The Three Fonts of Morality
There are three fonts of morality: intention, moral object, circumstances. What makes an act morally good? Three good fonts; no bad fonts.
(1) intention — The first font is the intended end, i.e. the purpose for which the act is chosen. The intention is in the subject, the person who acts.
(2) moral object — The second font is the intentionally-chosen act, with its inherent moral meaning, as determined by the moral object. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the act is intrinsically ordered. Every knowingly chosen act is inherently directed, by the very nature of the act, toward its moral object. If the moral object is good, the act is in itself good. If the moral object is evil, the act is intrinsically evil and always immoral.
(3) circumstances — The third font is the circumstances of the act. The morality of the circumstances is determined by the good and bad consequences of the act, as these can be reasonably anticipated at the time that the act is intentionally chosen.
When a knowingly chosen act has an evil moral object, that act is intrinsically evil and always immoral. A good intention or purpose or dire circumstances can never cause an intrinsically evil act to be moral.
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.)
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.” (CCC, n. 1756.)
The above teaching on the three fonts of morality, intrinsically evil, and the moral object is not a theological opinion. At this point in Church history, it is a magisterial teaching, a doctrine of the Church, not a theological speculation. I would go so far as to argue that it is an infallible teaching under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The teaching of Veritatis Splendor and of many other magisterial documents definitively teaches that all moral acts have three good fonts of morality, and that any act with even one bad font is immoral, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.
Can a very good intention and very dire circumstances, cause an act with an evil moral object to become moral? Not at all. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, independently of circumstances and intentions. Is the moral object defined or influenced by intention and circumstances, such that an act with a very good intention and very difficult circumstances would necessarily have a good moral object? Not at all. Such a claim is contrary to the constant teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.
Heresy on Intrinsic Evil
There is a grave problem within Catholic moral theology today. Many theologians, some priests, and many online Catholic commentators, have begun to devise new systems of ethics which ignore the three fonts of morality, or new interpretations of the three fonts of morality, always with the result that intrinsically evil acts are not always immoral. The goal of these new systems and new interpretations is to justify certain acts, which the Church has always condemned as intrinsically evil, but which sinful secular society claims are moral.
The rejection of the three fonts of morality as the basis for morality is a heresy. The eternal moral law is unchanging; its truths on morality are revealed to reason by natural law, and to faith by the teachings of the Old Testament, the New Testament, Sacred Tradition, and the many documents of the Magisterium. The basis for morality is not an open question.
Those priests, theologians, and Catholic commentators who propose or even seek a new basis for morality, one not taught by the Magisterium, are committing the sin of heresy. They are treating the eternal moral law as if it were as yet undiscovered, or as if it were newly discovered by them alone and were unknown to the whole Church for 2000 years. Their claims are absurd, harmful, and gravely immoral.
Those priests, theologians, and Catholic commentators who propose a new interpretation of the three fonts of morality, such that intention and circumstances can determine or change the moral object, are committing the sin of heresy. They are ignoring or rejecting numerous definitive teachings of the Magisterium on the subject of intrinsically evil acts.
Why are so many persons today trying to find a way to justify intrinsically evil acts? It is because certain grave sins have become so widespread and so popular in sinful secular society that Catholics who are immersed in secular society cannot imagine that these acts would be always immoral. When they find a clever way to claim that the teaching of the Church on morality will permit direct abortion, or permit contraception, or permit unnatural sexual acts, or permit masturbation, they obtain much support and encouragement from the very many Catholics who are living sinful secular lives, who use contraception daily, who are unrepentant from sins of abortion, who think that abortion and gay marriage should be legal, and who have committed many varied grave sexual sins in their lives.
But is there anyway to prove that these new systems or new interpretations of ethics are wrong? Certainly. Read Veritatis Splendor, the most important encyclical on ethics in the history of the Church. Veritatis Splendor teaches the basic principles of morality in a clear and definitive manner. All of the new systems and new interpretations of ethics are contrary to the teachings of Veritatis Splendor.
But how can we determine which interpretations of Veritatis Splendor and the three fonts of morality are correct? We can do so easily by applying the assertions and conclusions of any interpretation to a wide range of different types of acts, especially acts that are condemned by the Magisterium as intrinsically evil. For the aim of these modernist re-interpretations of the three fonts of morality always seems to be the same: to justify the intrinsically evil acts that are popular and legal in modern society. But if we apply the same claims about intrinsic evil to unpopular or illegal acts, their ruse is plainly revealed. For they only apply their own claims about morality to certain few acts: to abortion, contraception, and various sexual acts. But if their interpretation of the basic principles of ethics were correct, it should work equally well with all acts. Such is not the case.
The claim that the intention or purpose is good has been used to justify abortion. If the physician intends only to save the life of the mother, but does not intend to kill the prenatal, they claim that the abortion cannot be direct. It is as if the moral object were determined by the intention. But intention and moral object are distinct fonts of morality. A good intention does not imply a good moral object, and vice versa. Proof is found in examining other intrinsically evil acts.
Euthanasia is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Euthanasia is a type of murder. What distinguishes euthanasia from other types of murder? It is the intention, the purpose for which the act is chosen. Euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. But this intention is good. Every physician rightly intends to minimize and relieve suffering, in addition to intended other goods, such as the cure or effective treatment of the disease. If it were true, as many persons claim concerning abortion or contraception, that the good intention makes the moral object also good, then euthanasia would never be intrinsically evil because the definition of euthanasia includes a good intention.
Pope John Paul II: “Regardless of intentions and circumstances, euthanasia is always an intrinsically evil act, a violation of God’s law and an offence against the dignity of the human person.” (Letter to the Elderly, 1 Oct 1999)
Pope John Paul II: “Despite the intentions or circumstances, direct euthanasia is an act which is always and per se intrinsically evil….” (Speeches, 11 Nov 1993)
As is clearly stated in the above quotes, euthanasia is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. Suppose that a physician only intends to relieve the suffering of his patient; his intended end is good. And suppose that the patient is in extreme pain, which medications are unable to relieve; the circumstances are dire. But the Magisterium teaches that intentions and circumstances cannot justify any intrinsically evil act, including euthanasia.
Now those persons who claim that a direct abortion is really indirect, because of intention or circumstances, do not (I think) justify all acts of euthanasia on the same basis of intention or circumstances. The basic principles that they claim apply to abortion are promptly forgotten when they are dealing with another issue, one in which those same principles will result in a conclusion that is unacceptable to their peers or even illegal. But the principles imply those conclusions nonetheless. And this is what proves their approach to be in error.
They claim that killing a prenatal to save the life of the mother is morally indirect and has a good moral object, because the life of an innocent person is saved (the mother) and the prenatal’s life cannot be saved. The circumstance that an innocent life is saved is treated as if it can constitute or change the moral object. This seems right to persons who have lived all their lives immersed in a society that constantly teaches abortion as a right, and a type of morality (if it can even be called that) dependent mainly on consequences.
But what happens when we apply this same principle to other acts? Suppose that the only way to save 100 innocent lives is to kill one innocent person. Is the killing of innocent life justified in this dire circumstance, with the good intention of saving lives? Of course not. But the principles used to justify direct abortion imply that killing the innocent in this other case would also be justified. The intention is good and the circumstances are very dire. For the saving of 100 innocent lives has greater moral weight in the circumstances than the saving of one life (the mother in the case of abortion). Why don’t the theologians and commentators who justify abortion also justify killing infants, children, or adults in circumstances that are even more dire? There are two reasons: because it is illegal and because it is not a view accepted by society at large.
Blasphemy and Apostasy
Now let’s consider the sins of blasphemy and apostasy. These sins are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Do any of these theologians or commentators apply the same approach that they use to justify popular sins (such as abortion to save the life of the mother, or contraception, or various sexual sins) to the sins of blasphemy and apostasy? No, they do not. For if they were to apply their own version of the basic principles of ethics (a certain interpretation of intrinsic evil and the moral object as it relates to intention and circumstance) to blasphemy and apostasy, the result would prove their interpretation of intrinsic evil wrong.
If a person is pressured under threat of torture and death to utter blasphemy against God, or to commit apostasy (abandoning the Christian Faith), is blasphemy or apostasy justified? The intention would be to save his own innocent life. The circumstances are dire. But what if those pressuring him also threaten to kill his entire family, or his entire town, if he does not commit blasphemy or apostasy? Are these intrinsically evil sins justified? Is it possible that any intention or any circumstance, or any combination of intentions and circumstances can ever justify the intrinsically evil acts of blasphemy and apostasy? Of course not. Certain types of acts are intrinsically evil; they are immoral by the very nature of the act, independent of intention or circumstances.
But if we apply the new interpretation of intrinsic evil and the moral object, blasphemy and apostasy would become moral in the above dire circumstances. Although none of these theologians or commentators would justify blasphemy or apostasy (I think), regardless of the intention or the circumstances, the new version of ethics that they propose does in fact justify these sins. For a basic principle of ethics cannot be applied only to the sins that are most popular, nor only to the sins that are legal. They must apply to all knowingly chosen acts.
Genocide, Rape, Adultery
Is genocide ever justified by a good intention or a dire circumstance? Certainly not. Is rape ever justified by a good intention or a dire circumstance? Certainly not. But the new approach to intrinsic evil suggested by many persons implies that ANY intrinsically evil act is justified by intention and/or circumstances. You cannot have two different sets of basic principles of morality: one for intrinsically evil acts that you wish to justify, and another for intrinsically evil acts that you wish to condemn.
Suppose that a man is being held in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and the only way that his wife can obtain his freedom and save his life is to have sexual relations with one of the officers at the camp (as a bribe to obtain his release). Is her act of adultery justified by the good intention to save his life, or by the dire circumstance that he will die otherwise? Of course not. Adultery is intrinsically evil, and intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. But the claim of some that the moral object is determined by intention and/or circumstances implies that her act of adultery would be moral, or even that it should not be called adultery.
The claims of some persons that the moral object is, in whole or in part, determined by intention and circumstances is a heresy that is contrary to the definitive teaching of the Magisterium. And this heresy is further proven wrong by examining a range of different intrinsically evil acts.
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.)
— by Ron Conte