Abortion in the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services

The ERD, fourth edition prohibits Catholic hospitals from performing, authorizing, or formally cooperating with direct abortions. Direct abortion is prohibited by directives n. 45 and following:

“45. Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo. Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.”

Here ‘abortion’ refers to direct abortion. Later in the document, indirect abortion is described, but the term ‘indirect abortion’ is not used.

There is currently a contentious debate in the public sphere among Catholics about the role of intention in determining the moral object of an act. But there should be no such debate. For this point of doctrine is not an open question. Veritatis Splendor and the CCC plainly teach that there are three fonts of morality:

1. intention
2. moral object
3. circumstances

The first font is the intended end or purpose for which the act was chosen. The second font is not the moral object by itself, but the chosen act, with its inherent moral meaning (i.e. the moral species or moral nature of the act), as determined by the moral object. The circumstances are evaluated by the moral weight of the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences of the act.

Now the intention is grounded in the subject, the person who acts. A person can choose from any of various possible intentions for any act. The intention is not grounded in the act, but in the person who acts. Of course, a person will generally choose an act that he believes will accomplish his purpose. But it is to be observed that a wide range of intended ends accompany the acts of human persons.

By comparison, the moral object is grounded in the act chosen by the person. A person can choose from any of various possible acts. Each act has one or more moral objects, inherent to the nature of the act. Each act is intrinsically ordered toward a type of end, an end in terms of morality, which is its moral object. This inherent ordering of an act toward its moral object is the moral nature of the act. In choosing any act, the human person is in fact choosing the act AND its moral nature AND its moral object. It is not possible for a person to choose an act, and not be morally responsible for the nature of that act as determined by its moral object.

Example: A physician chooses an act of euthanasia for the purpose (intended end) of relieving all suffering of his patient. He protests that his chosen act is not murder, that murder is repugnant to him, and that he intends only the relief of suffering. But his good intended end is unable to change the moral nature of the act that he has chosen. Even though he chooses an act of murder as a means, not as an end, and even though he chooses that act of murder for a good intended end, the relief of suffering, the chosen act remains the same. Euthanasia is a type of murder, just as abortion is a type of murder. And he has intentionally chosen that type of act.

The act chosen by the human person is an intentionally chosen act. The will chooses an intended end, and the will intentionally chooses an act, and these choices are made in the knowledge of the consequences of the act. The will is the source of all three fonts, but in different ways. If the will were the source of each font in the same way, then each font would be identical, in other words, there would be only one font.

And this is the common error found today in many persons’ understanding of intention and moral object. They treat the role of the will in the second font as if it were the same as the role of the will in the first font. To the contrary, in the first font, the will chooses an intended end, but in the second font, the will chooses a type of act. And that act inherently possesses its own end. The will cannot change the end that is intrinsic to any particular type of act. All that the will can do, if one type of act is intrinsically evil, is to choose a different type of act, one with a good moral object rather than an evil moral object.

Neither can the intended end or the circumstances, individually or together, change the moral object at all. The moral object is independent of intention and circumstances:

Pope John Paul II: “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person…. 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).

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.” (CCC, n. 1756).

The claim that intention and/or circumstances determines or partly determines the moral object, or the morality of the second font, or whether or not an act is intrinsically evil, is an heretical claim. Prior to Veritatis Splendor and the CCC and other magisterial documents, perhaps one might have argued that these ideas about the three fonts of morality were the common opinion of theologians, of classical moralists, but not doctrine. However, Veritatis Splendor is exceedingly clear and definitive in presenting these truths as doctrine:

Pope John Paul II: “The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason – we repeat – the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order” and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 82).

Since all of the above is clear and definitive doctrine, why do so many magisterial documents use words such as ‘intention’, ‘deliberate’, ‘voluntary’ when speaking of intrinsic evil? There are two reasons.

First, a sinful act always includes all three fonts of morality. And so, in describing an intrinsically evil sin, the Magisterium may well include intention and circumstances in the description. For example, euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. But if the same act of murder were committed for a different intention, e.g. to gain an inheritance, the moral object would not be changed. We would no longer call that act euthanasia, but the moral species would still be that of murder. Similarly, abortion is murder in the circumstance that the innocent human person who is killed is prenatal. If the same type of killing occurs after birth, rather than before, the moral object is unchanged; the act is still a type of murder. But we would then call the act infanticide, not abortion.

Second, intrinsically evil acts are always intentionally chosen. The terms intentional, deliberate, voluntary, are used to indicate that the intrinsically evil act is a deliberate choice. For example, the intentional choice to assert that a falsehood is true, despite knowing that it is false, is the objective sin of lying. But if a person chooses to assert a falsehood believing that the assertion is true, then he has not intentionally chosen to assert a falsehood, and so his act is not even objectively the sin of lying.

Concerning abortion, a physician cannot choose to directly kill the prenatal and not also choose the moral nature of the act, as determined by its moral object. He is unable to dissociate the inherent moral meaning of the act from that act. It is not true, as some commentators have tried to assert, that the exterior act is devoid of morality apart from the intention of the person who acts. Veritatis Splendor clearly and definitively teaches the contrary, that concrete acts, i.e. the intentionally chosen acts of the human person, have a moral species determined by the moral object of the act. This moral object is found in the inherent ordering of the act toward a particular proximate end; it is not found in the intended end or purpose for which the act was chosen.

In criticizing certain ideas in moral theology, Pope John Paul II says: “This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behavior, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process, and not according to the criteria proper to a human act.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 65.) In other words, an intentionally chosen (freely chosen) exterior act is not morally neutral or devoid of morality. The proper criteria for evaluating any human act, as to whether it is good in itself or evil in itself, is the moral object.

Pope John Paul II: “But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 67).

Certainly, human persons frequently choose a particular species of act, one ordered toward a particular end, because they desire to attain that end. In such cases, the intended end and the moral object would be the same. A physician desires the intended end of relieving the suffering of his patient, and so he chooses an act ordered toward that proximate end, the act of giving the patient a pain medication. But if he chooses that same act for a different intended end, such as to comply with his obligation to hospital policy, the moral object remains unchanged. The human person is unable to separate the moral nature of an act from the concrete act, no matter which intended end is chosen.

In the light of the above understanding, let’s consider again ERD 45.

“45. Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo. Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.”

The term ‘directly intended’ refers to the intentional choice of a type of act that is intrinsically directed toward the proximate end of killing a prenatal. The word ‘intended’ here is not an expression of the intended end, as if abortion could be moral as a means to a good end, but rather an expression of the intentional choice of an act inherently ordered toward its own end, the evil moral object of depriving an innocent human person of life. Intrinsically evil acts are always direct and voluntary, that is to say, they are always ordered, by their very nature, directly (in a morally immediate way) toward en evil end, and they are always intentionally chosen. But this intentional choice of a particular type or species of act is separate from the intended end, the purpose for which the act is chosen.

And this point becomes clear when, in the next sentence, ERD 45 states describes abortion as a “procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability”. Here the term ‘effect’ is used to refer to the moral object, i.e. the proximate end of the chosen act, and not the good and bad effects of an act in the circumstances. Notice that this statement describing abortion does not mention intention. Every procedure which, by its very nature, is ordered toward the proximate end (the morally-immediate effect) of killing the prenatal is the intrinsically evil act of direct abortion.

Can a good intended end change the moral object from evil to good? Can the purpose for which the procedure is chosen determine the moral nature of the chosen act? If abortion is intentionally chosen as a means to a good end, such as saving of the life of the mother, does the abortion become moral? The Magisterium has definitively answered these questions in the negative.

Pope John Paul II: “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person…. 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: “The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 57).

Pope John Paul II: “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being…. 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).

These doctrines about the three fonts of morality, intrinsic evil, the moral object, and the grave immorality of all direct abortion are not open questions. The Magisterium has clearly and definitively answered these question about the basic principles of ethics and the immorality of abortion. Whoever rejects or ignores these answers, sins against God who is Truth.

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