.

2) Adultery includes a reference to the circumstance that one of the parties is not married to the other.

3) Lying includes a reference to the intention of deceiving.

4) Calumny includes a reference first to the circumstance that the remarks are contrary to the truth and second to the circumstance that they harm the reputation of others and give the occasion of false judgments.

5) Theft includes reference to the circumstance that the owner of the property reasonably wills that it not be taken.

6) Direct abortion refers to the circumstance that the child killed is an innocent human being.

As is usually the case, it takes very few words to assert a doctrinal error, and very many words to explain why it is an error and what the correct teaching is. Taking each point above one at a time:

“1) Fornication includes a reference to the circumstance that neither of the parties is married.”

Sometimes the commonly-used definition of an intrinsically evil act includes a reference to intention or to circumstances, in addition to the moral object. This occurs because the moral law concerns acts, and every act has three fonts of morality. So for example, euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. If the same act, with the same moral object, is committed with the intention of obtaining an inheritance, it is still murder. The moral object has not changed. Intention cannot change the moral object. Similarly, abortion is murder in the circumstances that the person killed is prenatal. If the murderer waits until after the person is born to commit murder, the moral object has not changed, but the act is now called infanticide. So a change in circumstances will sometimes change what we call an act, but it cannot change the moral object.

So in the case of fornication, the moral object is the deprivation of the marital meaning from a sexual act. The moral object is determined by the fact that the man and woman who are committing fornication are not married to each other. This fact is not a circumstance, as that term is used in moral theology. Akin is making the mistake of applying the secular meaning of circumstance to his moral analysis. In moral theology, ‘circumstances’ is used in a restricted sense; whatever pertains to the moral object is not a circumstance.

Now the fact that neither person is married to a third party is a circumstance, but a change in that circumstance does not change the moral object. If one person is married to a third party, the act is now called adultery, but the act still has the same moral object: the deprivation of the marital meaning from sexual acts.

“2) Adultery includes a reference to the circumstance that one of the parties is not married to the other.”

This quote from Akin is not even a correct description of adultery. The fact that the two persons having sexual relations are not married to each other makes the act fornication. He perhaps meant to say: ‘Adultery includes a reference to the circumstance that one of the parties is married to a third party.’ But this fact is not a circumstance. It is in the moral object. Whatever pertains to the nature of the act itself is in the second font, not the third.

“3) Lying includes a reference to the intention of deceiving.”

The CCC does define lying with reference to the intention to deceive. However, this is because the intention to deceive is the most common form of lying. If a lie is told for some other intended end, the moral object is unchanged. Similarly, if euthanasia is committed for some other intended end than to relieve all suffering, the moral object is unchanged. Sometimes acts are defined or described with reference to intention or circumstances, and this is because every knowingly chosen act has three fonts of morality. However, this does not imply that the moral object is determined by intention or circumstances.

Similarly, masturbation is defined by the CCC as “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.” The usual intention is stated in the definition, ‘to derive sexual pleasure’. But the same act done for a different intended end, such as to obtain a specimen for medical analysis, is unchanged in its moral object; it remains a gravely immoral intrinsically evil act.

The Magisterium has clearly and definitively taught that intrinsically evil acts are morally illicit independent of intention and circumstance. Certainly, every intrinsically evil act has an intention and circumstances. But the inherent immorality of the act is determined by the moral object, independent of the other two fonts of morality.

“4) Calumny includes a reference first to the circumstance that the remarks are contrary to the truth and second to the circumstance that they harm the reputation of others and give the occasion of false judgments.”

This is not a description of circumstances, but of the moral nature of the act.

“5) Theft includes reference to the circumstance that the owner of the property reasonably wills that it not be taken.”

Again, this is not a description of a circumstance, but of the inherent moral meaning of the act.

“6) Direct abortion refers to the circumstance that the child killed is an innocent human being.”

Murder is the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human person. The moral object is the deprivation of life from an innocent person, and the chosen act is inherently and directly ordered toward that end. The age of the child, that he or she is prenatal, is a circumstance. But a change in that circumstance does not change the moral object. The fact that the person is innocent pertains to the moral object.

Now it is clear why Akin makes the heretical claim that intrinsically evil acts are determined at least in part by intention and/or circumstances. He does not understand the three fonts of morality, the distinction between each font, nor the meaning of the terms: moral object, moral species, inherent ordering, direct, indirect, and especially the term circumstance.

But it gets worse.

Akin next asserts this error: “It would then follow that when intention and circumstances are spoken of as sources of morality over and above the object of the act that we are speaking of intentions and circumstances over and above those included in the definition of the act itself.”

There are several problems with this claim. First, it explicitly denies the magisterial teaching that intrinsically evil acts are independent of intention and circumstances. Second, it shows a complete lack of understanding of the magisterial teaching on moral object. Third, it allows any intrinsically evil act to be defined by intention and circumstances, and therefore to be changed in its definition by a change in intention or circumstances, and therefore to become moral. Fourth, since human persons can change their intention, and can often change circumstances to some extent, the result is that intrinsically evil acts are not immoral if you choose the right intended end, or if you effect a change to the circumstances. Thus the definitive teaching of the Universal Magisterium that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral is nullified.

Akin: “If the object of abortion includes killing someone in the circumstance that the person is innocent, and if killing innocents is wrong, then abortion is going to be wrong regardless of what other circumstances or intents may apply to it. You can’t justify abortion because of any other intent or circumstance because there is already an evil (the killing of a person who is in the circumstance of being innocent) built into the object of the act.”

So he has a way of making [direct] abortion always immoral. Fine. But he arrives at this conclusion by misunderstanding and misapplying the basic moral teachings of the Church. The danger is that, in making the same mistake concerning other acts, he will reach the wrong conclusion. For example, in his heretical claims about contraception, despite the definitive teaching of the Magisterium that contraception is intrinsically evil, Akin claims that contraception might be moral outside of marriage, and might be moral within marriage, with certain intentions or in certain circumstances.

And then it gets even worse.

By misunderstanding the distinction between the moral object of an act and the circumstances, Akin opens the door to the heresy of proportionalism.

In classical moral theology, the fonts of intention and moral object are not proportional; they do not tolerate any evil. But the third font of circumstances allows for a certain proportionalism, such that some bad consequences are tolerated if they are morally outweighed by the good consequences. The heresy of proportionalism occurs only when the other fonts of intention and/or moral object are considered to be proportional.

Akin concludes that the moral object consists partly of intention and circumstances, but since circumstances allow for proportionality, he concludes that intrinsically evil acts also allow for proportionality. Thus he commits the heresy of proportionalism. And this leads him next to conclude that intrinsically evil acts can be moral in one degree and immoral in another degree.

Again, his position directly and explicitly contradicts the definitive teaching of the Magisterium that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. ALWAYS. Not always except with certain good intentions. Not always except in certain circumstances. Not always except in a lesser degree. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.

Akin: “Similarly, if we define torture such that it involves the disproportionate infliction of pain then we have included a reference to an evil circumstance in the object of torture. Inflicting pain is not itself wrong–otherwise we could never punish people–but to inflict disproportionate pain is wrong.”

So Akin is claiming that torture is intrinsically evil, but only when there is a certain proportionality. What is the moral object? Akin doesn’t say because he has now essentially defined intrinsic evil by intention and circumstance, without regard for moral object. He asserts that inflicting pain is not itself wrong. But no act can be ascertained to immoral without knowledge of the fonts of morality. We cannot know if inflicting pain is moral or immoral without enough information to determine if any font is bad.

Akin’s definition of torture fails to make torture always immoral. What he has done is to define torture based on proportionalism, so that, if the act is proportional in its circumstances, it is not defined as torture, and if the act is disproportional, only then is it termed intrinsically evil. Thus torture becomes not-torture whenever the circumstances call for a greater infliction of pain. In effect, what Akin is done is to say that an intrinsically evil act can be transformed into a different kind of act, one that is no longer immoral, based on a change in the circumstances. This claim directly contradicts the explicit teaching of the Magisterium:

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.)

Akin includes the above quote in his post. He knows that the Magisterium teaches this truth, but he is lead by a series of misunderstandings and foolish assumption to the opposite conclusion.

In my book, the Catechism of Catholic Ethics, I offer a better definition of torture, one that has an evil moral object, and does not become moral with a change in intention or circumstances (or a change in degree, which is a type of circumstance).

Setting aside the more common uses of the term torture, a narrow definition of torture could be applied only to the innocent, regardless of intention. Murder is intrinsically evil because it is the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being, not merely any killing. Similarly, we can define torture narrowly as the direct and voluntary infliction of severe suffering on the innocent. But like the maiming of the innocent, this definition is a type of direct and deliberate violence against the innocent, which is intrinsically evil.

This narrow definition of torture, as the direct and voluntary infliction of severe violence against the innocent, is intrinsically evil, despite having the circumstance of degree (because torture is severe) as part of its definition. For when the degree is too small to be called torture, the act remains intrinsically evil, as the direct and voluntary harm of the innocent. Similarly, the definition of the intrinsically evil act of euthanasia includes the intention (first font) to relieve all suffering; but when that intention is not present, the second font remains intrinsically evil, as a type of murder.

My approach to the definition of torture as an intrinsically evil act is to distinguish the moral object (violence against the innocent), from the circumstances (degree of violence). The result is that the act remains intrinsically evil, regardless of degree.

Akin: “We see other references to disproportion in other items on the list of intrinsically evil acts. For example: drunkenness. Drunkenness consists in drinking a disproportionate amount of alcohol. If you only drink a proportionate amount (and it can vary by situation, as in the case of needing to use alcohol as an anesthetic so that you can have a bullet removed from your arm in the Old West) then there is no sin. But drinking too much changes the moral character of the act so that it becomes the sin of drunkenness, which John Paul II includes in a list of apparent intrinsically evil acts.

“This makes sense if we allow terms like “disproportionate” or “too much” to appear in the object of the act being defined. Drinking too much alcohol is evil, just as inflicting too much pain is evil. Drunkenness–since it involves drinking too much alcohol in its object–will be intrinsically evil, and torture–since it involves inflicting too much pain in its object–will be intrinsically evil.”

Let me explain to you why this does not make sense. Drunkenness is a state, not an act. Intrinsically evil acts are acts. Similarly, homosexuality is not a sin, but a state; homosexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral due to an evil moral object (the deprivation of the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings from sexual acts). The term “drunkards” is mentioned in the Scripture verse cited by Pope John Paul II as listing intrinsically evil acts; the verse refers to the persons who commit the acts because sin is ultimately of the person who commits the sin. But a proper definition of any intrinsically evil act must describe the moral object.

Akin errs by defining the sin that is implied by the term “drunkards” as “Drinking too much alcohol.” He then asserts that the amount of alcohol, and is proportionality to the circumstances, determines whether the act is intrinsically evil. In Akin’s view, an intrinsically evil act can turn into a moral act by a change in circumstances. In other words, he thinks that a moral act becomes intrinsically evil solely by a change in circumstances pertaining to degree: “drinking too much changes the moral character of the act,” and that the same act becomes moral again in a lesser degree. Again, this position explicitly contradicts the magisterial teaching that neither intention nor circumstance can transform an act that is intrinsically evil.

The problem is that Akin has not correctly identified the moral object of the sin committed by drunkards. He assumes that his definition of the sin is correct, even when it leads to the conclusion that circumstances can change an act from intrinsically evil to moral, and back again.

What is the moral object of the sin committed by ‘drunkards’? Certainly, it is not the mere state of being inebriated. Every sin is an act, not a state. And it cannot be merely the use of alcohol, since Jesus drank wine and Paul recommended wine to Timothy. The First Letter to Timothy says that deacons should not drink too much wine (1 Timothy 3:8), implying that drinking too much wine is a sin. But this would be a sin by degrees, and so a sin under the font of circumstances. Also a drunkard is not merely someone who has drank too much wine on one or two occasions.

What is the evil moral object of the sin committed by drunkards? It is the disorder of placing drinking above the love of God in the scale of values. In this way, self-indulgence in drinking alcohol (or in using drugs) becomes like a form of idolatry. And this sin is not a matter of degrees. Putting any lesser good above the greatest goods of the love of God is a grave sin. The evil moral object in this definition does not depend on the excessive drinking of alcohol. For example, a wine enthusiast who treats excellent wines as a type of idol commits a grave sin, even if he never becomes inebriated.

This type of idolatry is common in sinful secular society. Some persons treat a particular sport or sports team like an idol. Some persons treat money as an idol. Some persons treat career advancement as an idol. And no matter which idol a person chooses to follow instead of following Christ, the act is intrinsically evil and always immoral.

Akin’s Error

Akin’s grave error in intrinsic evil is a result of ignorance and arrogance. He is ignorant of sound Catholic theology on the three fonts of morality. Rather than remain silent, rather than seek instruction to overcome this ignorance, he arrogantly invents a new doctrine to replace his ignorance, and then he teaches it to his audience as if it were Catholic teaching.

Akin’s methodology, or lack thereof, is part of the problem. He begins with scant few quotes from a few magisterial documents or other sources. He quotes the CCC and Veritatis Splendor, but he also ignores plain statements in those same sources that directly contradict him. He ignores many other magisterial sources, sources in Tradition and Scripture, and the contribution of various moral theologians, and as a result he misunderstands the sources that he does cite. Then, on the basis of a few quotes and citations, he draws an erroneous conclusion, then another, then another. These errors build up and are used to arrive at even more severe errors. Reading his apologetics is like watching an avalanche; one stone tumbles out of place, dislodging other larger stones, leading to a catastrophic outpouring of doctrinal errors. The end result is grave harm to the souls who are unfortunate enough to be in its path.

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